My mother looked around the room, pausing to watch my siblings eat. Glancing over at me, she asked “Why are you all eating like peasants?” Everyone stopped. My siblings and I darted our eyes around the room until the lot fell to me to ask since it was my house.
“How do you mean?” I speared a pod of green beans with my fork and transferred it to my mouth.
“You’re all eating your meat last, as if it’s a precious thing. Like peasants. Why are you doing that?” I took my time before replying, after all, she must have been joking.
“You taught us to eat like this, remember? You used to beat us if you caught us touching our meat first.” My mother laughed. My siblings flashed worried eyes at me.
“Yes but that was when you were little. Don’t tell me you’re all still doing that now?”
I groaned. Now she tells me. After I had almost caused an international debacle at an oyibo friend’s house.
It was Christmas 2005 and my friend didn’t want me to spend the day alone so she invited me to lunch at her parents’ house. Her parents were lovely and warm and Scottish. Her father carved the moist turkey while her mother dished up the mashed potatoes and vegetables.
“This is lovely, ma’m,” I said shoving forkfuls of the creamy mash into my mouth. I sipped my wine and joined in the conversation. I soon observed that my friend’s mother had stopped talking. She was looking at me, her dual-coloured eyes intense with concentration.
“Is your food alright?” she asked eventually.
“Yes, thank you,” I replied, eating some more carrots and smiling to show how delicious the food was. She smiled and nodded. My host asked questions about Nigeria and we went back to our conversation. I noticed my hostess looking at me again.
“Are you sure everything is fine with your food? Would you like something else?” She asked. I wondered, was she an inexperienced cook? Everything on my plate attested to her expertise. And even if she wasn’t a good cook, I would have chewed my wineglass before I mentioned it. I ate some more potatoes, drank some more wine and smiled broadly to show just how much I was enjoying myself.
“Is the turkey not to your liking?” My friend asked. She was on my Communications course at Uni and knew that as a Nigerian, we tended to be more direct. She knew I couldn’t hear what exactly her mother was asking me. I felt my face heat up.
“Oh sorry!” I cut into the meat, feeling as if I was going to receive a slap from my mother, and chewed it. “The turkey is really succulent, thank you. I do apologise for that. It’s just where I come from, we eat the meat last. It used to be a luxury item in the old days, see?” There was silence at the dinner table. I could see that they wanted me to continue. “Only hunters and priests could afford to be surrounded by meat all the time. Children were rarely given meat and when they were, they had to eat it last to show they were not greedy and so likely to steal or compromise themselves to get those things. I guess, my mother brought us up the same way even though things have changed since then.”
“How fascinating,” my hostess said. I could see she was more relaxed. “Is it just meat or does it apply to other things?”
“Meat and eggs…”
“It seems to me that this was mostly foods high in protein?” My friend’s father piped up. He was a medical doctor and tried to find a scientific reason behind this. Conversation resumed and I sighed in relief.
I looked down at my plate and thanked God that the turkey was a slice of meat; there were no bones to crunch.
That might have made for a whole other kind of conversation.