They must be heavy…

High Heeled Fork

Victor Akan, who lived two doors away from us at the Sacramento Estate in Calabar, walked into the cluttered room of my thoughts one lazy afternoon. With impeccable timing, he came through the door adjoining my back-anteroom and kitchen and waded into the puddle of questions seeping out of my head. He instinctively leaned crosslegged against the kitchen counter near the window… I imagine he was in transit to the living room and his body was prompting him not to take a chair. He never made it to the living room. I waived the how are yous and the small talk…

“What is it about Calabar women Victor? You know what I mean… What is the power that Ekaete wields over men. That standard suggestion — you know the one — that the whole and entire matter is sexual?”

I had been thinking about Ekaete as a supernatural legend. She is the Calabar woman (and by ‘Calabar’ I mean any woman from Cross River or Akwa Ibom): she is universally irresistible, culinarily skilled, sexually talented, stunningly sheabutterskinned, adoringly hirsute, unapologetically feminine and coyly subservient. Every man alive, whether breathing regularly or on his very last breath…is elementally programmed to gravitate towards this exquisite combination of virtues. The myth improves with the stirring- if it is your man Ekaete wants, don’t argue, don’t fight. Don’t pout. Just look for silk ribbons and gold wrapping paper, a big box, do a virtuoso job of gift-wrapping the fellow. Hand him over. Do so with a good attitude. Say thank you to Ekaete for thinking your man worthy of wanting. For tangentially acknowledging your eye for good things.

Ekaete has been to “The Fattening Room”. It’s not a room at all. More an institution of secret — and not so secret — how tos. Ekaete is many rungs above the Yoruba woman that is called Sokoyokoto. Sokoyokoto is the Yoruba woman who stuns her husband with her cooking. The expanse of his pleasure can be heard in the moistness of the word ‘yokoto’. Her rating for every meal is 100 percent. And yet Ekaete manages to beat his glowing appraisal of Sokoyokoto.

Ekaete’s soups make men in general weep with inexpressible emotion. Ekaete graduated from the school of man-handling with A+ in all courses. You have retrospectively lost in the unfortunate collision or competition with Ekaete. Keep your dignity. Nothing worse than a hubristic loser except for the sore loser.

Victor interrupted my thoughts by laughing hard. Loud enough to send his frisson of laughter fluttering around the room and out through the kitchen window.

He said, “…At least it isn’t concentratedly sexual in the way people want to believe. Ekaete’s real power is not so much erotic as it is in her attention to detail…Yes in her food and her cooking, but there’s much more. Yemisi have you heard about why a meal needs to be served in two distinct dishes? In two dishes at least?”

“When you are serving special guests?” I suggest.

“Serving anyone. Serving a little boy. Serving a man.”

“From when I was a little boy,” Victor said “My mother served my swallow in one bowl and my soup in another bowl, and so I understand that this is the way it should be done.”

“I eat all my food — my garri and my soup, in one banged up, chipped, old bowl.” I said to Victor “If you place it down, you can hear the table smacking its bottom; the sound rattling through the thousand cracks in the bowl. It can fall apart at any point in time.”

Victor laughed again, unfazed by my cynicism. “My mother knew how everyone liked their food served. She understood every placement, whether meat and soup or fork and knife. She knew the exact amount of garri that you ate. She never ever served a general plate. And she served the food herself. The serving of the food was subliminally a discussion of how you were esteemed….This is the kind of attention to detail that I mean, and this is the seduction. Some people you will notice when their food is served — swallow in one bowl, soup and meat in the other- they will wash their hands and move the pieces of meat to the same bowl as the swallow. Out of the working space of fingers in soup. There is that kind of adjustment that if you lived in my house, my mother took the initiative and arranged the plate the way you liked before it reached the table. You felt special. Simple as that.”

