September 16, 2019

Mom’s Kitchen

I remember Mom’s kitchen, the way it was 20 years ago. The space was not that much, only enough room to hold a medium sized refrigerator, an L-shaped counter top that held the stoves and fitted a small-sized aluminum sink where all household dishes were cleaned, lots of overhead shelves, a grinding machine that uses an installed sharp plates within its grinding box to chop and blend large quantities of food material, stone tablets for manual grinding, and a back door to a tightly packed pantry, built by Dad to hold all the extra kitchen essentials.  This kitchen space became the classroom for my life education, and when I reflect, I am surprised by how much I learned. Respect, loyalty, love, care for myself and others, patience, perseverance, diligence, hard work, name it, my mom taught me all without having to say anything, in her dingy, cramped 2-in-1 kitchen and pantry.

Blood leafy vegetable 

I may have been through school several times, but none of the education I have received has been as effective in teaching me life values as was my experience growing up slicing onions and washing dishes for Mom. I am a hard worker, I spend 60 hours every week doing what I do, but I learned all this way back. Mom instructed – chill the drinks, mop the floors, clean the sink, empty the trash, peel the yams, hand-grind the melon seeds, hand-blend the pepper and tomatoes, clean the dishes and dinner table, drop-off items to the family friend 3 miles away, and be back in time to pound the yams. You know how. Dad gets upset when dinner is not served at 6 pm. There were no electrical kitchen machines, so I think back about it now and shudder. What I must complain about today is nothing compared to what I went through in Mom’s kitchen, yet I did them all then cheerfully, sometimes singing along.

My first day in graduate school, the graduate coordinator remarked: “Here we judge students not only from their aptitude and grades, but by the complete and efficient use of all their senses. The ability to use your hands, smell and sight, while not losing track of all that’s going on around you, makes you successful in this field.” * I smiled to myself as I mastered my senses in Mom’s kitchen. I learned to smell the burning soup before it started burning, I knew the amount of salt I was adding by the way it felt between my thumb and index fingers, I could tell the meat was cooked just by looking at it. I remembered Mom making different meals without a cookbook nor recipe to follow, and whenever she repeated the dish, it always tasted exactly like the previous one–so tasty and delicious, I would always ask for more. She managed to pull off this feat with no measuring spoons nor cups, just by the efficient use of all her senses, just as my chemistry graduate counsellor encouraged me to do 20 years later.


Twenty years ago, I learned the power of healthy eating. Mom made everything fresh–no processing, no preservatives. We had a house garden where we grew tomatoes, peppers, several herbs and leafy greens like dandelions or wild lettuce, Amaranth (**efo tete), water leaf, basil leaf (**efinrin), bitter leaf (**ewuro), **amunututu, and a host of others. We would pick up quantities required for only one day, and leftovers are usually consumed the next morning for breakfast. I can comfortably say I never had any processed food while living at home. I did not even know what it meant at the time. Our meat was delivered by the butcher as per schedule, fresh from the slaughter house and we would prepare them as soon as they came in, with spices and herbs handpicked from the backyard garden. We had a chicken coop where we raised chickens from where we got a constant supply of fresh eggs. We would have a chicken dinner when we thought one of the chickens was of age and egg production has considerably slowed down. We would slaughter them ourselves, moisten them in boiling water, pluck their feathers, salt them to remove excess blood, and cut them ready for cooking. It was a delicate process with which every family member was part of, and these activities made our family time together even more enjoyable. For my home then, the idea was that it had to be fresh to be healthy, and for a very long time this was the practice.

Later in life, my parents decided to have a reduced meat-based diet, so we sought plant alternatives. Our religious beliefs must have played a role in this decision. As Adventists, we conformed to the Jewish dietary kashrut law and ate kosher foods. Adventists and Jews both believe only certain animals should be eaten and there are strict guidelines according to shechita laws for their slaughter. My parents, however, maintained that flesh was permitted for slaughter and human consumption only after the biblical flood, when all plants, seeds, and herbs had been destroyed by water, and as humans, our original diet must have been strictly plant-based. Mom later invented this delicious meat substitute purely from soybeans, and it tasted even better than regular meat. When my mom realized we all loved the soy meat as we affectionately called it then, she limited the meat deliveries to once a week. Afterwards we made lots of soy variations – soy pancakes, soy buns, soy bread, etc. You see, my Mom was a class apart when it comes to culinary skills, and she always found amazing ways to make our almost plant diet enjoyable. My parents’ diet now has little or no meat, except for the occasional special family get-together moments or when they must entertain guests, and its usually home-raised chicken, freshly slaughtered and cooked. To this day, in their quiet country home, they preserve their backyard garden, now a lot bigger as they work at it full time. During my last visit before finally moving to Canada, I remember getting bananas and pawpaws, a live chicken and fresh eggs, all from their backyard garden.


Today, food topics have become a mainstay in public attention and discourse. ‘You are what you eat’, we are constantly told. So, popular tags like organic, grass-fed, antibiotic-free, non-GMO, etc. have emerged on our food items. The eggs I buy are organic, free-range, grade A brown eggs raised exclusively from hens that live in an open-concept barn environment where they are free to roam, feed, and nest.’ I have to pay a premium for that fancy tag. The packing goes further to tell me the calories, sodium, and lipid content per egg – phew. My Mom does not know what GMO or lipid means, but she understands that adding chemicals – pesticides, antibiotics, preservatives, or whatever, to food items just messes them up, and messes you up when you consume them. She knew without being an expert on crop genetics that modifying food matter gives them a new identity, and it becomes unpredictable what they will do to the body or the body will do to them. She’s practiced organic consumption for decades before organic foods became so popular. She knows healthy eating can increase life expectancy, maybe that is why at over sixty years, she has enough vitality, freshness, and energy to pass for twenty years younger. And because I would like to have her kind of bubbling health when I get older, perhaps the biggest lesson I should take away from Mom’s kitchen is this – eating healthy means living healthy.

*paraphrased – exact phrase not remembered
**local Yoruba names – The Yoruba are a large national Nigerian group found especially in western/south-western Nigeria and they speak the ‘Yoruba’ language.

Olasunkanmi Olaoye
PhD Student Chemistry, University of Toronto
Guest Contributor, ECVOntario, SEDRD, University of Guelph

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