…the camaraderie of Nigerians can become a venomous appraisal, and the fanfare aside, Baci’s accomplishment has been called to question…
By Sybil Fekurumoh
In the past weeks, the Nigerian media has captivated the collective consciousness of its people, and outside it, with conversations that, one way or another, revolves around food. From record-breaking cook-a-thons to the controversial discourse surrounding unusual dietary choices – such as eating dogs – and then, to culinary contenders who are perhaps aspiring, too, for world records, or also yearning for a slice of the spotlight. Nigerians are also trying to come to terms with the announcement that their so-loved cowhide, also known as “pomo” may be compromised by the anthrax disease outbreak in West Africa. A rather embarrassing hell date video brought another palaver: what is a fair price tag for a meal date? In another viral Twitter moment, people confessed to being affectionately bought over by their partner’s simple gesture of buying groceries and cooking.
Of course, social media is a phony island, and one absorbs stories from the Internet with a pinch of salt. Also, like any other Internet moment, conversations whiff by all the time. But when one sieves through the debates and disquisitions, the profound influence of food on our lives becomes abundantly clear, and beyond the surface-level intrigue lies a deeper story: gastronomy politics and the intricate relationship between food, power, and societal dynamics. Like any daily routine, eating comes off as a mundane activity. Food, a universal necessity, is an essential element of human existence. But aside from its function as a means of sustenance, we can use our perception of food as a social mirror. How we think about food can also reflect the values, desires, and power structures within human society.
No one applauds the triumphs of Nigerians better than the citizens themselves, and I daresay, Nigerian chef, Hilda Baci’s record-breaking achievement of the longest cooking marathon has been the most sensational the country has witnessed in recent times. In fact, the Guinness World Records admits that their website temporarily shut down due to web traffic from Baci’s fans, most likely, Nigerians. But the camaraderie of Nigerians can become a venomous appraisal, and the fanfare aside, Baci’s accomplishment has been called to question.
The first critique was Baci’s controversial personal epicurean dish, involving dog meat. This ignited an outcry within the dog-loving community, and to my bemusement, many called for Baci’s recognition, which was still being reviewed, to be rescinded. The argument here was that dogs were man’s best friends, and Baci’s newfound popularity and food choices misrepresented Nigeria on international fronts. International here, being Eurocentric audiences, after all, the Guinness World Records is a European platform.
What we can or cannot eat, how we eat, and even prepare the food that we eat, is a cultural heritage with its history, passed down from generation, and to lose a culture for foreign acceptance is a failing. We have to ask ourselves the basis on which unconventional food is a representation. This vying for Western gratification, if anything, reveals that a food hierarchy has been placed, with Western culinary options at the top. It appears that the idea of the superiority of the Western diet and culinary habits of Africans indoctrinated during the colonial era still holds sway today. European colonialism has also been identified as the underlying catalyst for food insecurity, the climate crisis, and the inefficiency of agricultural systems with the Western introduction of monocropping, industrial farming, and international trade agreements that govern African import practices, to the benefit of the West. Food is power, and the West, as a representation of world power, influences the elevation of its dietary habits, whether or not these foods are healthier or not. Today, more chefs from Africa are embracing the uniqueness of their individual country’s cuisines. Several chefs today are supporting the incorporation of traditional foods and condiments, or better still, the use of more African foundational ingredients. An example is the Sierra Leone-born chef, Fatmata Binta, who is taking the Fulani nomadic food culture to global audiences.
Several African delicacies, as with Asian and Caribbean dishes, have gained global recognition in recent times. The “Jollof wars,” for instance, have sparked a newfound appreciation for the diverse versions of jollof rice from Ghana, Nigeria, and Senegal. But, in spite of global progressiveness toward inclusivity and cultural appreciation, African meals often seem to be treated as mere spectacles, and it is no surprise that Eurocentric cuisines are still considered the pinnacle of “fine dining.” To illustrate, we need only observe the appeal of fast food and the proliferation of Western fast food chains in Africa, and how it has become a marker of social and economic in Africa. In a country like Nigeria, where inequality is commonplace, “fine dining” and high-end restaurants have become aspirational for the lower class.
It is intriguing to note that, in the eyes of the average Nigerian, there exists a distinction between “real food” and everything else. In this context, “real food” refers to local dishes that satiate hunger, and the others (where foreign foods reside) are merely garish and a status symbol. It is noteworthy that Baci prepared over a hundred dishes during the cooking marathon, but still had her menu comprised primarily of Nigerian delicacies. This reveals her ability to be modern, yet authentic.
Of course, it is not out of place to have disagreements with food choices. After all, it is only a few cultures like Baci’s that find dog meat a delicacy. As such, it is quite understandable when other Nigerians cannot comprehend the pleasures of eating such meat, and perhaps look at it with disgust. In some African cultures, grasshoppers are a delight. In others like mine, grubs are enjoyable, but to the majority, it is off-putting. Of course, preferences differ, and even the more conventional delicacies in one culture may not be appreciated in another.
In a way, food, and the debate around it reveals the attitude Nigerians have towards their culture and tradition, and also exposes the intolerance and supremacy complex Nigerians exhibit towards differing beliefs, leading to the judgement of those who hold different views. To Nigerians, food is not a simple, straightforward task; there’s an ideal to it: the way food should be prepared and served, or the way whoever cooks the food should appear. In that fashion, people have called to question and even ridiculed Baci’s success and achievement, because of how she chooses to express herself, citing culture and tradition as the pretext. Baci, who runs a thriving restaurant, despite her previous victory in a cooking competition, and experience hosting multiple cooking sessions, continues to face scrutiny solely based on her appearance. This perpetuates the stereotype that women have to dress or act a certain “godly” way, and if she does otherwise, her success is downplayed for the exhausting rhetoric of having sexual relations with a man in power.
Nigerians – and largely, Africans – have an ostentatious perception of virtue, one that disproportionately affects women. Nigerian food culture reveals the patriarchy in Nigerian society and reflects how women are treated. Food, cooking, and generally, domestics, are predominantly gendered and are regarded as roles for women. But that, too, is half the picture.
The ideal representation of a virtuous woman goes beyond culinary skills; it encompasses traditional values that often expect her to be naturally homely. Baci’s online presence as an influencer and one comfortable with her body does not fit this image, but rather, showcases the attributes of a “worldly woman.” It is as if to say that a woman can cook and be ambitious, but only if she is “godly” or puts up an appearance as one. Food and cooking can be an act of love or service. There is no doubt that food connects us, and our perception of it is reflective of some of the values that have either been passed down or that we’ve taken up. Perhaps, a collective assessment of our food culture is necessary now, more than ever.
Sybil Fekurumoh is a senior writer for Afrocritik. Connect with her on Twitter and Instagram at @toqueensaber.