It may have crossed your mind that food is a very effective way that cultures and ethnicities project and advertise themselves to the outside world. If you and/or your family live in a foreign land, food is also a principal way to bring an important piece of your culture with you. Your ethnic food brings you comfort and fond memories of home when away from home. On the other hand, throw some ethnic food in the mix and you will meet folks who have embraced cultures that are not necessarily theirs. Raise your hands if you know anyone who has cultivated their taste buds for tacos or guacamole. Yes, there is a whole lot more to food than what keeps hunger at bay. If you are like me, or Emeka, it is near impossible to get over your mother’s ofe onugbu!
Emeka was eight years old when his family won the Visa Lottery to migrate to the United States. His mother not only brought her great cooking skills with her but also brought an outsized determination to not let her children grow up on the infamous American hamburgers. As a family tradition, Emeka’s mother made it a regular feature to have her family eat ụtara *(fufu) for dinner. Often, you would choose your soup from a variety because she took pride in her exceptional cooking skills and was always well-stocked. Eating ụtara for dinner was more like Emeka’s daily ritual and he loved it. After Emeka graduated from college, he moved out of his parent’s home but his appetite for his mother’s food followed him. Given that Emeka was di ọkpara (the first son and heir apparent), his mother had spoiled him as rotten as Igbo mothers are known to do. She would travel to Emeka’s house on weekends to stock his refrigerator with Emeka’s favorites. As time passed, Emeka met Amaka and they began dating. Amaka did not need to be lectured on Emeka’s relationship with his mother's food. It was all too obvious. Amaka also comes from a household where her mother holds her place when it came to Igbo cuisine. So, she often brought something that her mom made to share with Emeka. Emeka was just loving it.
To make a long story short, the relationship between Amaka and Emeka blossomed into a marriage. But that was not without some challenges that they had to wade through. Emeka’s mother did not dig that Amaka did not know how to cook Igbo food. When she found out that her future daughter-in-law had minimal cooking skills, she wasn’t having it. “What will you be eating in that house?” she rhetorically asked. And pulling her right ear, she added: “I did not feed you hamburger o. So my grandchildren will not be eating hamburger in your house o.” But Emeka was already drunk on Amaka’s “Kool-Aid”. There was no going back on his commitment with Amaka but he was careful to not let Amaka know about her future mother-in-law’s concerns. Emeka and Amaka got married.
As can be imagined, getting married did not wean Emeka off his mom’s food either. If anything, it made it worse because all through their dating period, they often shared meals made by their respective moms. So Emeka still relied on her mother for his staples. Emeka’s mother’s feelings for her daughter-in-law remained the same, so, she decided that she was going to use her position in the food supply chain to teach Amaka a lesson. Emeka’s mom would come on a Sunday, unannounced, and drop Emeka and Amaka fresh meals from her kitchen. Sometimes, she would ask Emeka if he was eating well, right in front of his wife. Talk of mother-in-law wahala. On one occasion, she actually took the food to the fridge and later told Emeka that she noticed he was almost running out and wondered why he didn’t let her know earlier. That was when Amaka decided that she had had enough. She told Emeka that something needed to be done about his mother’s access to her kitchen. Amaka’s point was, however, dead on arrival because she already knew that Emeka could not be separated from his mother’s food. Emeka also turned down the suggestion that he should go and get the food so that his mother would not have to come to the house, unannounced, and to embarrass Amaka.
Amaka was getting to the end of her rope. She called her mother and narrated the problem. Her mother suggested that she put more effort into improving her cooking skills. Emeka had also turned down Amaka’s suggestion that they have Emeka’s favorites supplied in bulk by a caterer. “That is a waste of money for food that my mother brings here for free,” he argued. With no other options, Amaka told Emeka that she would ask her mother to start bringing her own food to the house. She imagined that the scenario would give Emeka the real picture of the anomaly of his mother's “invasion of her privacy.” But to Amaka’s surprise, Emeka was elated. His response? “Bring it on, the more the merrier.” Frustrated, Amaka went back to her mother and tried to persuade her to start showing up, unannounced, with her own food. At that point, Amaka’s mother sat her down to give her the subtext of what was going on. It was not long into her narrative before she broke down and started sobbing. She saw the problem through a different lens. She told Amaka that Emeka’s mother was actually trying to send the message that Amaka was inadequate as a wife. She told Amaka that Emeka’s mom’s behavior was in fact a sideswipe at her, Amaka’s mother, for not raising a woman with the skills to be a complete wife and mother. She told Amaka she would never intervene in the manner that Amaka was pushing her to. Instead, she said that she must clear her own reputation by teaching Amaka how to cook as well as any other Igbo woman. She encouraged Amaka to work with her and help her wipe that shame off her (the mother’s) face.
Wow, wow, wow! Amaka herself began to take a different look at her problems –with the understanding that it was much bigger than she had been aware of. I am not sure that that is what you call a food fight. Maybe it is a kind of proxy war of the in-laws. You see, the dueling moms had known each other prior to their children becoming a couple. The in-laws had been attending the same church for decades. They also happened to belong to rival Igbo women’s groups in the Atlanta Igbo community. Amaka recalled the shades of rivalry between the two groups that were on display at her wedding reception. Given those facts, you might be tempted to speculate that these women had a little more than egusi and ọgbọnọ to grind. But let’s not just go there. Amaka’s mother made clear to her daughter that she would not pour kerosene on the fire that Emeka’s mother was fanning. She would rather have Amaka put the fire out and take control of her household by conquering the bad with the good. Amaka’s mom sat her down and said, “My daughter, I must teach you how to cook everything that you will like to cook for your husband. We have to do it now before your children start coming. I am sorry! It is my fault that I did not teach you but I am still proud of you for everything you have accomplished as a woman!” Amaka found herself at crossroads and unsure which direction would lead to the best outcome. She was also confused by the realization that her problems had roots that she had been unaware of.
However you choose to interpret this story or whatever you may think of the characters, one thing that is clear is that there is more to the food we eat than we might be aware of. How our food gets to the table can reveal a lot about patriarchy, male privilege, gender roles, and various other normative behaviors that are embedded in cultures. As Amaka and her mother search for answers, Emeka’s mother still holds the key to her son’s taste buds. Do you have an opinion about any or all the characters in the story? If you had all the power, what, if any, would you change about the cultural expectations illustrated in this story? Does anything about this story change how you look at your approach to how our food gets to the table? Do you think that eating specific comfort food types should have such an (outsized) influence on family and relationships? If you were any of the characters what would you have done differently? How much of this story do you find relatable?
This was based on a true story that happened around Atlanta. A little salt and pepper were added to the story and the names of the characters were generic.
*it is taken for granted that “fufu” is an Igbo word. It is not.