While COVID may have taken away the normalcy of being human, we are still able to connect with each other through food. Every bite is a sweet victory.
It has been over a year since this pandemic forced us into retreat. The virus famously known as coronavirus 19, or COVID-19, is named after the year of its birth, which was 2019, and its structure, which has insignias of royalty, crowns, all over it. Nobody can deny it has reigned supreme. Even the Pope called it She-Who-Must-Be-Obeyed. Retreat has meant practically abandoning all the ways we know how to be human, one of the hardest being the necessity to physically flee from each other because just a breath from an infected person could lead to terrible illness or death. Through the attendant isolation, people around the world developed unique coping strategies to compensate for the loss of human touch and proximity.
Technology has been a great source of comfort, allowing us to communicate, however inadequate this might be. We learn how to Zoom for work, play, and to keep in touch with family and friends. But we also experience Zoom fatigue, and it would seem seeing our own unflattering Zoom faces creates its own discomfort and anxiety for some. My local TV featured a plastic surgeon who reported a rise in business in her practice because, as she put it, people are not happy with their faces on Zoom, and so would like some work done on them.
Enjoyable outdoor activities like walking have become an exercise in dreaded anticipation. Gone are leisurely saunters into unfamiliar neighborhoods, or chatting with strangers about the weather or dogs. COVID walking involves evasive tactics, deft manoeuvres, zig-zagging and car-defying moves, dashing in front of on-coming vehicles, in a desperate bid to avoid meeting fellow humans. Sharing the same air in close proximity is regarded as more deadly than the rush of a speeding vehicle. Thankfully, things are becoming a little normal with vaccination, which has only been made possible because we voted for a humane, hardworking, and empathetic President last November. No longer will the expulsion of air from a sidewalk jogger become a possible death sentence.
While other activities and pleasures have been reduced or eliminated entirely, one thing that has not diminished during this pandemic for many of us is our relationship with food. Eating seems to be prominent at the top of our desires. An observation of social media revealed that people took to the kitchen and allowed their inner chefs to bloom during this period. Families and single people who had never cooked before, cultivated cooking as a routine activity. New menus were created, old ones updated. Americans have gained between 15 to 60 pounds during this pandemic. Not only are people cooking and eating for pleasure, they also are doing so to manage stress. Since there is no need to dress up for the office, the pandemic wardrobe now consists of the most comfortable clothes, capacious to accommodate growing girths. There is a new sartorial COVID Zoom style – formal and dressy tops visible to the camera, sloppy and saggy bottoms that cannot be seen by the camera. We can turn off the camera altogether and wear whatever we want.
As for me, I have been sharing the one American dish I enjoy making, apple pie, that evocative American dessert that is claimed as a mark of national identity. I grew up in a dessert-free Yoruba food culture, but living here all these decades, I have acclimatised to the sweet finale that comes after the main course.
Curiously, during this period, I have been experiencing a phenomenon I saw last during my Ekiti childhood, which is food gifting. For over a year, we have been unable to gather with friends for dinners, parties, and backyard barbeques, so my friends and I have been cooking and dropping off food at each other’s doors. This gesture is more than just for the nourishment of our bodies, it is an expression of shared humanity, care, love, and an effort to replace all that coronavirus has taken away from us since last year. This stream of food gifting started with one member of my Yoruba North Carolina group, who dropped off pounded yam and a bowl of delicious soup at our door.
Since then, we have received freshly baked rosemary bread and special gourmet jam made by a dear friend from the peaches in her mother’s garden. Another friend delivered Middle-Eastern delights made by her husband, while our dear neighbour-friend appeared one Sunday morning with warm and fresh bagels he and his wife made, complete with lox and cheese – their gift to us for our 30th wedding anniversary, which was clumsily and unsatisfactorily celebrated on Zoom a few days earlier. All of these offerings were delivered at the door, with our masks on, waving at each other feet apart, and they were all consumed with pleasure, all guilt and trepidation about weight gain banished.
As for me, I have been sharing the one American dish I enjoy making, apple pie, that evocative American dessert that is claimed as a mark of national identity. I grew up in a dessert-free Yoruba food culture, but living here all these decades, I have acclimatised to the sweet finale that comes after the main course. With plenty of time on my hands now, I perfected my recipe and lugged dishes of warm apple pies to my friends’ doorsteps. I also dispensed delectable boxes of chocolate ordered from an artisan chocolatier in Maine.
This pandemic food-sharing reminds me of food gifting by women when I was growing in Ekiti. Even though there was no epidemic, it was normal for women to do special cooking for people they loved and respected. Age and rank did not matter.
This pandemic food-sharing reminds me of food gifting by women when I was growing up in Ekiti. Even though there was no epidemic, it was normal for women to do special cooking for people they loved and respected. Age and rank did not matter. Instead of inviting people over to dinner, as it is done here in American culture, women cooked and sent food to their friends and loved ones. My mother typically made hot pounded yam with delicious and rich egusi soup, chock full of meats, the likes of which we rarely ate in our house. She had a light-colored wooden trunk, which looked as if it was made of pine wood. Since we did not have pine in that part of the world, it was probably imported from Britain, like her special china stored in it. She was a part of generations in British colonies to whom British products were marketed. The most valuable objects were usually imported from Britain. Her stored chinaware was strictly reserved for these food-gifting missions and to serve meals for esteemed visitors to our house. It took me decades of schooling to learn about the colonial and post-colonial economy.
These special meals were set carefully on a nice round colorful metal tray, and covered with a piece of knitted material called antimacassar. It was my job to balance these precious objects and the food inside on my head, and carefully transport them to the house of the admired recipient, who would pour out the food, wash the dishes, arrange them on the tray and then give me a coin with a young Queen Elizabeth bust on it, my reward for being a good child messenger. It made up for the torture of smelling aromatic food which I could only see and never taste.
I found out recently that antimacassars were first used in 19th C England to cover furniture fabric to prevent the oil lubricants from men’s hair from damaging the fabric. English men’s hair dripped with oil back then, just like black people’s jerry curls of the late 20th century. This hair lubricant, macassar, was imported by the English from the Indonesian island of Sulawesi. The evolution of antimacassar as protector of furniture fabric in 19th C England to a cover for transported food gifts in my rural area a century later remains a mystery to me, but it might not be unconnected to that long-gone entity called the British Empire. While COVID may have taken away the normalcy of being human, we are still able to connect with each other through food. Every bite is a sweet victory.
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