‘Nigerian Seasonal Produce’ is a monthly column which will be published on the last Saturday of every month. In this column, a writer explores a specific seasonal fruit, vegetable or leafy green assigned by the editors of Kitchen Butterfly and based on the Nigerian Seasonal Produce Calendar.
Our author this month is Pemi who I first met as P Betty – a fantastic writer who wears hats with so much grace and style. Here is her piece on the love and lessons from her grandmother, in grief…and with garden eggs.
Grandma, Garden Eggs & Grief
My relationship with garden eggs is inextricably tied to my grandmother.
For most of my life, I’ve hated garden eggs. And why do they call themselves so? Garden eggs, those green things that taste like nothing but punishment. Punishment, because every early memory of it is tied to a parent who thought my fussiness would get me nowhere, and you-must-eat-those-garden-eggs-before-I-count-to-ten.
These garden eggs, how dare they take on the title of ‘egg’ when they own none of the frailty, none of the fragility and definitely none of the dainty pleasures of an egg? Imposters.
Are they fruits? Are they vegetables? Do I care? ‘Take those things far from me’, I cried – nose wrinkled, head tilted away from the green, sometimes white, things – always bought aplenty in black nylon bags which hide all evil.
Late in the 1500s British traders introduced London’s greengrocers to a strange new vegetable they’d picked up along the coast of West Africa. By 1587 this so-called “Guinea squash” was on English dinner tables.
Although eaten as a vegetable, it was actually a small fruit about the size of a hen’s egg. It was the same color as a hen’s egg also. This pure white ellipsoid made an eye-catching eatable, which for obvious reasons the public soon dubbed “egg-plant; Source – Lost Crops of Africa.”
But grandma changed that.
My grandmother taught me how to iron a shirt, how to bend the collar right, iron the front without creasing the back… When we were younger, she would come for stretches of two to three weeks to Lagos from Ondo and my siblings and I would groan because it meant a few weeks of being told our beans and eba were prepared all wrong, and having our grammar corrected by her, because you never ever retire from being a school headmistress.
But a death and a lull in my life changed this relationship. My aunt died and my grandma moved to our home, first for the burial and ceremonies, and then because she needed to grieve under the watchful eye of family. My late aunt was her first child. It was around this time I had just returned from NYSC (National Youth Service Corps) in Abuja and didn’t have a job yet, so when everyone returned to work and school, it was her and I left wandering through the stuffy air at home, still heavy with bad news and evaporated tears. It was I who encouraged her to eat, and who would offer second portions to block the many sighs that left her mouth.
And this is how this special thing we have was born.
No one who is objectively looking at the data would call it a close relationship. We have the same conversation every time she calls. “I’m hungry o. Nobody is feeding me here. Will you send my food through the phone?” And I always laugh and promise to. Because when she thinks of me, she thinks of food, food that meant more than just food, in a time when food probably had no taste to her. It was presence, it was the familiar.
But what does this have to do with garden eggs? You see, long before I would lower a tray of food in front of my sobbing grandmother, she had performed a food miracle. She made me like garden eggs.
Like the typical Nigerian I am, it took the flanking and obscuration of garden eggs in oil and pepper for me to like it. One Saturday, I woke up to find garden eggs boiling in a pot of water. What atrocity was this? ‘Oh, for garden egg sauce’, grandma said. An hour later, I would tentatively and suspiciously bring the garden eggs, now transformed, to my tongue.
Grandma taught me by this meal that it is easy to dismiss a thing without giving it the chance to reveal itself to you in a different form. About the importance of exploration, of probing a thing and asking, ‘How else can I use you? How else can you manifest yourself?’
Perhaps I am searching, reaching, for a lesson here. I would still lean the other way if confronted with raw garden eggs. But chop some onions, peppers, tomatoes in and watch my transformation. And this is what food is about, isn’t it? Transformation – how it is transformed, how we transform, and how we are transformed by it.
Thank you, grandma.