The saying goes, “The quickest way to a man’s heart is through his stomach.” I think it is time for a more modern, inclusive version of this statement, “The quickest way to a happy marriage is through happy meals.” When Wole and I were getting married, we were told over and over again that money was the number one cause of arguments for married couples, but in our everyday life cash is a rarity and money is an abstract concept attached to the tangible only through a flimsy card and a computer screen. Food is a daily need and a reality that affects our marriage at least three times a day and is a site for our cultures to collide.
We met in college, which was a huge dining adjustment for both of us. Breakfast was fine with stale cereal, bread, and such. Lunch and dinner were sketchy with one hot item that was often meat that wasn’t quite done. Many a time I bit into pink meat and was done for the evening. Wole supplemented with the only thing in our budget, Ramen. This led to a now hatred of his once main sustenance. I had been used to eating out at least three times a week, usually fast food, which was now impossible since I was broke. The exciting breaks from this routine were pizza and the rare international get togethers that pushed my food boundaries. Before Wole, I had not been an adventurous eater, but college dining conditions made me desperate.
My first love was fried slices of plantain. The banana like fruit was not easy to come by, as the nearest international store was 30 minutes away, but when we got a hold of some it was like fried Christmas. Unlike, bananas, plantain is best when it has just started to turn black. We’d slice it and skillet-fry it and could barely wait until they were all cooked to start eating. It tasted like candy with a slight crunch on the outside and soft inside and since we lightly salted it before frying it, it also had a savory component. Sometimes we’d eat it with Wole’s fried rice, but most times we devoured it on its own.
I also quickly learned to love obe ata and obe ila with pounded yam. Obe ila is an okra like soup that goes on the bottom with obe ata (pepper, tomatoes, onion, and chicken) on top. You cut off a portion of pounded yam (its like a very thick mashed potato) off with your fork and then cover it with a mixture of obe ila and obe ata for a delicious, somewhat spicy bite. Wole is amazing at making all these dishes and provided us with our healthiest meals in college.
Our senior year, we moved into separate apartments in “married” student housing, which was really more international student housing. I lived with a girl from Sierra Leone, who was also a pretty good cook, and Wole lived with a guy from Kenya. I could stand out my front door and wave at him from his front door, which was fantastic! Our kitchens were tiny and somewhat disgusting (who puts carpet in a kitchen?), as one of my friends who “cleaned” them over the summer confirmed, saying they just painted over the dirt and moved on. We still managed to make it work, with Wole making Nigerian dishes and me cooking pancakes or meals from the book A Man a Can a Plan. Hey, with Dollar General being the main grocery store in town along with one of the few places in our price range, canned food was the way to go. My favorite was biscuits with a cream cheese sauce including canned peas and chicken. Now I’m pretty sure that same meal would make me ill. It was a big treat when we could splurge on a $1 package of cookies or soda and all the other international students would come over to devour it all the same day.
In that brief period of marriage before children I really decided to learn to cook. First I made my dad’s classics, like spaghetti and taco salad, which Wole loved as much as I did. Then I got on an Indian kick and made delicious chicken patties, a sweet creamy chicken dish, carrot halva, and pistachio lamb. I will always remember hunting down the spices to roast for garam masala and how good the house smelled for days after.
We didn’t have a lot of money, but about once a week, we splurged on coconut curry chicken with strawberry wontons from the Japanese place down the street. The rice was so, so but the creamy and spicy coconut sauce with flat chunks of chicken breast and slices of carrots floating in it made up for it and then some. I still crave this strip mall jewel.
After the first child, most of my dishes have had to be thirty minutes or less and slightly less exotic. I made a lot of shrimp alfredo, burritos, chili and shrimp pot pie along with lots of other dishes that didn’t make it past the first or second try. Breakfasts have also become a fun experiment, our favorite being cinnamon raison biscuits with fried apples. One thing that has remained a constant is my pickiness about meat. I love chicken breasts and pretty much nothing else on the chicken. Skin or fat on meat makes me gag, which I have come to see as a first world problem. In Nigeria you eat all of the meat available, because food is not nearly as plentiful. He has gotten me to eat seafood, besides shrimp, (crab legs why did it take me 30 years to discover your deliciousness!) and I discovered a love of lamb.
Over the years, food has been one of the ways we most influenced each other. Slowly, Wole has made me much more adventurous in my eating, gotten me to eat less junk, and appreciative of how fortunate we are with food in this country. I have gotten him to relax and enjoy some pecan pie on occasion. Just like our marriage, our food is best when we communicate what we love and what we don’t and share the best parts of our discoveries with each other.