A Future in Food

Posted Wednesday, 01 August 2018

I grew up in the U.S. in the 1980s. When I was 10, a made-for-TV movie called The Day After premiered. This film told the story of a Midwestern American city recovering from a nuclear missile strike. With decades of testy relations between the U.S. and U.S.S.R., this fictional situation seemed not just possible, but likely.


The Day After was a very big deal. Our teacher spoke to us about it in advance, concerned that her students lacked the maturity to handle the themes. Deciding to allow kids to watch the movie was meant to be an individual decision each family would make, handled with the utmost care.


My parents should have known better but they were Indian immigrants and had different standards for what scary was. My mother fell into a well as a child and her cousins watched her flail until she almost drowned, mistaking her for the family dog. Her appendix burst inside of her as a teen before it occurred to her doctor it wasn’t menstrual cramps. My parents’ region of India was regularly affected by earthquakes and they would exit their homes calmly although in mortal peril.


My parents allowed their nervous, fragile daughter to watch The Day After and it scared me to death. I cried and cried, too scared to go to sleep.


“Why are you afraid?” my father said, picking at his molars with a toothpick. “You know none of this is real.”


“Why did they have to fire that missile?” I asked, weeping.


“It must have been in the script,” my father said, losing interest. “Now hand me the remote control and go to bed.”


I became convinced that our deaths were imminent. I never had ambitions about my future career because I was certain we were all going to die. Years passed. I grew from a child into a woman and to my bewilderment, the war failed to materialise. That is how I found myself an adult in possession of absolutely no skills. I wasn’t equipped to do anything which is why I became a writer.


When I think of all the paths not taken, however, they always involved food. After university, my dream job was to drive the Oscar Meyer Wienermobile, a giant vehicle shaped like a hotdog in a bun. I wasn’t sure why this job resonated with me—and neither were my parents who had paid for me to attend an Ivy League University—but I knew it was my destiny to drive around in a large sausage, spreading joy to the children of the world.


My then-boyfriend was also perplexed. “You can’t drive a car for five minutes without crashing. Who would hire you?”


With no one supporting my dream, I abandoned it. I married my boyfriend and announced my new career goal at a family gathering soon after the wedding. “I’ve decided to become a competitive food eater.” I had witnessed a slight Japanese man eat dozens of hot dogs at a Coney Island contest and it seemed within my skill set.


“Why not start right away?” my cousin Pankaj suggested. “I bet you can’t eat 40 boiled eggs in half an hour.” I agreed at once. My parents, my brother and my sister-in-law tried to dissuade me but Pankaj, mischievous and encouraging, was the one I listened to.


“We can’t do it now,” I said. “We don’t have 40 eggs and I’m already full from dinner.”


“Okay,” Pankaj said. “Tomorrow we go egg shopping. We’ll wait for you to be hungry and then we’ll know if you have a future in competitive eating.”


The next morning, I woke up and ate an entire melon. In my defence, it was very sweet. Then I had a large club sandwich at lunch. It turned out that for the few days we were in St. Louis at my brother’s home, I was never hungry because I never stopped eating. I never engaged in the egg challenge and my ambition eventually faded away.


Lately I’ve been thinking I’d make a great judge for cooking contests. Or maybe I can find a way to travel the world and sample global cuisine like the late Anthony Bourdain. Or perhaps I can become a restaurant critic in Lagos. I could sit around, taste inventive and interesting meals, feel the flavours dance on my tongue and opine. What a life! True, I’m no food expert but if I let my limitations hinder me, I may as well be that little girl again, paralysed by fears of a hopeless future, certain the world would end before my journey truly began.


Mona Zutshi Opubor is an Indian-American and Nigerian short story author and memoirist. She is studying for her MSt in Literature and Arts at the University of Oxford.


Follow her on Instagram @mopals5


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