My auntie’s jollof rice, and other things Covid-19 stole from me
We West Africans take our regional dish—and communal celebration—seriously.
When I remember the days when an unmasked face at the bank did not frighten me, I cannot help but to think of the ways I have called my family outside of their names in the act of love.
How I have stuffed myself with jollof rice on a paper plate at cramped house parties and plotted ways to secure to-go boxes before all the good food runs out. I have judged the aunties who couldn’t cook and still brought their “edible” party offerings. I have backbitten and given them names they know nothing of.
This is how we came together once. Before.
It is a well-known fact that we West Africans don’t mess around with our jollof rice. Black Twitter tells us no different. A crop of festivals have popped up over the years celebrating the regional dish in culinary competitions in New York City, Oakland, and other cities. In 2015, August 22 became known as World Jollof Day. There’s even a play about what the sometimes-friendly, sometimes-heated teasing of the “jollof wars” really means.
For those who are not in the know, jollof is a highly flavored rice infused with tomatoes, garlic, onion, and an intoxicating blend of spices (Scotch bonnet peppers, bouillon powder, hope, etc.)
As a Sierra Leonean, it is my duty to come for the necks of any neighboring jollof enthusiast who claims to make rice better than the most misguided cook in my community. I’m talking to you, Auntie Dry-Dry.
For those who are not in the know, jollof is a highly flavored rice infused with tomatoes, garlic, onion, and an intoxicating blend of spices (Scotch bonnet peppers, bouillon powder, hope, etc.) Every West African nation has its own special way of making jollof. As a Sierra Leonean, anointed by the Almighty, we cook our jollof with jasmine rice, not parboiled (like Nigerians) and sans peas (like Cape Verdeans).
You can have jollof rice without the tomato-based fried stew, but you can never have stew without rice—at least not according to Sierra Leoneans. My familial connection to rice is not only customary among first- and second-generation Sierra Leoneans. The Geechee or Gullah people of the South Carolina and Georgia Lowcountry have ancestral ties to Sierra Leone and neighboring West African countries (Liberia, Senegal) once known as the Rice Coast. European colonizers carefully planned to buy Africans from the Rice Coast due to their profitable skills as rice farmers. From painful yesteryears to the present day for the Geechee, rice takes central root in their customs.
The Mende people, an indigenous group in Sierra Leone, are my grandfather’s people and, by extension, my people. We have a traditional rice dance that involves a woman of childbearing age dancing with (*you guessed it*) a plate of rice! Now, you know she’s gotta move slowly, lest she drop the rice. This happened once at a beauty pageant I attended in Maryland, and the crowd appropriately gasped in horror.
There will be no time like the past in the age of Covid-19. That is the trick of memory, the sensation of loss. I remember nothing now without the thick film of nostalgia. A party starting four hours late. A missing bride. A rightfully disgruntled imam. Me, sitting with my parents, in a townhouse, watching trays of fried fish, plantains, and cassava wither under the billowing AC vent. I remember. I remember. I remember.
In 2020, my summer was not filled with children picking through food and chewing carefully, fearful of hidden whole peppers. I did not enter a party deep in the throes of the evening, blasting Afrobeats and dodging abandoned paper plates.
In 2020, my summer was not filled with children picking through food and chewing carefully, fearful of hidden whole peppers. I did not enter a party deep in the throes of the evening, blasting Afrobeats and dodging abandoned paper plates. There will be no children running dangerously close to the wedding cake.
No jollof rice I did not like, and frankly, no jollof rice I did like.
I realize now how much I needed these moments of frustration and joy, to feel connected to my small and thriving Sierra Leonean community. Where can we be together if we cannot meet at church nor banquet hall? How can I speak to this sense of loss? What recipe or remedy is there to replace absence?
There is endurance. And then there is this, this void where WhatsApp chats, Facebook groups, and Zoom links pervade my inbox.
Where can we be together if we cannot meet at church nor banquet hall? How can I speak to this sense of loss? What recipe or remedy is there to replace absence?
Twitter throwdowns about who cooks the best jollof cannot take the place of what we did when we once could be together.
I remember one occasion clearly. My cousin married a Nigerian woman. During the wait to join the buffet line, the hostess called up the oldest women in the bride and groom’s families. The MC had been sensational all evening, performing clever comedic numbers much to our delight. We were fufu in her hands by the time she leaned into the mic, lifted a brow, and said, “Aunties, tell us how to make jollof.”
The crowd rumbled in excitement. Before the elders could speak, interruptions rose from both sides. Even in a room of the closest friends and family, there could be no agreement, not even on the respective Nigerian and Sierra Leonean sides.
In the spirited arguments in the hall, we learned something about ourselves. There are a hundred ways to cook jollof. And there are a hundred more ways to miss your family.