Ethnic food does more than just satisfy one’s stomach. It provides emotional comfort and a connection to home for many immigrants.
By Viktorija Rinkeviciute
A loud doorbell greets customers of the small African grocery shop on Georgia Avenue Northwest. It’s dark inside. Boxes of fruit are lined up on the ground, and shelves are jammed with jars and bags inscribed with foreign letters. There’s a dried skin of a goat on the top shelf, the fridge is full of goat meat, there’s plenty of dried fish in boxes nearby. The unusual smell would tickle a Westerner’s nose, but this is a smell of home for most African immigrants in D.C.
“There are a lot of Africans here who don’t like to use American products, because they are used to African products, no matter how long they have been here,” says Lillian Eziefula, the manager of the Pro Bono Tropical Food store. Special body lotions, soap, hair styling products, as well as African movies, are on display along with with ethnic food. All items sell well, says Eziefula.
Eziefula and her brother are originally from Nigeria. They opened the store five years ago. Before, the family had a liquor shop a couple of blocks up the avenue, but “it had some problems,” says Eziefula, including petty theft and dealing with drunk. “It’s just one thing after another, after some time you get fed up with it.”
When a previous owner decided to sell this grocery store, Eziefula and her brother saw an opportunity for a more peaceful business. Besides, says Eziefula, back in those days, the African community was very much in need of an ethnic food store.
“There were very few African stores around. When people came from Africa to study here, due to lack of African food, once they were done with their studies, they decided to go back home,” says Eziefula, who used to drive 15-20 miles to buy special Nigerian products herself.
Watch Lillian Eziefula show special products Nigerians cannot imagine their dinner without.
According to a Brookings Institute analysis, the Washington, D.C., metropolitan area is the major destination for African immigrants, most of who come from Ethiopia and Western Africa. Nigerians, Dominicans, Ethiopians and people from the Caribbeanmake up the majority of Georgia Avenue’s immigrant population.
For most African communities, food is more than than just a remedy from hunger. It has deeper meaning as a part of sacred ritual. Food experts say that for immigrant populations, ethnic food provides emotional comfort in an alien environment.
A mother’s embrace
War correspondent Anna Badkhen has just published a book, “Peace Meals: Candy-Wrapped Kalashnikovs and Other War Stories,” in which she tells stories of people in war-torn countries through food they shared. In extraordinary situations, Badkhen says, traditional food becomes like a mother’s embrace.
“When I travelled with American troops, food was very important to them. They were plugged into a middle of a war zone, far from home, in their 20s or 30s. Maybe it’s their first time away from home,” Badkhen says. “Having pizza or a burger, something that they have grown up with, was extraordinarily important for them. It really was a comfort zone.”
Badkhen, who is originally from Russia, says that the food people grow up with is of great importance to immigrants as well. Sometimes, a taste of home is the only familiar thing in a foreign environment. The author remembers, a couple of decades ago, seeing American people in Russia or Jordan who’d spend a fortune for a burger and fries.
“They’d find a place, a diner in Moscow … called Starlight Diner and they were serving basic diner food, but it was just twice as expensive as in America – $7 milkshakes, $8 burgers,” Badkhen says. She now lives in the United States and mostly craves pickled mushrooms and salted Russian herring that she’d have to clean herself.
Western food is glamorized
Ebele Ikezogwo, 28, from Nigeria knows exactly what Anna Badkhen means when she says traditional foods in crucial to immigrants.
“When I was a student in Massachusetts, I’d never been on a plane before, I’d never been to America. The only thing that connected me to Nigeria was basically eating foods that I was familiar with,” Ikezogwo says.
She has been living in the U.S. for 11 years, but Ikezogwo says she still hasn’t gotten used to American diet. “I had a very difficult time adjusting to American cuisine, it was very foreign and I developed anemia from not eating properly,” Ikezogwo says.
She also noticed that her generation of Nigerians does not take local food seriously. Instead, they prefer a “glamorized Western cuisine,” so Ikezogwo started a blog dedicated to changing this perception. She says that Africans have a very strong emotional connection to food which goes beyond just nourishment.
“Food has almost a spiritual meaning. When we have a naming ceremony, when a child is born, when woman gets pregnant and she delivers, when people die, there are very specific foods we believe have to be served at such occasions,“ says Ikezogwo. “A lot of foods we eat are ceremonial.”
Waking up the dead?
Back inside the Nigerian grocery shop, Eziefula is cutting stockfish into pieces for one of her customers. Business is going well, Eziefula says. However, the recession has had an impact – both her business, as people “are trying to save a nickel and dime,” and to Georgia Avenue itself.
“I could remember three to five years ago when you came to Georgia Avenue, there were a lot of people. People were moving around, hanging around,” Eziefula says. “A lot of shops were open, business thriving, but now things are no longer the way it used to be. Georgia is like a dead zone.”
Yet two blocks down from Eziefula’s shop, Maurice Grant, 48, opened another Afro-Caribbean grocery store recently.
“I saw that this kind of store was needed at this location and it’s been working quite well,” says Grant, originally from Jamaica. “Some people like their fresh fruit early in the morning and I open at 7 a.m., they can come in, get their fresh fruit and go to work.”
In his shop, Grant says, one can buy five bananas or three oranges for a dollar. “People like it like that I keep supplying them like that.”
He adds this was the best time to start a business, since Georgia Avenue has been revitalized in recent years.
“Most of the buildings are painted and renovated over. It will help the community, because a whole lot of businesses are opening up. And once a business opens, somebody is getting a job,” says Grant, who has lived in the neighborhood for 15 years.
Both Grant and Eziefula have different views on Georgia Avenue’s future. Eziefula says she doesn’t know what five years down the road will bring, but “things are not looking up at all.” Grant says the change the Avenue is undergoing is the best thing that could happen to the neighborhood in a decade.
There’s one thing, however, both business owners in Georgia agree on – African and Caribbean immigrants here will still be greeted by a loud doorbell and the smell of dried fish, and they’ll pick up their fresh fruit at 7 a.m.