I’m sitting in the back of the car, in front of me my mother and father are arguing about something. They’re always arguing. It’s a pretty warm day, and I would kill to be spending it outside in the sun. Instead, I’m trapped in car on pilgrimage to Houston. What’s in Houston, I ask my mom and dad. It takes a while for them to hear me through the loud Liberian music playing in the background. The drums and the claps in the song seem to match the bumps on the highway. Each one making me wish I was at home a little bit more. My mom says we are going to buy fish. Fish, I mean are we really driving hours out of our way JUST to buy fish? Why can’t we just buy it at Wal-Mart or Kroger? My mom tells me we are going to a specific place to buy salmon in bulk. I think it’s weird, but I shrug it off. I mean, my parents are always doing something weird. I guess it really isn’t, weird. Just different I guess; foreign.
I mean we are different, we aren’t American.
After what feels like a lifetime, we finally make it to the fish-shop. Even though I’ve spent hours complaining, I stay in the car. The fish-shop is an old yellow shack with palm trees hiding the entirety of the building. Outside I see Latino, Middle Eastern, Asian, and African faces. In fact, I don’t remember actually seeing a single European face. My mom and dad disappear in the store. I sit for what feels like a long time. Thinking back, I guess it couldn’t have been that long. Twenty minutes max. Anyways, when they come back to the car, they have two boxes full of the pinkest salmon I’ve ever seen. The cold dead faces of the salmon mirrored my bored expression. After loading them in the car, we depart. Our pilgrimage is over, we are going home.
On the car ride home, I doze in and out of sleep; the Liberian music nursing me to bed like a lullaby. We pull up to our apartment complex; I step out of the car. I’d been in the car for about nine hours, and my legs felt like Jell-O. My dad unloads and carries the boxes of fish inside, my mother beside him; I’m dragging my feet behind them. We live on the third floor, and I’m not looking forward to the climb. We pass my downstairs neighbor’s apartment, they’re door is open. They’re a Middle Eastern family, I don’t know exactly where from. I hear them listening to Bollywood films every once and while. I like to skip and dance outside their door when I do. This time when I pass their door I take a glimpse inside. There are a handful of people sitting on the floor in a circle. The strong scent of spices hits my nose. I remember a pale girl in my class saying that Middle Eastern people smelled like Curry. I never really understood why that was a bad thing, I just remember her laughing when she told me. I wonder if that’s what they were eating Curry? I don’t know, but everyone looked very happy. Whatever they were eating must’ve been good. I probably was standing there for a long time, because a giggly little boy ran towards the front door, slamming it shut. And with a loud clank of the lock, I returned to my world; the world where I still had two more staircases to climb. My parents were already on the third floor, and I ran to catch up with them.
Almost immediately when we get inside, my mom begins preparing a meal. In our fridge we have the usual stuff, eggs, butter, cheese, milk, bagels, but we also have secret gems. Things my classmates could only dream of, and probably would make jokes about too. We have sugar cane, palm butter, cassava, fufu, plantain, and so much more. I liked to call them gems, because while to some they looked gross, I thought they were wonderful and tasty. Kind of like coal, before it’s polished. I knew its worth. In the corner of our kitchen sat a large box. In the box, sun dried fish, bitter-ball, and dozens of red and orange peppers. This stuff was a big deal, because my mom and dad had paid my aunt to ship it from Minnesota. My aunt had brought them back with her from her trip to Africa. I remember when the box arrived my parents were so happy. I remember thinking,” It’s just food, what’s so great about that?” What I didn’t realize was the importance of that shipped food. It took me many years to understand the significance.
My parents and I left Liberia during a bloody civil war. The war claimed the lives of roughly three million people, at the hands of corrupt political officials, tyrannical military leaders, and rebel soldiers. We were uprooted from the land our ancestors were born in, and forced to seek safety in a foreign land. My parents left everything behind; all of their, friends, family, material possessions, everything. So when they came to America, all they had was each other, a troublesome toddler, and their memories. The only tie they had to their former lives was their native food. Perhaps the only thing that could make them feel like they were back home.
My mom collected the cassava leaves, peppers, seasoning, and put them on the counter. She prepared the fish by stripping the scales, cleaning, and cutting the meat. When she’s done she throws them all in a pot, and for an hour and half, the smell of tasty soup taunts me. When it is all done, we sit at the table together; my mother sings as she fills our bowls. The song goes, “Sweet mother, I’ll never forget you. All the suffering, you suffered for me.” It’s a Liberian song, almost as old as I am. I hum along with her. Across from me, my father dives into his bowl. He closes his eyes, and smiles.
