Osayi Endolyn tells guest host Francis Lam about her introduction to Hoppin' John, and how that connected her to both her personal history and to the influence of African cuisine on the food of the American South.
Francis Lam: I want to start at the beginning of your story. There's this moment where you're working at a fine-dining, modern Southern restaurant, and you come upon a traditional Southern dish that you'd never heard of before, but it reminded you of some of the Nigerian food that you grew up with. Tell us about that moment.
Osayi Endolyn: I was working at Empire State South in Midtown Atlanta, and this was several years ago. We were at family meal, which is, in restaurants of this nature, before dinner service, the staff gets together and they eat. And it's a meal that's cooked by someone in the kitchen who has a number of other things to do.
Usually, this meal is pretty simple, just to get everybody fed and ready to start a long shift. So, this particular afternoon, the meal was special because it was just so ornate. One of the guys on the line at that time cooked this meal of herb-roasted chicken, cornbread slathered with sorghum butter, and this side dish called Hoppin' John. And everyone was murmuring and kind of like, "Ooh!" Because this meal smelled and looked so delicious, but I didn't know what Hoppin' John was.
So I asked, and I got these weird looks. I was very quickly instructed that this was a common staple of black Southern cooking, and, with a friendly eyebrow raise, kind of like, "You need to know what this is."
That's when I got my introduction to this dish of rice and black-eyed peas with bits of meat and onions and tomatoes, and some of the customs around it. And I thought, “Oh, well, this is kind of familiar,” because my mom would sometimes make black-eyed peas. And then, when I spooned the dish into my bowl and started eating it, I was like, “Oh, well, OK, I'm kind of getting this.” Because my dad also cooked a dish that was called Ewa Dodo.
This was one of many moments that I had working at that restaurant where I started to connect many aspects of Southern cuisine with, not just the history of enslaved people, but directly with stuff that my father would make or talk about.
FL: Your relationship with your father, you write, has been hard for a long time, it sounds like. You wrote that, when you were a kid, his kitchen philosophy was, "A man needs his space." Which is to say that he was intimidating, and you were not allowed in the kitchen.
FL: What was it like for you to be in that kitchen?
OE: It was like peeking into a world you couldn't access, which is strange because I had a lot of free rein in the kitchen growing up. I'd come home after school, and my brother and I would make snacks, and I always had chores in the kitchen. But when Dad was in there -- I don't want to over-romanticize it -- but it was almost like he was just in this zone, and he didn't want to be bothered. He didn't want to multitask. He didn't want to talk to you. He didn't want you in there. He was just doing this thing, and the outcome was always so family-oriented. It always kind of struck me as odd that the time he spent cooking was so off-limits, but we all got to share in the result.
FL: What do you think it meant for him to be cooking that food?
OE: I think about that a lot now, and I think that it must have been sacred; so much care and attention. There were a lot of things I remember not being able to get my dad to care very much about.
He would show up for stuff, band recitals and things like that, but that was something that always had 100 percent of his attention. Coming to this country, he was, I think, barely 18. For years, he didn't return home, and both his parents died -- years apart, but while he was in California.
I think sometimes of just how isolating it can be being a West Coaster in the Southeast in certain experiences. I can't imagine over the years some of the challenges he must've gone through being, not just from another country, but also from a part of the world that most Americans tend to look at with sort of a downcast gaze. We don't tend to look at Africa and its many countries as a place of aspiration or inspiration, even though there's so much going on there that is to be admired.
We tend to focus on and only hear about the things that are tragic and hard and sad. Maybe for him, cooking was a time to think about just a space that none of us could go, and maybe that's why we weren't invited in.
FL: And then your parents split.
OE: Right. When that split happened, we moved with my mom, and I realized, “OK, there's no Nigerian food in the house anymore.” It was kind of just this sort of subtext that it's not something anyone really talked about, but you notice it underneath all the other things happening in a transition like that.
For many years, I didn't eat Nigerian food. Now, my relationship is one of reuniting and becoming familiar again with foods that I hadn't had in a long time. Along with that comes lessons and stories and corrections being made to me about how to pronounce things or what gets served with what.
Some of my memories are different. Some of my memories don't line up with things I see on the menu. I'm trying to play this puzzle game, putting things back together.
FL: It's interesting because the emotional relationship people have to food -- it can be varied, it can be all kinds of things -- but for a lot of people, especially when they're immigrants or the children of immigrants, I feel like the things that people really hold onto are these sort of warm and fuzzy memories of when we were kids. "This is what we ate as a family, and I want to preserve that memory. I never want to let that go."
In your case, it is sort of a different thing, because those family memories are not necessarily entirely warm and fuzzy. It's not just a matter of nostalgia, it sounds like you feel like you need to actively learn about this culture that you have a stake in. How do you go about learning about it then, like you said, in some ways as an insider and in some ways as an outsider?
"You asked me, how do I go about it? Slowly, carefully, messily."
-Osayi Endolyn, on exploring her background
OE: Right. Someone recently told me, "Gosh, it sounds like you almost come from a biracial background because you have these two family experiences that are so disjointed in some ways, and you're kind of the only the only indicator of that mix." And it is very bifurcated.
You asked me, how do I go about it? Slowly, carefully, messily. What helped propel me and has been the basis of me writing this essay and working on this book project of looking at the way West African cuisine has influenced the way that we eat, it's that people are talking about it more. It's actually becoming a little bit more visible.
It shouldn't surprise us that, given that so much of how we eat comes from the Southern tradition, that it was West Africans and black Americans who really helped shape a lot of the way we eat now. But that blows people's minds when you frame it that way. It's almost like they start quizzing you, "Well, like how? And like what?"
You can kind of list it as, “Well, you've got produce that came as part of that forced migration and supporting all these people that were cargo. You've got black-eyed peas, you've got okra, you've got the rice that was developed in South Carolina.” I mean, you have all these different kind of hash marks where you can see along the way. I mean, of course, so much scholarship has been done around the recipes and who was cooking, and that has its own place in the story as well, but somehow between several hundred years ago and today, it's like this fuzziness where we don't really know where things belong. I'm interested in understanding a little bit more about that flow of history.
It's taken a lot for me to just claim this as my own story. I have this Nigerian name that I'm always, always, always having to talk to people about, because that's one of the first things that people want to know about me, even just in passing. If I'm on the phone with a customer service representative, that's how they want to spend the whole time, talking to me about the origin of my name.
I'm constantly telling this story. For a long time, that's all I had to say, right? It was like, “Well, this is my name, and this is what it means, and this is where my father is from, and that's the end.” I'm now just beginning to open that up a little bit more.
FL: Do you cook Nigerian food for yourself now?
OE: I don't yet, but I'm getting there. I don't know why it's so hard. I read something recently, and I wish I could remember her title. She's currently, I think, in Bill de Blasio's administration, and she was saying how she didn't feel like she could cook her mother's -- maybe her mother's or her grandmother's -- recipes. It was a line she didn't want to cross. I don't even have recipes, you know what I mean? It's like, the period of my life where I might have been invited into the kitchen or been able to have those kinds of conversations with my dad, we were separated. So, it's taken a lot for me to just claim this as my own story.