Cooking, African-Femininity, and Identity in Gen Z
“Ayoola, come to the kitchen!” My mother would scream daily at the top of her lungs, face heated, eyes filled with determination. Determination to make a “Woman out of Me!” Determination to prepare me for my husband’s house.
“Mother” I would respond in my head, silently, impuissant, “Is my desirability based solely on my ability to cook for my husband? Is that all I am reduced to?”
My mother’s hands moved meticulously as she sprinkled a cascading wave of seasoning across the boiling obe ata (Nigerian Stew). Her eyebrows creased in concentration as she measured the exact amount of water, oil, and rice. Tears dropped onto her cheeks as she cut ten onions in succession. My mother was a maestro in the kitchen: chopping, dicing, repeating until she achieved perfection.
I remember the only day that she did not achieve perfection – the day that she spent hours cooking food for 50 people. On this fateful day, my mother cooked jollof rice, a West-African dish, but she added too many onions and it was left in the oven for well over two hours because my father forgot to take it out of the oven. The rice ended up spoiled, and my mother was not only furious but also riddled with shame. Jollof rice is a staple at all Nigerian events, all of her guests were expecting the delicacy, but my mother could not deliver. My mother’s friends jokingly ridiculed her for forgetting the jollof rice, and some were outwardly displeased by the omission of the dish. My mother was sorrowful for days, the most distraught I had seen her in my entire life. And this was the first time that I understood the significance of cooking in West-African culture. But my mother’s pain went beyond African society’s perception of a woman’s role in the kitchen, it was also due to her passion for cooking. Cooking is my mother’s art form, her form of expression and act of love. I could never quite grasp her endless devotion to cooking, and my lack of understanding created a division between us.
Growing up, my fondest memories were from cooking with my mother and sister. Innocently concocting seasonings together, chopping endless vegetables, and discovering the tear-jerking power of an onion. Cooking was a fun reprieve from the sameness of life, a way to come together after busy days apart. Cooking was matched with blaring Nigerian music from the speaker, my mother’s storytelling of her wild adolescent escapades, and learning the history of cultural Yoruba food. Cooking to me, was understanding who I was as an African, a time to reflect on my ancestor’s marvelous creations.
Cooking did not stay this way, however, and similarly to a child’s loss of innocence, cooking also lost its magic. By the age of 13, cooking was no longer fun but instead became a survival skill that demanded perfection. When my mother deemed me old enough to understand marriage, she reconfigured my entire mindset in regards to food and cooking. At age 13, I was learning to cook for my future husband and my future husband’s household. Food was the way to a man’s heart, and I was to hold on to it with a death grip – with the most delectable dish.
In West-African culture, African-Femininity is often synonymous with the ability to cook, clean, and fulfill domestic tasks with ease. Femininity is not defined by women themselves, but by the way that we are perceived by the men around us. And although this notion is the same for many women all across the world, my personal experience in a Nigerian Household has caused me to have a nuanced understanding of this patriarchal mindset. Is my mother’s devotion to my cooking skills an expression of love, or a continued generational cycle that is not easily broken?
Growing up in America, I saw through the media and from friends, that domestic responsibilities did not fall on them. Their success in adolescence was not attributed to their grasp on cooking efo, ewedu, amala, or other traditional food. My peers were only burdened with the expectation to be a good student and nothing else. I was expected to be a stellar student, master chef, immaculate cleaner, sharp launderer, businesswoman, and lastly but most importantly, a husband magnet. I was aware of the jarring contrast of expectations placed on myself and my peers, but I also understood why my mother placed so much on me.
Where I saw a mentality that contrasted my ever-evolving Gen Z feminism, my mother saw an opportunity to pass down her knowledge. But how could I reconcile my mother’s desires, with my own aspirations and beliefs as a Gen Z Black woman? This is where many West-African Gen Z’ers are met with a rock and a hard place. I can appreciate where my mother is coming from, but how can I reduce myself to her generationally passed down box of what a woman ought to be?
The answer is that I must first redefine what food means to me before I can appreciate it. I must take what my mother has taught me and transform it into a rejuvenated version of itself. A version free from a future husband, a version where cooking is for me, a version where I can choose to cook for another person, and not because of another person.
When I was preparing to leave home and move to college, my mother’s parting gift was not the typical shopping spree to buy clothes, but a test of my cooking ability. I gleefully took on the challenge and made sure to tell her that I was cooking for Her, and not for anyone else. And she responded, “Okay. Make sure not to add too much salt.”