“Do you call this African soup?” our landlord waffled as he snuffed over my bowl of goat meat, garlic, and imported pumpkin leaves.
“Southern dish,” I mused, thinking the word “Southern” might relate to my landlord’s North American upbringing.
On settling into my first apartment in Ottawa, I sensed that my distinctly “African food” would be the flashpoint. Our three white Canadian landlords’—who were co-owners of the ten-room apartment complex—main modus of eating was a daily serving of rumbled noodles, or Tim Horton’s coffee and Fruit Explosion muffin. They were matched against us: three African immigrants—all former refugees—who stirred a disarray of smells whilst stewing various turmeric porridges, oxtail, or Halal chicken feet.
In Sub-Saharan Africa, we simply don’t eat the “Canadian way,” no offense intended. Due to our upbringing, we insist on picking stuff from the garden, boiling, and cooking every meal thoroughly over a hot oven until the vegetables, beans, meat, bones or fish have almost disintegrated.
In our apartment kitchen, our landlords were firmly in charge of a kitchen where they rarely cooked. At first, derision sounded like compliments. One of the landlords would glide by with a cold coffee, dangle his Apple Watch, and circle eyes over my pot stewing on the stove. “African turmeric and beans—healthy stuff. My diabetic family should have tried this.” Another landlord would actually take a spoon and turn over my pumpkin leaves and casually inspect, as if in awe, and without permission.
Before I attempted to describe my recipe, they dashed to microwave their coffee, actually uninterested in my reply. It seemed they were only spying on our pots, frowning with disgust.
I overheard them grumble in the garden that they had tenants “over-cooking exotic Black dishes.” They burst into hoarse laughter over smokes in the garden saying, “I’d die first to eat like them.” In our apartment, African food divided residents into “them” (the Black immigrants) and “us” (the white landlords).
Our Sudanese pepper was too smelly and too smoky, so the fire alarm went off each time we tried to deep-fry goat meat. At last, one Saturday, we woke up at dawn to find a poster stuck to the door of my cupboard: “No more cooking that lasts forty minutes after 10 p.m.! Mind your spices, the smell especially!”
Our pots, mugs, and bowl-stirring sticks had been thrown into a brown rubbish box that never went to the weekly garbage collectors. From then on, the Africans tip-toed each morning, noon and evening whenever we cooked.
What I was particularly careful about was burning the contents of my pots by mistake and having the fire alarm go loud. It happened once when I forgot my stew of beans on the stove. I rushed as swift as I could downstairs to the kitchen to save the pot’s remains only to see one of my landlords already switching off the hot plates. I apologized profusely and he simply jeered, “Alright, I understand you come from Africa—not much electricity there.” We were careful not to re-offend our white landlords with our jaunty meat and porridge dishes, lest smells and smoke earned us a warning. Nevertheless, each morning we continued to fetch our pots from the rubbish box.
Finally, the exiling of our pots sparked a verbal tiff between a fellow Black tenant and a landlord. “You hate Black food, you got soft racism!” is the only phrase I heard while hurrying off from the confrontation. I was clueless whether to join the fray. I don’t like to throw the word “racism” up in the air too fast, too casually. Nevertheless, long-simmering food tensions had at last boiled over.
I have seen at close range how a kitchen in racially-mixed apartments can brew into hostility. One of my landlords actually went overboard and linked our body height to our “African food.” We are astonishingly short, we immigrants of African descent, he tells me. “You got to reduce cooking too much starch food, eat fiber, grow taller as Canadian,” he mocked me in the microwave queue.
If Black lives matter, Black food and Black cooks should be treated with dignity just as glossy gourmet magazines and TV channels trumpet white, Italian, Asian, American or French dishes.
Have you ever wondered why there is so little of a Black restaurant scene or investment in Canada or U.S. high streets? For example, in Toronto—one of the fastest growing food-hubs in North America—white chefs get most of the platitudes and kitchen investment. According to James Gregg, a veteran Black chef who opened Toronto’s Carib1, racism is clear when Black chefs seek out landlords to host their eateries.
“The false stigma is there… ‘we can’t be trusted,’ ‘we are not worthy,’” Gregg says in a ByBlacks.com article, The Business of Food; Why Black Restaurants Are Not Cashing In. “It sucks to think people view us that way. Racism is clearly still alive and well … Landlords downtown don’t want to rent to us. Everything starts out fine and then when you tell them what you want to do, they say they don’t want that kind of business. It will attract the wrong crowd.”
Wherever I rent an apartment, I have become hyper-sensitive to what I cook. Perhaps my food is too Black, too foreign. I censor myself each time I take to the kitchen.
In the Great White North, as Canada is colloquially known, some Black chefs and Black eaters are silenced by their very food. Whenever I am frying Jamaican peas soup and I am constantly reminded that “hardly anyone over here in Canada eats that,” you feel afraid of your very food. In multicultural Canada, whenever I step into a Caribbean or African native food shop, I still marvel on the odd chance when I see a white Canadian interested in shopping for African food. In my neighbourhood, that’s still a rare sight.