Mbari revisited

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MBARI REVISITED by George Kanzler, (21) 66-68

Do you eat sushi much? Notice how lots of sushi places aren’t presenting you with the hot towel anymore when you sit down to eat? You’re witnessing a cultural tradition eroding.

Sushi in America is becoming Americanized, the cultural and ritual traditions surrounding its service degraded and abandoned here. Actually, the degradation of the sushi tradition has been going on for a long time. Traditionally, hot towels were proffered before and after the meal because most folks ate sushi with their hands, so the custom was not only traditional but practical. But Americans eat sushi with chopsticks (how gauche!), so who needs a hot towel?

It’s typical of how food from another culture, when presented here, is shorn of its traditions. When’s the last time you were offered a salad after the main course in an Italian restaurant? They do it in Italy all the time. Or how about a Chinese restaurant? Soup, traditionally, should be served last there, but here in America you aren’t even offered that option.

Which brings me to today, when I stopped by at Odabro, my favorite Nigerian restaurant-bar in Orange, NJ, and had terrific egusi soup with goat meat and pounded yam, prepared by Ma, the cook in the kitchen. (I always call female Nigerian cooks "Ma," just as I did there; you can never go wrong). Ma brought me the food with a knife and fork, but at least she asked if I wanted hot water. I guess Odabro is getting Americanized and losing tradition, too. I opted for the big stainless steel bowl of hot water and dug in with my right hand, preserving the cultural tradition I’d learned.

A few months ago, my friend Ore had a birthday party for himself (remember THAT Nigerian tradition), and it was a small, quiet affair with half a dozen of his friends, all except me ex-pat Nigerians who had not been home in years or decades. I brought kola nuts and palm wine, and from the reception you’d have thought I’d brought winning lottery tickets. Suddenly, old rituals surfaced, Yoruba prayers and invocations were remembered, and libations were poured, kola nut was broken. Those two simple foods I brought rekindled cultural connections long forgotten.

My father always said that to know somebody (from another culture), eat his or her food. The kind of food, the rituals and traditions surrounding it, are one of the strongest parts of many cultures, especially Third World cultures. I hope you ate local food in Nigeria, not houseboy/cook stuff once prepared for the British. The Yoruba had great praise songs about their food, and about pepper. Breaking kola with a Nigerian was the fastest way to get to know him, especially if there was also some Star beer in the mix.

Food, even more than music or art, is an expression of culture. Nothing brings me back to Nigeria, spiritually, better than a meal like that egusi soup I had today, with Star beer or palm wine. If you want to really remember Nigeria, eat Nigerian.

Vol. 3, No. 4 Summer 1999

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