The Sunday Magazine·Q&A

How food becomes the 'punctuation between all the talking' in Francesca Ekwuyasi's debut novel

Butter Honey Pig Bread tells the interwoven stories of three Nigerian women torn apart by a traumatic experience. Author Francesca Ekwuyasi speaks to The Sunday Magazine host Piya Chattopadhyay about the role of food in her novel and its significance in people’s relationships and lives.

Food, family, and forgiveness are at the heart of Butter Honey Pig Bread

Author Francesca Ekwuyasi was born in Lagos, Nigeria, and now lives in Halifax, N.S. (Monica Phung)

As the pandemic drags on, food has become a source of comfort for many.

For Nigerian-Canadian author Francesca Ekwuyasi, it's making zobo — a tea made with a very specific variety of hibiscus — the way her grandmother did when she was a child.

"It makes me think of home," Ekwuyasi told The Sunday Magazine host Piya Chattopadhyay from her home in Halifax. "It makes me think of a specific time in my childhood."

Like Ekwuyasi, the characters of her debut novel Butter Honey Pig Bread turn to food from their childhood to reconnect and comfort them through a difficult time.

Longlisted for the 2020 Giller Prize, the novel tells the interwoven stories of three Nigerian women — Kambirinachi and her twin daughters Taiye and Kehinde — torn apart by a traumatic experience.

Butter Honey Pig Bread is on the long-list for the 2020 Giller Prize. (Arsenal Pulp Press)

Years later when they reconnect, making food together fills in the silences that their words cannot and becomes a way for her characters to express love, longing, worry, regret and the desire for forgiveness.

Ekwuyasi spoke with Chattopadhyay about the role of food in her novel and its significance in people's relationships and lives.

Here is part of their conversation.

It's very hard for the twin sisters at the heart of your novel to communicate using words. Why is that?

For Taiye, the older twin, when they were born, she just tended to be more quiet. Her younger twin sister, Kehinde, would speak for her. But after they go through this traumatic thing and over a decade of being apart and not having much of a relationship, words are difficult because Taiye is still a quiet, shy person and the relationship with Kehinde is completely ruptured. So speaking feels difficult. That's why other things fill in — food or letters or Kehinde's husband — like a buffer between them sometimes.

In one of the scenes, Taiye cooks mosa [fried plantain balls] for Kehinde. I have never eaten mosa. Describe it to me — when you put all those ingredients together — the feeling, the taste, the flavours. What does it all bring together?

It's so delicious. It's deep fried. It's like these yeasty dough balls but [with] sweet plantains. It's less bready and slightly custard-y inside, like a perfect in-between of custard and bread. And there's a bit of salt. So it's sweet and salty. The outside is caramelized because it's a lot of plantain and the sugar caramelizes in the oil. It's one of my favourite things to eat.

The feast is an offering, but it's also something to create space between them and to distract them for a moment.- Francesca Ekwuyasi

What resonance does this dish have for Kehinde?

Kehinde suffered a pretty traumatic thing as a child. She was really frustrated, angry and hurt. So she would "act out." I say that in quotes because no one really acts out. There's a reason. And mosa was the only way to get her to eat or to do anything. In order to try and get her to get dressed for school or for church, her great-aunt and her nanny, would say things like, "How about if you do this, I'll give you mosa." That's the significance there. So as a last-minute decision, Taiye decides that's what they should make on the day that Kehinde comes back, just as a way to feel closeness with each other.

It's a part of a homecoming feast that Taiye is making, which includes jollof rice, smoked fish, curry chicken and a salted caramel chocolate cake. What is she trying to say with this food?

It's like a peace offering, but it's also a diversion because she doesn't want to talk about the letters she had written and didn't intend to send. She doesn't want to talk about just all the years that have gone by and the thing that happened to cause that rift between them. She just wants to have a nice time, which is not the most evolved thing to do. But this is where she starts. And as the book goes on, she attempts to be more honest. So the feast is an offering, but it's also something to create space between them and to distract them for a moment.

What foods have you been turning to during the lockdown and as the pandemic drags on for comfort to stay connected with home?

Recently I've been making zobo, which is a tea [with] hibiscus flowers. And not just [any] — I think it's a type of hibiscus. In different parts of the world, it's called different things. But here, it's called sorrel. I make it how my grandmother made it when I was growing up — boiled in water with cloves, ginger. The real recipe has dry ginger. But I use fresh ginger because I'm here. Citrus, either lime or lemon, and a bit of the rind. It's cooked out for a long time because that's just how my family made it. It's sweetened to your preference. I use honey, sometimes sugar.

It makes me think of home. Not just home, it makes me think of being a child, because my grandmother doesn't really make it anymore. She's quite old now. But it makes me think of a specific time in my childhood. I love sharing it with friends. One of my close friends here is Iranian. I made it for them and included cardamom in the recipe instead of cloves. I just wanted to be like, it's for my family. But it has a bit of cardamom. So maybe that makes [them] feel at home.

Why do you think we turn to food rather than just talking to each other?

I have recently been talking to friends about how most conflicts are just miscommunication. I don't know why we would do everything but talk, sometimes. I think for these characters, they were afraid that all the talking would just make things worse. They were afraid that it would be too much to hold at any given moment. And so it had to be passed out slowly. And food is like a punctuation between all the talking.

Q&A has been edited for length and clarity. Interview produced by Pauline Holdsworth

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