PEPPER JOLLOF

Hot Pepper Sauce

Somewhere in Chicago, he sat staring at the feast before him. His host had called them all by name. Of course there was an over-sized roast turkey, mashed potatoes, macaroni and cheese, a salad, Pumpkin Soup with Chili Cran-Apple Relish, what looked like bread but she called biscuits, and pecan pie for desert. The dining room was beautiful, with the chandelier hanging low, almost touching the belly of the bronzed Turkey that lay in a dish of purple lettuce. The table looked like an antique piece of furniture; it was quite huge, taking 8 matching chairs around it. There were just five of them; His roommate Troy with his parents and a younger sister who couldn’t stop staring at Nii. Troy’s father was as quiet as he was, his sister, Mandy was openly curious about their visitor yet said nothing beyond a “pleased to meet you”. It was the woman of the house who carried all the energy in the room, singing her praises as she laid the table and described each dish to Nii, what went into it, how long it took to cook, how delicately it had to be cooked, etc.

“I pride myself in cooking”

she had said in her funny accent.

“Mom’s the best cook ever!”

Mandy had added, beaming, and the men joined in what could pass as laughter.  Nii offered a smile and settled in the seat he was offered, to the right of Christina, the cook of the year. Everything looked good he couldn’t help but praise. He even took a picture of it, by permission, which was eagerly granted. He nodded each step of the way as his plate was filled with a generous helping of all there was. He bent over his plate and closed his eyes. There was an awkward silence as he whispered his prayers. When he lifted his head Christina shouted Amen, and the others mumbled inaudible Amens as they each picked up their cutlery and dug in, moaning with pleasure at each first bite. Christina glowed.

Nii forked some turkey, stuffed it into his mouth and suddenly wished he was back home in Ghana. It tasted like cardboard and he had no idea what to say

“This is so moist!”

he lied through the mouthful, and nervous laughter broke out around the table.

“It is!”

Troy agreed. The room fell silent. The noise from the stainless steel cutlery against the expensive ceramics was all that could be heard. Everything tasted bland and Nii tried to control the nausea that threatened to have him keeling over the porcelain sink in the corner of the room. Nothing had pepper in it. It was creamy, sweet, but not spicy. He thought of his sister, Oboshie and his throat constricted. How many times had he fought with her over her food; that the pepper was too much. Everytime! Their parents had both died when she was still young. She had become more of a daughter to him though they were just seven years apart. He had seen her through school, delaying his for a while. The scholarship that had landed him in the white man’s land pursuing his degree had been a miracle. Oboshie had idolized him ever since he assumed the role of ‘man-of- the-house’. The first few months had Nii constantly swearing in the bathroom. The pepper never lost its heat after going through digestion. His tongue had gradually gotten used to it, but his stomach still had a lot to learn. How often they had fought about the pepper! Now he craved it so violently he wanted to cry. He pushed his chair back and stood, smiling.

“I just remembered I have to call home. Please excuse me.”

He said and walked out to the patio.

“Hello”

A deep female voice answered,

“Oboshie?”

“Broda?!”

Nii sighed and nodded as if she could see him from across the Atlantic. She burst out in gleeful sounds.

“Broooodaaa! Mishwe bo!”

She was screaming into the mouthpiece and Nii held his cell away from his ear as the tears fell.

“I miss you too. Te tɛn?”

“I’m fine, I’m fine. You know I was just thinking about you…”

Nii still had the phone inches away from his ear as his sister yelled through her recount of what had happened since the last time he called. Soon he was laughing heartily, surprised how much he missed home. After about 10 minute of endless talking, she took a deep breath and laughed too.

“Oboshie”

He called

“Yes, Broda.”

She sounded like she had something in her mouth. Nii paused.

“Are you eating?”

She giggled and he knew she was nodding at her end.

“What are you eating?”

She sucked air through her mouth and replied.

“Pepper Jollof o”

And burst out laughing again. That was how they had both called it since Nii had always said Pepper was her main ingredient.

I’m a Ga woman, what do you expect?

She had always protested.

Nii willed himself to wrap up the conversation, bidding her good night. He almost shed tears again as he pressed down on the red button.

He composed himself and went back in.

“Ah! Just in time for sharing what you’re thankful for.”

Nii sat and spooned mashed potatoes into his mouth. He swallowed, gave a nod and smiled. All eyes were on him. He lowered the spoon, cleared his throat;

“I’m thankful for my sister. She’s a good cook too.”

His voice broke slightly and the room fell silent again.

“I’m thankful for pepper.”

He added as if on second thought.

Troy’s father, John, who had not said more than 3 sentences all afternoon got up, walked into the kitchen and came back with a bottle in his hand. He poured the flaming red content over his last slice of Turkey and passed it to Nii as the others stared in curious silence. He took it and read the label. John looked up.

“I’m thankful for pepper too”

He said, and smiled.

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