The childhood stories of my American friends are somewhat relatable in a general sense until we hit the dinner table, and they would comically confess the truth of how their mothers were woefully lacking as basic cooks.
As an American-born Nigerian who grew up in the former capital city of Lagos, a thriving and bustling metropolis, brimming with the infectious optimism and expectations that never manifested, I was exposed to the culture and traditions that collided with the short stint in Kansas City, Missouri.
One of the major adjustments that followed the mandatory relocation from one end of the world to the other was the disappearance of endearing staples like McDonalds, fun snacks like Oreo cookies, and the other great American treats that would instantly brighten up dull days.
The diet in our Nigerian household was a lot healthier and rooted in key dishes that celebrated our Igbo heritage.
My mother’s ability to finesse the main items on the weekly menu was spectacularly mouth-watering, especially for a growing child who was pressured to accommodate successful assimilation.
From the standard jollof rice and Sunday’s special fried rice to the delicious platters of steaming yam porridge with extra touches of dripping palm oil, our kitchen was the hub of consistency when it came to lovingly prepared food that we were lucky enough to access.
Of course as I got older and entered my teen years, the struggle to teach me the golden tricks of the trade proved to be difficult as I would only submit to washing the basin of bitter or okazi leaves, before disappearing into the huddled space between the bed and window, lost in another mystery novel.
And spending most of the months out of the year in boarding school from the age of eleven made it even more challenging to encourage my domestic tendencies, particularly when all I wanted to do during my break from a military-style environment was to chill and reject the notion of chores.
I respected my mother’s prowess as a naturally gifted goddess of the kitchen, and I enjoyed watching her blush with pride as she received rave reviews from family and friends.
As an Igbo woman with a husband and kids, it would be unacceptable and almost scandalous if she lacked the pertinent skills of lavishly feeding the ones she loved most, in ways that would also extend to the palettes of visitors who would surely scar her reputation if they left our home with a not so good story to tell.
My mother was also a career woman who like most her in station, made it all look seamless.
And as an unmarried woman without children, I have to marvel and give props to the unfailing love and care that was distributed to my siblings and I. And as the observant daughter, there was proof of what it takes for an ambitious TV executive to almost have it all.
I moved back to the States for college, and my cooking skills were pretty much on par with any young adult who prefers not to be saddled with those needless responsibilities.
But things really got into gear some years later when I found myself briefly sharing an apartment with my younger brother.
I suddenly got the buzz to explore the very thing that I had spent most of my life avoiding. It also had something to do with living in Jersey City, and not being surrounded with the plethora of eateries similar to the ones in my former hood of Astoria, Queens.
And I guess sharing space with a young male adult with a hearty appetite inspired the desire to reach for those maternal instincts as the older sister who was subbing for what he missed from our childhood.
Practice makes perfect, and thanks to the growing number of stores owned by fellow Nigerians in the area, that carried provisions from our home country, I was given the opportunity to replicate my mother’s signature moves to the delight of my grateful food taster.
My confidence from that period carried over into my developed affinity for food experimentation that went beyond cooking to survive.
The first time my mom complimented the food I prepared without her guidance was a year ago when I offered to make dinner to celebrate my parents’ wedding anniversary.
It was my very own recipe of coconut rice bursting with the vibrancy of chopped mixed veggies and accompanied with marinated salmon.
There was no pressure in the process because it was led by love and the promise that it the presentation would satisfy eager taste buds.
The happily wedded duo loved it.
My mother was ecstatic, proud and more importantly relieved that even though I learned outside her kitchen, her legacy was the joy of being able to pass on her basic instincts to her only daughter.
She recently planned an intimate dinner for a couple who are good friends of my parents, and for the first time ever, I witnessed my mother’s real concern about how to manifest her envisioned menu.
When the day arrived, she spent the late morning loudly talking to herself as she turned the kitchen into the evidence of the unfamiliarity of muddled thinking when it came to performing what she used to instinctively define.
Since I couldn’t concentrate enough to bring my characters alive, I stopped writing and headed over to my mother’s side.
We cooked together, and under my tutelage we produced the feast of champions.
She learned how I endeavored to keep the rice from drowning in the spiced sauce and I learned that my mother was willing to take my advice seriously, despite her stellar track record.
The intense bonding was unexpected but necessary on a day when women are appreciated and heralded all around the world.
We never stop learning.
And if you have women around you who have lived long enough to make that impact on your everyday living, the richness of such nourishment will sustain the invaluable tendons of our womanhood.