Loving and Dining in the Coal City

A national model of the Nigerian fast food restaurant is emerging. The exterior draws you in from the street with bright primary colours. Large display windows show off the pastel-coloured furniture inside. There are uniformed guards to hold the doors open, and aproned staff behind shiny displays. And the food is the same as well: moin-moin, a choice of ‘swallow’ with the standard soups, okra and egusi, with regional variations of ewedu, oha, or affang on one side and (as to pastry) meat and chicken pies, sausage rolls and the like.

It is evening in the coal city of Enugwu* and I have brought a keen appetite all the way from Asaba. My reading at the University of Nigeria’s Coscharis Lecture Theatre wraps up by 7pm. My students assure me that the nature of my appetite can only be sated by a certain Mama Onyinye’s restaurant, near IMT but it is late and I am hopeless with directions. The pedestrians I ask try to redirect me to their own favourite mama-puts and finally I give up. I give the car its nose and presently I find myself outside this fast food restaurant near my hotel at Independence Layout. There will be no surprises, I know. This culinary formula is replicated across the country from Sweet Sensation to Chicken Republic, but at least I will put my appetite to bed. I order a bog standard egusi and semolina, asserted by a fried croaker. They have to reheat it to bring it up to esophageal speed. I sit down to meal, and at this point I might just as well be on Allen Avenue in Lagos… or Nnebisi Road in Asaba… but suddenly, at last, I notice some true local variation.

It is in the people, not the food.

There are two single men here who are hungry and have simply come to eat, and I am one of them. For the rest, this restaurant appears to specialise in the young, romantic, couple, and something strikes me about the Enugwu couple right away. This lover pair walks in and makes a beeline to the counter where they place their order. They talk while the food is served and reheated. Then the young man drifts off to sit down. Tiring day at the coal mines, I think, as I watch them talk with their eyes while the lady waits for the food. Finally it is ready, and she carries both trays down to oga.

My egusi has thick coagulated clumps of chewy melon that make the eating of it a pleasant adventure. My croaker died a good death. It was fried, yes, but it takes skill to ruin a good fish, and this fish passes muster. It is all going down well, but then I was hungry, and – up to a point – a fierce hunger is forgiving of minor infractions of culinary skill. Another couple arrives. The young man is almost my height but less than half my age, which leaves him old enough certainly to know the norms of romance. The lass is winsome and… obliging, I think, for he places his order and sits and in due course she serves their orders of fried rice and fried chicken.

I look around. There were three more couples already eating and I have no idea how their food arrived at their tables, but already an Enugwu pattern is forming on the strength of a thirty-minute observation at a single restaurant. (How easy it is to stereotype.) I want to jump to conclusions of course, it is more exciting that way, but I really should test this hypothesis of mine one more time. Or two more times, for two couples enter almost at once. Voila. It is deja vu all over again: the gentlemen pay (of course) and the ladies serve.

As I finish my meal, a final couple enters. I have never seen a man fonder of his pot belly than this man: the pot in question is as firm and rotund as the gentleman is young and cheerful. He carries it with such pride, such swagger, that suddenly, I badly want a decent pot belly too. He reluctantly buttons his shirt over his handsomely vested paunch as they gain the counter. They order a takeaway and he pays. It is life-affirming to watch a couple in love. It is in the tender gestures, the ease of laughter, the excess goodwill they generate between themselves which they dispensed genially to the credit of a waitress who delays their order while she serves others… Their food arrives finally, and they leave together, he leading, she carrying the bag.

I have observed hundreds of couples in Lagos eateries without seeing a similar tableau. It is not much different from Accra to Nairobi, from Kampala to Abidjan. Our urban romantic formbook appears to be photocopied from a dated London and a single-storied Paris, and the gentlemen who do not carry their ladies’ trays are probably in serious trouble that night – although if the meals are heavy enough, the fair ones will deign to carry their own weight. Of course my conclusions must be hemmed in by the caveat that I have only observed a single Enugwu restaurant, (and that, mostly in a scientifically unreliable state of hunger). Even then I feel safe enough to debut my Enugwu Theory of Loving and Dining: although there is no evidence that the Enugwu man loves his lover less, as it is in their dining table, so it is in the restaurants of the coal city: she jealously sees to their food, in and out of their home.

*A note on my possibly disorienting use of ‘Enugwu’ in place of the more conventional Enugu in this travelogue: Won’t it be cool if the National Conference rises with a recommendation that all Nigerian place names revert to pre-amalgamation nomenclature? Enugwu means ‘A City on Top of the Hills’. Enugu means…I don’t know… ‘A City built on Ugu Vegetable Soup?’
Just being subversive here.

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