Why a Nigerian Food Memoir Should Be on Your To-Read List
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because Yemisi Aribisala writes the way Nina Simone sings.
By Sarah Ládípọ̀ Manyika
This month, OZY Books adds Longthroat Memoirs: Soups, Sex and Nigerian Taste Buds, by Yemisi Aribisala, to its global bookshelf. Winner of the prestigious John Avery Award for food writing in 2016, this book is a well-kept secret, which is why we’re bringing it to you now.
WHAT’S THE BOOK ABOUT?
Written as a series of short essays, this food memoir showcases Nigeria’s many delicious offerings from jollof rice to peppered puff puffs to … dog meat? Ram testicle suya? Which brings us, kinda sorta, to the matter of sex, which is present in the sensuality of the book’s prose as well as in the suggestiveness of various food descriptions (think pounded yam and snails). Each chapter is carefully seasoned with dashes of geography, economics, popular culture, art and history. Aribisala suggests that “life seen through the prism of food has more colors, not fewer.” And it’s not just Nigerian cultures that can be savored in this book, but a variety of the other cuisines and cultures appraised via Nigerian taste buds — everything from Yorkshire puddings and Eccles cakes to the tartufi bianchi and South Asian red curries.
WHO’S THE AUTHOR?
Yemisi Aribisala, who comes from Ibadan, Nigeria, is the nation’s foremost epicurean writer. She rose to fame via a popular weekly food column in 234Next, Nigeria’s former newspaper. Aribisala was one of the first to see Nigerian food as worthy of literary attention and opened the floodgates for others to follow. But writing and cooking were not what Aribisala studied at college. While she had hoped to read classics, her family urged her to choose a degree with supposedly greater career prospects, so she studied law followed by a master’s in international transport and maritime affairs — but cooking fish soups were likely not a part of the syllabus.
“At five o’clock in the evening, as the sun is setting on Lagos Street, the local fish market comes alive. The crabs sit lethargically in stainless steel basins, while giant, whiskered catfish gasp for breath on worn wood tables that look distractingly like slabs of well-aged beef. Oversized prawns with moody blue-black armor glitter like lapis lazuli, seawater pulsating feebly under their carapaces. The price of baby tuna and sole is haggled and agreed on with an audacity that would make a Michelin-star chef in New York City catch his breath with shock and envy. Oysters are trampled as if they were bits of debris from a building site. I’m not exaggerating when I say they have no esteem here. If one were searching for seafood that connects the palate with sexual arousal — an aphrodisiac, a playful fetish — it would not be an oyster, not here.”
— “Fish Soups and Love Potions,” from Longthroat Memoirs, Soups, Sex and Nigerian Taste Buds
WHAT’S NOT TO LIKE?
Be warned: This author writes with a fearless, irreverent and unapologetic voice. “I come from a society where the default is conformity,” says Aribisala. “I don’t know how to conform and I find myself putting question marks against everything.” As a result, many readers are surprised, and a few shocked, by her approach to the sometimes taboo subjects of religion and sexuality. Others have felt disappointed by Aribisala’s refusal to label herself as a feminist. “I can’t be feminist if I cannot not be feminist,” she explains.
… savor this enthralling, sexy, complex and irresistible book of Naija cuisine essays, dipped in culture and politics.
Noviolet Bulawayo, award-winning novelist
Generous servings of food and laughter may be the perfect antidote for these times, when more seems to divide rather than unite us as humans. The ever-popular supper club movement across the U.S. and Europe is a testament to the power of sharing foods and bringing people together. Food has always provided an inroad for discovering new cultures and connecting with strangers. Long before a visit to India or China, many of us will have tasted their cuisine. Food may be the very reason we wish to travel, and Longthroat Memoirs invites the world to Nigerian foods and culture. This book heralds a new era when more Africans insist on the individuality and particularity of their own national food culture — not subsumed under the generic banner of “African food.”
“There’s no other option but to thoroughly savor this enthralling, sexy, complex and irresistible book of Naija cuisine essays, dipped in culture and politics,” says Noviolet Bulawayo, award-winning novelist of We Need New Names. “This is one of the best reads from Nigeria, anytime, period.”
Like fine wine, these suggested pairings complement Longthroat Memoirs. They range from the light to the full-bodied — all celebratory, sensual and, sometimes, a little edgy.
- The Mussel Feast, by Birgit Vanderbeke
- Fasting, Feasting, by Anita Desai
- Bitter in the Mouth, by Monique Truong
- “Art of Cake,” by Michael Chabon
- How to Be a Nigerian, by Peter Enaharo
- “I Want a Little Sugar in my Bowl,” by Nina Simone
- “Chop ’n’ Quench,” by Fela Kuti
- “Start Again,” by Falana
- “Ojuelegba,” by Wizkid
- “Lady Revisited,” by Somi
- “No One Knows,” by Asa
- The Lunchbox
- Babette’s Feast
- Jiro Dreams of Sushi
- Julie & Julia
- Like Water for Chocolate
- The Hundred-Foot Journey
- The Cook, the Thief, His Wife & Her Lover