I realised my mouth was hanging open, not because Victor was saying something inconceivable or novel or groundbreaking but because I had never heard it put quite like that: that there was a language of two bowls; that the personal arrangement of every part of the meal in those bowls spoke to the person who owned the meal. That the language spoken negotiated the person’s relevance. The simplicity of that kind of seduction — the seduction that was scattershot, yet personal, that hit everyone in the room regardless of sex was infuriating. Infuriating because it was too easy. Yet it was more enduring, more sophisticated than that thing between a man and woman. Victor explained that the Calabar woman was trained to put her finger on the pulse of that simple language, that fundamental idea, and apply deep pressure to it.

“You sat at a table, and a woman put two clean bowls in front of you. The mound of garri sculpted to a perfect sphere, shined with a glaze of water, the soup typically Cross Riverian, with a little bit of everything in it, steaming hot, the steam right under your nose and rising up through your nostrils into your head… periwinkles, dry fish, smoked fish, beef, stockfish, pomo. There would be a third bowl for washing your hands. A napkin dried outside to a crispness only sunshine can provide — the napkin would be under the hand washing bowl…”

As he spoke them, Victor’s words opened a door and reminded me of the consolation of a high heeled fork. When I was a child, I had a red chair at my paternal grandparents’ home, because I spilled my food on the good chairs, on the tablecloth and all over the floor. My chair was an extra chair, one that was kept against the wall of the dining area when it wasn’t in use. Its deep-red seat graciously absorbed food stains that spread and wouldn’t budge with sponging when they landed on the fair-faced seats of the proper chairs. I had to have a napkin tied round my neck to protect my clothes.

I didn’t of course like nor want the red chair. I didn’t want the napkin round my neck. My smug older brother had a proper dinner chair and he was only two years older. Maybe at the worst, he had a cushion to raise him up. I felt clumsy and babyish. I was. I could have agreed to the smaller fork or the dessert fork. But without the adult fork — a high heeled fork — the delicious melting butter on the bread of my self-esteem-would be missing. An adult dining fork was a sexy, heavy lustrous foot with a high instep, with a suave curve in the small of its back. Its quiff was in the air and its tines were bronzed from immersion in hot food. The rest of the fork was faded gold. For sure it was too heavy for my hand and I held its neck in my fist rather than its waist between my thumb, index and middle finger. I swept the fork across the expanse of the plate and pushed the food everywhere. It was a disgusting business, but never mind. I had an adult fork. A high-heeled fork.

Till today, if I am the very last guest arriving unpardonably late at a dinner party and I am given an extra chair and a light weight fork, I will forgive the extra chair, the plastic chair, the garden chair, the chair with one short leg… but never will I forgive the fact that I am given the cheapest fork in the house. Everybody in the catchment area must have a fork like mine…or else.

I have understood since I was a child the language that a fork, glass, bowl speaks to the brain and the heart — the crystal cut drinking glass reflecting light; the brocade cloth napkin; the knife with a faux bone handle; the gold plated lip of a vintage bone-china teacup. The plate that you were denied that got set out for your parent’s special guest.

I spent an hour in a teashop called Jasmine Tea Mill on the main road of Somerset West, Western Cape, talking to its owner Raymond Chen about special teacups that absorb the brewed tea into tracks in the clay and must therefore be used only for one kind of tea. If a Chinese man came to your house and you gave him the teacup with veins of tea tracks running through the thousand cracks in the bowl he would be most honoured. A Nigerian on the other hand might wonder why you gave him the oldest, smallest most disfigured teacup in the house.

It made sense to me and I was subliminally aware that nine-tenths of Ekaete’s magic has to do with the everyday denominator of food. I had stumbled on the oyinbo relationship coach on Facebook who admitted that something a woman did in the kitchen moved him to tears.

“A kitchen is a very seductive place for a woman to be…The first time a woman prepared something for me after I ended my marriage, I actually got teary. I realised in 20 years, I’d never been made a meal with love. There’s a difference between food made to feed you or impress you and food made with love…that simple salad made with genuine affection moved me deeply.”

I just never realised that crockery spoke so loudly to sound minds, not only to the kind fixated on heavy forks… and that men (especially) heard the words and were so effortlessly seduced by women willing to be simple enough to speak the language of two bowls. Ekaete agreed to put your husband’s fufu and soup into two clean bowls and he moved out of the bedroom and eventually your house.

Who would have thought it possible?