Meals From My Father: A Journey of a First Generation Immigrant

Food is a common language. It can be a passport to a new land; a window into another culture. So much of what we do is centered around food. And for some, food can even be a bridge to traditions once forgotten. Or a calling card to a lost loved one. That’s what Nigerian food was for me.

When I was young, my father taught me to live by three key pillars of life: take your education seriously, remember to give back to your community, and always stand up for yourself. He was a stoic Nigerian man; strict when it came to his expectations for me. But he was never cold. At the core of his being, he was a compassionate man who never ceased to put his community before himself. And above all he was a devoted father determined to give his son the world. Whether it was carrying on Nigerian traditions in our Humboldt Park home or instilling a sense of global citizenship in me on trips abroad, he always strived to set me up for a rich, fulfilled life. 

Despite his focus on keeping our Nigerian roots alive, my father didn’t speak about his time in the home country much. My understanding of his early life was a loosely woven patchwork of half-told stories and passing comments. I knew he was forced to be a child soldier during the Civil War. He was sure to tell me we hailed from the Igbo people of southeastern Nigeria. And I knew he worked hard to get to America for a better life. As a teenager, I didn’t think to dig much deeper. And, unfortunately, I would never have the chance.

The world came crashing down around me at age 16 when my father suddenly passed away. All at once, life as I knew it disintegrated. What about all the hard work my father put into building a better life for himself and his family? Where was the return-on-investment for all those years of hard work? He was taken away before he ever got the chance to reap the benefits of his efforts.

My mother wasn’t really in the picture so I not only lost a father but my main caretaker. I was left to my own devices, parentless and unsure where to go. For a short season, I was homeless. I found myself living in my friend’s basement until I was old enough to branch out on my own. Although my father wasn’t around to hold me accountable, I never strayed from those three pillars I grew up on. His lessons were a constant true north for me and a way to carry on his memory with me into adulthood. 

I went on to create a life I hoped my father would be proud of. My career started out in education and eventually, I became a business owner. I got married to my wonderful wife. Soon our family grew by three bright children. Life was good. But still, I felt a chasm between myself and the culture my father held up in such high regard. I lost contact with my family in the home country and had no bridge to find my way back. So I set out to build one myself. 

My family started to build our own sort of Nigerian traditions. Every week, my family ordered Nigerian food. We set out to learn the Igbo language together. Soon I felt compelled to learn the recipes to my favorite traditional foods. That’s when OjaExpress came into the picture. This was the foundation of that bridge to my culture.

A system of connection unfolded before me.  I discovered a network of other Nigerian folks and a community I felt worlds away from since my father passed. I had the keys to a new culinary world. OjaExpress was the resource I was searching for. Finding ingredients for my favorite dishes such as Egusi soup or Jollof Rice was a breeze. Cooking my traditional food was made so much easier. 

Rediscovering Nigerian food gave me a phone line to my father. When I speak the language with my kids or cooks traditional food with my wife, I know that my father’s spirit is with me. And when I look around at the life of abundance I’ve cultivated off of those three vital pillars, I can’t help but feel that maybe I could be that return-on-investment my father worked so hard to achieve. 

This story is based on the life of one of our customers and has been modified for privacy.

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