And at that moment, I knew that pilgrimage to Houston was about more than fish,
it was about a feeling.
I’m in my early-twenties now, and that memory is one of my favorites. I think that day I learned a lot about my culture, and the power of food. It does more than nourish us; it has the power to transport us to different times, and different places. As I’m getting older, I’m doing everything I can to learn how to prepare my native foods. There is no promise that I will step foot back in Africa, that I will marry a Liberian man, or my parents will survive to old age, and sit and eat with my children. It is my duty to maintain a relationship with the foods that shaped my childhood, so I can pass it down through generations. The cultural significance of my native food is an essential part of my existence as an immigrant in a foreign land. It’s what keeps me connected to my people, and tells my story. It enriches my soul, while filling my belly.
In 2016, the talk of appropriation and gentrification has become a pressing issue. Appropriation is the act of taking something without permission, while gentrification renovates something so it appeals to a different audience. Both of these touch how we look, speak, and even how we eat. People are becoming more aware of the damage that appropriation and gentrification can have especially on minority communities and cultures.
American immigration was at its peak in the late 1880’s. The influx of poor immigrants created areas that specified to ethnic backgrounds. China Town is one of the most famous of these ethnic towns. This form of ethnic gathering was a coping mechanism for minority groups that were ostracized by those who did not look like them. These communities were rich in culture, which was an essential part of their survival. In 2016, these communities still have an abundance of culture, but sadly still have many people living in poverty. They’re also facing the threat of gentrification. It has become a trend for wealthier people to seek out lower income communities, to have an authentic dining experience. As a result prices are raised, because restaurants understand outsiders are willing to pay more, simply because they have more. This leaves those living in these areas struggling to afford the foods that they grew up on. To make matters worse, real-estate developers realize they can make a lot of money. So they buy cheap property, knock down older buildings and open expensive restaurants, right next door to the local taco stand or pho-shop. While it may appear urban renovations help these poor areas , they harm the community. Older authentic restaurants can no longer pay property taxes, and are eventually pushed out. Let’s make it clear, these developers see these areas as a cash-crop. They often do not care about who lives in these neighborhoods.
Food-gentrification takes their homes and businesses, while appropriation steals their culture.
As a black woman in America, I’ve seen what appropriation looks like in fashion and music. However as an African woman, I see less of it happening with my food. Often I find myself wondering how I would feel if African restaurants were as a popular as Asian, Middle Eastern, or Latino. I think about how bothersome it would be to see my salmon, red and orange pepper soup sold at gentrified restaurant. The soup watered down to suit the tongues of those not raised on hot peppers, or prepared by hands that didn’t look like mine. I imagine how annoying it would be every time I turned a street corner and found someone trying to sell me fried plantains and fried fish, but without knowing what spices tasted best on them.
Food is for everyone.
The problem isn’t that people of different races and cultures are preparing foods, it’s that somewhere along the way the cultural significance is lost, and traded for profit. The stories attached to these dishes are muted, and instead the sound of cashiers opening echo loudly. It’s important to remember ethnic foods weren’t always loved. In some cases ethnic food was a direct representation of what it meant to be different in America. A final stand in a land that wants foreigners to assimilate desperately. I think about the Indian man making curry that has probably been teased about the way spices linger on his clothing. The taco vendor selling food to help their kids through school, all the while being looked down on by wealthier people walking the street. The Asian woman making noodles by scratch, while customers make snarky jokes about how hard it is to understand her speaking. Food is struggle, emotion, life. When hip-restaurants make ethnic foods, change their names, and slap a logo on them they are taking a piece of someone else’s culture, erasing their story, and claiming it as their own without offering understanding or respect.
Mostly when I see corporate restaurants selling ethnic food in ethnic neighborhoods, I think about how there might have been a small authentic restaurant that used to be there. I think about the family that might have owned it, and how they all sat around a table laughing, crying, smiling, and bonding. I think about how their food was a part of their DNA, their pride and joy. I think about how it belongs to someone else now. Someone who doesn’t understand the power of what they sell. Then I think of my family, and our struggle in America. I think about how dinner time was our time. Our food allowing us to celebrate and mourn one spoonful a time. I think about how one day my children will learn how to make pepper soup, and they will know what that trip to Houston taught me.
Lastly, I close my eyes, hum my mother’s song, and see my dad’s face smiling back at me.