Food & Drinks

I Remember What Toni Morrison’s House Smelled Like

Jollof

[jaw-lawf]

noun: a West African one-pot dish made with onions, peppers, tomatoes, tomato paste, palm oil, vegetable stock, rice, cooking oil, salt; tastiest when cooked over firewood

verb: to party, make merry, live it up, enjoy, celebrate, bacchanal, celebrate good times

September 6, 2019—District Six, Cape Town

“What did Toni Morrison’s house smell like?”

The question comes from someone in the audience who has followed me after the plenary session of the Open Book Festival. I had just been on stage along with a few fellow contributors to New Daughters of Africa: An International Anthology of Writing by Women of African Descent. Our panel represented the rich diversity of the landmark anthology—a spicy mix of writers of different literary genres, generations, and nationalities, brought together in a place with its own complicated racial history. On the panel, I had spoken about Toni Morrison. Now, standing in the foyer of the District Six Museum, surrounded by festival attendees, this question surprises and delights me.

April 15, 2017—Grand View-on-Hudson, Rockland County, New York

Nadine, Toni Morrison’s housekeeper, opens the door and lets us in. Morrison is not yet ready to receive us, so we wait upstairs in the living room, where Morrison has said, “make yourselves at home.” Nadine is in the kitchen chopping vegetables. Soon, there’s a loud sizzle and I catch the sharp bite of onion and peppers, turning sweet as they fry. I can smell tomato in there, too. It smells like home, like jollof. Back in Nigeria, we used to eat jollof on Sundays, after church services, and when celebrating Eid with friends at the end of Ramadan. The best part, if you could get to it, were the crackly bits of rice stuck to the bottom of the pan. Jollof is both everyday and party food, but no celebration is complete without it and when served with fried plantains, it’s heaven. “Fish,” says Nadine, when I walk over to ask what she’s preparing. “Something healthy for Mrs. Morrison,” she adds, her words lightly seasoned with the flavor of Jamaica.

The aroma has me thinking about the one-pot dishes Morrison writes about in her works—a pot of turnips or maws—often simple, meager meals to stave off hunger or to soothe. And fish . . . I remember the “crisp sea bass” with its “tiny flakes of white” in Miss Marie’s daydreaming of a meal shared with a past love. I remember the precious piece of eel that ferryman Stamp Paid feeds Sethe in her escape from slavery. And what jollofing on the page when Morrison uses food in the naming of her characters—Plum, Meringue Pie, Sweetness, Chicken and Pie, and Milkman—or in describing skin tones from cream to licorice, lemonade, milk, and whey. And there is something about berries—the temptation of them, as in a deep-dish berry cobbler, toppled by inquisitively hungry children, or those other berries that “tasted like church”—“just one of those berries and you felt anointed”—delivered to one who is so close to being free of her slave masters. And when Morrison uses food as metaphor for sex, she’s at her tantalizing best. From the sexual suggestiveness in the eating of an ear of corn: “How loose the silk. How fine and loose and free,” to a woman’s naked body “moist and crumbly as unbleached sugar,” Morrison’s word work is sublime. Every mention of food hints at a longing that simmers just beneath the surface.

Nadine cuts short my reverie; Mrs. Morrison is now ready. As we walk downstairs to her study, the smell of lunch accompanies us. She says to call her Toni, and in turn she calls us her friends, which feels so warm and delicious.

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