A Nigerian Easter in the Midwest
From the front door she calls, “He has risen!” Her children respond, “He has risen indeed. Let’s eat!”
I dodged church Easter Sunday this year. My mother Gbeme, however, worshipped at the Baptist church she’s been attending twice weekly for the past 20 years.
Raised Catholic in Nigeria, my mother’s Easter begins the seasonal swap from heavy wools to floral prints and pastels. She wears a beautifully vibrant gele — an intricately fashioned tie around the head worn by Yoruba women — and iro and buba — the matching outfit traditionally worn by Yoruba women — to church. She exchanges compliments with the other congregants about their upbeat clothes and steady health. For two hours the pews fill, the choir sings, and for the larger Easter crowd, the young new pastor delivers an especially rousing sermon. Soon thereafter, church dismisses. Time to eat.
For many Americans, Easter is synonymous with the egg. But in my bicultural household, creamy frejon is the signature Easter week delicacy. The bean soup is made of smoothly blended brown beans called ewa ibeji and steeped coconut, then sweetened with cane sugar to taste.
In the mid-1980s, my mother left metropolitan Lagos to attend college in rural Wisconsin — and made necessary modifications to the original frejon recipe. Back then international foods weren’t as integrated. In lieu of traditional Nigerian dishes, my mother observed her first few Easters amid sweet friends, sweet rolls, egg salad, and hearty Midwestern casseroles. After she graduated, she moved from Wisconsin to Minnesota, reuniting her with city dwelling, a dense Nigerian immigrant community, specialty grocers, and Easter frejon.
Catholic Yoruba traditionally eat frejon with fresh fish stew at the noon meal on Good Friday to mark the end of Lenten fasting. Contrary to the egg, the bean is not holiday satire and I speculate this is due to frejon’s convoluted history. Frejon is not indigenous to Nigeria. Emancipated slaves returning from Brazil at the end of the transatlantic slave trade introduced the dish to the region. The freed slaves settled in southwest Nigeria (historically populated by the Yoruba) and founded what’s called the “Brazilian Quarters.” The ex-slaves too brought Catholicism from Brazil. Colonialist, tribal, and religious nuances intersected to form a staple that Yoruba throughout the diaspora still consider sacred to our Easter tradition.
For years my mother has done less of the holiday cooking since her children have assumed much of the duty. This Easter I repeated the recipe just as she’d demonstrated it to me years ago. Instead of hardly available ewa ibeji, we substituted black-eyed peas. And the coconut milk came tapped from the can instead of the freshly fallen fruit. The good news here: the most laborious work is happily averted.
I began preparing the beans the previous Thursday. I cook one cup of dry beans to three parts water in a pot over medium heat for two hours. By Good Friday morning, the beans are cool. I blend them smooth, add equal parts coconut crème and a generous amount of sugar, and return the pot to low-medium heat for two additional hours. I stir incessantly.
When my mother awakes, she shuffles to the kitchen to assess my progress — and knowingly confiscates my wooden stirring spoon. The frejon gently boils, and by noon the family assembles around me to sample the first helpings. And we eat.
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