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She Lost Her Dad to Cancer. Plantain Helped Say Goodbye.

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The power of plantain.

The Food+Grief Project is a special feature of Unpeeled Journal, where we publish writing, recipes, and resources exploring the connections between food and loss.

This month, we are pleased to share the following contribution by writer and professor Jessica Kehinde Ngo, a Food + Grief essay about losing her father to cancer, and how plantain helped her say goodbye and connect to her father in her grief. 

I especially love the powerful format Jessica chose for this piece. The text messages between Jessica and her dad create a closeness with the reader, and reminds us that in grief, the little things — a quick text message, a simple dish — are so very, very big. Thank you, Jessica, for sharing your beautiful story of food and grief.  

–Lisa Ruland, Editor (March 2023)

Jessica Ngo Food + Grief Project
Jessica and her father. Illustration by Sarah Akinterinwa.

Jessica Kehinde Ngo’s Story of Food + Grief

“Mommy goes to the other room to tell Daddy I made his famous plantain scramble, but by then he’s no longer eating solid foods. He doesn’t join us.”

In 2019, my father, a Nigerian immigrant who lived in California the last 50 years of his life—was diagnosed with inoperable cancer. He informed my siblings and me — who were all in our 30s — via a text message in our family group chat. Over the next three years, he sent periodic follow-up text messages to update us.

During this time, in what I now realize is no mere coincidence, I began exploring my Nigerian roots by writing about the one food my dad regularly prepared for us when I was a kid that I’ve always seen as my connection to him and to Nigeria: plantain.

In the story below, which transpires over the final six months of my father’s life, I interwove excerpts from emails and text messages with a larger narrative to show how plantain was a part of my goodbye and is a part of my grieving.

-Jessica Kehinde Ngo

February 17, 2022 @10:26 AM Pacific [Text Message]

Me: Hi Daddy! Do you recall if you use a different word in Yoruba for plantain vs. banana? Or do you use the same word for both? No worries if you don’t know!

February 17, 2022 @11:43 AM Pacific [Text Message]

Daddy: Banana is ogede. Plantain is agbagba. It’s a mouth full.

February 17, 2022 @12:50 PM Pacific [Text Message]

Me: Okay, thanks Daddy!

June 15, 2022  @7:22 AM Pacific [Email]

Dear Jessica Kehinde Ngo,

Thank you once again for sharing your essay with us and for carrying out the edits promptly. We appreciate your commitment to validating the arguments in your essay, and we are pleased with the finished product. Your essay, “A Quarter Nigerian, but Fully Plantain: The Roots of My Plantain Obsession” has been published in The Republic.

June 15, 2022 @7:23 AM Pacific 

I begin drafting a text message to the family group chat to share a link to the published article, but then delete it, realizing that Daddy – a lifelong reader – isn’t reading much anymore, as his energy has decreased significantly and he naps most of the day.

June 15, 2022 @12:51 PM Pacific 

I load my boys – six years and one year old – into my Nissan Murano and traverse 110 miles through traffic, hills, and a series of drastic temperature changes from crowded Los Angeles into the polluted air of my Central California hometown of Bakersfield.

June 16, 2022 @8:39 AM Pacific

Mommy, my boys (heightened by stepping stools) and I stand around the gray and white marble counter in the kitchen of my childhood home, preparing the batter for a batch of chocolate chip muffins. Meanwhile, Daddy – who doesn’t have enough strength to concoct his famous fried plantain scramble and is no longer able to digest heavy meals – cooks a plain omelet for himself on the stove behind us. His gait and gestures – once rapid fire – are slowed, but his constant grins and jokes remain.

July 1, 2022 @10:01 PM Pacific

My husband and I are packing for a three-week family trip to France, where he is from. I tell him I’m nervous to be so far away from my dad right now. He says he has the same fear, as his father, who lives in San Francisco, is also battling cancer, for the second time. But my mother-in-law has not met our youngest son, nor have we seen my brother- and sister-in-law since before Covid. It’s a trip we know we have to take.

