Author of Longthroat Memoirs: Soups, Sex and Nigerian Taste Buds, Yemisi Aribisala, believes there are numerous reasons we enjoy food, beyond ingredients and social conditioning: ‘things like memory of how we ate certain things in childhood and for so long that we want it just like that. Sometimes we attach a dish to a beloved parent or lover.’
First Draft is our interview column, featuring authors and other prominent figures on books, reading, and writing.
Our questions are italicized.
What kinds of food did you grow up eating or reading about?
I grew up eating quite basic fare-bread and margarine, or stolen butter (butter was really only bought because of my father); plenty of rice and fried plantains; fried plantains and stew it seemed on most afternoons after school; Okro cooked the brisk Yoruba way with potash served with freshly made stew and Eba; ‘Efo riro’, some special weekends with pounded yam made in the machine (because my father didn’t like people sweating into his food), or sprinkled Sundays in the month where we had fried rice and pork chops; meals with chicken and guinea fowls, beef etc. I was fascinated the first time I ate ‘Afang’ soup at a friend’s house. I couldn’t identify all the sophisticated points of flavour.
The 1976 version of Jeni Wright’s St Michael All Colour Cookery Book was my first real window outside our food at home. I was obsessed with the book and handled it till its covers fell off. Later, when I got to eat many of the things I had spent years salivating over, I was scandalized and wanted all my years of longing returned with interest.
If you could cook a meal from your childhood, which would it be, why and how would you cook it?
A meal from my childhood that I instinctively cook is rice and stew. My stew doesn’t have tomatoes in it as we did when I was young. Just blended sweet peppers, onions, leeks, scotch bonnets, stock, some mutton if I have it, and chicken. In London, I have access to Shiitakes and seaweed flakes, sea salt and some crushed dried curry leaves, which are simmered for quite a long time with a little palm oil.
The 1976 version of Jeni Wright’s ‘St Michael All Colour Cookery Book’ was my first real window outside our food at home.
What’s one way the pandemic has changed your reading tastes/habits?
The pandemic helped me return to physical books, something that had become a luxury because of taking care of my children and working. Before the pandemic, as much as I craved the space and time to sit and read, I was too busy or too tired. I read/skimmed online a lot, and you know that sneakily destroys your hard-earned reading powers. I also listened to audiobooks when I was doing housework. The pandemic forced the issue of stillness on me so that I could handle, linger, run my eyes slowly overprinted words. It felt so good.
What genre of books do you enjoy reading the most (and why)?
I am quite eclectic in my choice of reading, but these days I am always in the non-fiction aisle of the bookshop. To be truthful I have been there for a long time before now.
The pandemic helped me return to physical books, something that had become a luxury because of taking care of my children and working.
What’s the best book about food that you’ve ever read?
There are many books I can think of, but I will suggest Bee Wilson’s The Way We Eat Now: Strategies for Eating in a World of Change, and Ishay Govender-Ypma’s Curry: Stories and Recipes across South Africa.
What’s the last book you read that changed your mind about food?
The fascinating How to Feed a Dictator by Witold Szablowski!
What’s a common misconception about [African] food?
That there is something called ‘African food’ when there is in fact no such thing.
What made you decide to start writing about food?
I didn’t decide. I was asked to write a blog for 234Next and I agreed to do so. It wasn’t something that I had planned before the request.
What was your writing process while writing your book, Longthroat Memoirs?
Longthroat Memoirs was primarily written in two years and a few months worth of blog posts for the newspaper, 234Next. I wasn’t writing with a book in mind, and thank God because the self-consciousness would have sabotaged my writing. So I ended up at this point where I had a compilation of the published blog posts. I wrote an introduction and the introduction was of such a high standard, I decided to rewrite the posts. As a kind of subconscious rule, I am constantly editing even when I am writing. It is difficult to separate writing from editing for me, but then this is a distinct process from handing the work to an editor.
What surprised you the most about the public reception to Longthroat Memoirs?
The fact that the first printed copies of Longthroat Memoirs sold out very quickly, and people were then selling the remaining copies at exorbitant prices. This delicious piece of information came from friends desperate to buy copies, who bumped into interesting characters selling copies for twice the price from the back of their car.
‘Longthroat Memoirs’ was primarily written in two years and a few months worth of blog posts for the newspaper, 234Next.
What determines how we enjoy food? Is it the ingredients alone or cultural taste?
I believe the reasons we enjoy food are multifaceted. I find I have to be really hungry sometimes to attach a high review to the food on my plate. Then of course, things like memory of how we ate certain things in childhood and for so long that we want it just like that. Sometimes we attach a dish to a beloved parent or lover. Taste of course, and culture and good company and a myriad of so many other things.
Who is an author you wish you had discovered earlier?
There was no way of discovering Jenny Odell’s How to Do Nothing: Resisting the Attention Economy, any earlier than 2019, but perhaps I wish the book had been written in 2015 or 2016 at the peak of my anxieties about staying online and generating conversations and being and sounding clever.
The reasons we enjoy food are multifaceted. I find I have to be really hungry sometimes to attach a high review to the food on my plate.
What is your favourite topic to read about these days?
I try to read widely—National Geographic’s Pearl Harbour issue, every single thing I find on Frida Kahlo, I recently bought the book accompanying Ladi Kwali’s exhibition Body, Vessel Clay. I was food assessor for the Andre Simon Prize 2021, so I am still in the process of reading over 120 food books from all over the world. Last but not least I was given a copy of Okwiri Oduor’s Things They Lost. I’m in the process of cracking it open. So I suppose the answer is I read everything
What are you working on next?
I am presently illustrating a Karen King Aribisala children’s book
Question from Chef Michael Elegbede: What is one thing you love to eat and wish you could cook?
I wish I could cook Jollof rice like my sisters. For whatever reason, I just can’t.
Bonus: Please suggest a question for a future author’s First Draft.
What did you find you were most grateful for in the Pandemic years?⎈
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