To travel, to consider myself a traveler, is something that is in my blood. I’m a first-generation Nigerian American who grew up in the South. My father immigrated to this country when he was in his 20s to attend university. There he met my mother. By nature, my people are nomadic. For generations upon generations, my ancestors didn’t call one place home. They traveled and moved and roamed, whether by choice or survival instinct. And they lived and cried and ate.
All these years later, I find myself doing the same — looking to food as my salvation, a guiding light that may orient anywhere I may go. When I start planning a new trip, one of the first things I’m wondering about is the food, and subsequently, the restaurants I must try. What dining experiences will leave me joy and fond reflections for years to come?
During the summer of 2018 when I was dead set on filling my summer months traveling through Europe, I planned my time in Lyon, France specifically around where I could dine. Weeks prior, I’d already spent time in my beloved Madrid chomping tacos from my favorite taqueria and devouring cuts of steak at the Argentinian churrascaria I’d discovered when living there teaching English in 2013. Paris is, well, Paris — with its pricey al fresco bistros as the people next to you take drag after drag on their cigarettes.
But Lyon? I’d researched the old school bouchon and was hungry to dine at one. It seemed to me I could get a glimpse into the past that Lyonnais were trying to preserve as the novelty appealed less and less to diners.
Though my attempts to eat there were numerous, including finally realizing I needed to make a reservation at least 24 hours in advance, there I sat one evening with only my own company ready to feast on a set menu. I started with a glass of wine and quickly found several platters of food joined me: a lentil salad mixed with mayonnaise, an assortment of French cheese some stinkier and creamier than others, boar terrine and a Lyonnaise salad, so beloved with the chunky and crispy pieces of pork belly, boiled egg and crouton that, all these years later, I often replicate it at home. My entree was stewed pork cheeks served alongside boiled potatoes covered in butter and chives. I audibly moaned when I took the first bite, causing the other diners to look on with nervousness and discomfort. No regrets — it really was that great of a meal from beginning to end.
And two years ago when I finally traveled to Lagos for the first time, one of the first meals I had was jollof and fried plantain. I marveled over what was in front of me, that I was actually here in the flesh instead of distantly dreaming of what this experience would be like. The sun set in the distance as the muggy heat enveloped my body. I felt at home, but I also felt very far away from home, too. Far away from myself. But the taste of jollof and plantain were like everything else I’d eaten my entire life. Was it possible to feel conflicted over where I belonged after eating something so good?
Each plate in these restaurants I’ve dined in around the world—whether in my ancestral homeland of Nigeria or in Lyon — is not simply an act of satisfaction, pleasure, and consolation. That plate, when placed in front of me with dignity and pride, represents so much more. Each plate is like an assemblage of questions competing for my attention, willing me to know how each ingredient had to journey far to even get there in the first place. I take these many questions that arrive with each flick of the fork, each morsel that massages and thrashes against my tongue as an honor. I’m being asked to journey deeper, farther, than I have already come when I stepped foot on that plane. I’ve been entrusted to do so as a steward of the stories and meanings these dishes and experiences would like to tell.
These plates, with each portion of the meal, beg me to read more, learn more, research more. They urge me to then share what I’ve learned with others. To pass it on and not be a hoarder of knowledge and insight. As I’m a writer, this often means these bursts of inspiration make it into my work. Or they inspire other pieces. Or other trips to be taken to relive the magic of what restaurants have come to mean to me while seeing the world.
There’s a moment before my departure for each trip where I can’t sleep. The night before, I toss and turn in bed, making a mess of my sheets and silently ticking off items I must not forget. I always forget something though. And to calm my nerves that are awash with anxiety and anticipation, I look toward those moments. Where I’m alone in a dining room with so many others, immersed in eating and what those moments will reveal to me later on.
This knowing is enough for me to finally turn over in bed and drift off to sleep.
Nneka M. Okona is a journalist living in Atlanta.
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