July 3, 2022 @11:00 Central European Time

Our plane touches ground at Orly Airport in Paris. When we finally get to my mother-in-law’s house, I connect my phone to wifi and see a text message from my twin sister. 

Daddy is in the hospital. He said to tell you to enjoy your trip, and that he’s not going anywhere, it reads.

July 3, 2022 @21:16 Central European Time

I receive an email via my author website with a subject that simply says “Plantain.” The email reads:

That they, too, are made of Plantains…. That was such a profound wrap to an article I found quite poignant. Thank you for sharing that insight. Self-reflection is not always an art/a skill everyone can do but when it is done and presented to the world, it gives pause.”

The reader is referencing the final sentences of my recently published story, which states, “My future grandchildren and great-grandchildren may have even less Nigerian blood than my sons. Regardless, I will do everything in my power to make sure they know that they, too, are made of plantain.”

July 18, 2022 @01:12 Central European Time

While I’m in France, Daddy’s little sister, my Aunt Gbemi, who still resides in their homeland of Nigeria, arrives in Bakersfield to visit him.

My sister texts me, I heard Daddy tell Aunt Gbemi that you write about food as a means to understand your culture.

July 24, 2022 @3:54 PM Pacific 

Back in the States, we wait impatiently in Los Angeles for a few days to get negative Covid tests before heading to Bakersfield. Mommy warns me via text message that she believes Daddy only has weeks, if not days, left. I worry I won’t make it on time, but we finally get cleared.

I load the boys and our luggage into the Murano and make the 110 mile trek home.

July 30, 2022 @2:52 PM Pacific

I enter my parents’ kitchen to find three ripening plantains on the counter. Mommy walks in.

Me: Why are these here?

Mommy: I bought them for you to fry. I don’t know how.

July 31, 2022 @8:01 AM Pacific

I peel the browning skin off the plantains and chop them into quarter-inch diagonal slices. I gently slide the slices into a large frying pan full of bubbling hot vegetable oil. While the fruit fries, I crack and beat eight eggs and dice half a purple onion. I drain the oil off the plantain slices and then slide them back into the frying pan, covering them with the eggs and onions, sprinkling salt, pepper, and Lawry’s Seasoning Salt over everything, and then cooking on medium heat for several minutes, flipping and stirring a few times, until everything looks and smells ready to eat.

Mommy goes to the other room to tell Daddy I made his famous plantain scramble, but by then he’s no longer eating solid foods. He doesn’t join us.

August 1 – 5, 2022 – All Day

My siblings and their kids enter the house and we wait, none of us wanting to be too far away. We enter Daddy’s room, stand beside his bed. Even as he loses the ability to talk to us, we talk to him. Sing to him. Play him gospel music. His charcoal-colored body appears angelic and peaceful atop the white bedding.

He’s dissolving gracefully back into the Earth, I think to myself.

August 5, 2022 @11:31 AM Pacific

My sister and I take our kids to my aunt’s house to get our minds on something else besides our father’s impending departure. While the kids paint with watercolors, a text message comes in from Mommy.

Your father has passed, it reads.

August 12, 2022 @8:03 AM Pacific [Email]

Dear Jessica (if I may),

My colleague and I would love to invite you to speak to a course we are giving this fall at Lehman College in the Bronx on bananas. It is a course in collaboration with the New York Botanical Garden. We very much enjoy your writing on plantains and it has helped shape our thinking for this course. We would love to have you as an in person or virtual guest speaker. The course meets Thursday afternoons. If this seems like it might be of interest, please let me know.

Forevermore

I re-read and re-read your text message. 

Plantain is agbagba. It’s a mouth full, you wrote. 

I fry plantain. I write about plantain. I eat plantain. And in those moments, I feel full.

Read more and get Jessica’s family recipe for plantain scramble.

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