There was a Nigerian restaurant that opened up behind the train station in my little neck of the woods. The restaurant was called Beulah.
My dearest friend Debi, who is a connoisseur of Nigerian food announced its opening with as much enthusiasm as she does everything Nigerian. She had checked it out, it wasn’t the best aesthetically, but it was decent, and the food was nice, and, they had a buffet. She was taking the kids and I. It was her treat.
It was one of those weirdly warm days in the middle of Autumn. So we dressed without clutter and off we went. There was nothing compelling or convincing about the restaurant’s outward appearance. On the outer glass hung the word BUFFET. It looked hurriedly written on some random paper, like an afterthought. Was it an afterthought? I asked Debi. It wasn’t, she said. She’d come there the week it opened. She had asked the owner. He was certain of what it was, a BUFFET.
Inside, the restaurant gave up an even more confused vibe, as if people had come and sampled it and deserted it. It was empty, except for a couple huddled in a corner whispering to themselves and casting the occasional curious glance at us.
Silver pans and serving dishes graced a long white cloth clad table. We walked gingerly up to the shiny display. The smell of food bombarded my nostrils, I assumed it was from the glittering array. I was naturally drawn to the biggest pot, like a Nigerian I was telling my kids to ensure that they eat properly; that meant sample everything, and make sure you eat meat/’fish/chicken. My daughter was saying she hoped the meat wasn’t too chewy and there wasn’t too much pepper. My son said he was looking forward to the pepper soup.
Can I have as much pepper soup as I want mummy?’
Yes, of course, eat as much as you like, that’s the whole point
Like at ‘Jimmy?’
Yes. Like ‘Jimmy’s.’
We positioned ourselves before the pots and I can swear we lifted the lids at the same time; and we saw our reflections at the bottom of the pans at the same time, as well. Empty.
Where was the food? Wasn’t it like Jimmy’s? No, it wasn’t.
A harried looking man burst through from the kitchen. He was wearing a tweed-like suit. At first I thought he was an angry ‘buffet-seeker’ like me, who, finding he’d been duped went to confront the staff in the kitchen. He welcomed us. A profuse ‘good afternoon,’ and asked how he could help. I wanted to ask him why he was wearing a suit, but I stalled and the moment passed.
Debi said we came for the buffet. There was still offered buffet, right? He said, yes. Of course… but they’d moved the food to the kitchen, to keep it warm and fresh. They would no longer be having the buffet out on display. They were losing money, and wasting food, there were too many hungry people in the world to waste food.
‘Sit, sit down’ he coaxed, pulling out seat and nearly shoving us into them. He produced a menu, we choose what we wanted. He disappeared and appeared later with large plates of jollof rice with a miserable looking piece of shrivelled chicken gut, sitting at the centre of the plate. We stared at the mammoth plate of rice in bemusement. We opened our mouths to say something but nothing came out.
Where was the peppersoup? The afang? Egusi? Ayamashe? meat? Fried plantain? Moi-moi? I asked when I got back my voice.
Eat this one first. He commanded. When you finish this one I will bring you another one.
But this rice is too much, we wanted a little of this a little of that… you know, like a buffet. Debi said.
This is how they do buffet now, they keep it in the kitchen so that it doesn’t go bad and we don’t waste food, I will bring whatever you want just finish this one first.’
Honestly if the situation wasn’t so pathetic it would have been hilarious. We were so embarrassed and appalled at the ridiculousness that we were forced to be civil rather than crass, forced to render advice rather than abuse. I watched Debi take up a familiar poise, ready to pontificate. She talked about how the restaurant was a reflection of us Nigerians within the wider community and how it was important that we give an honest account of ourselves…
Beulah has since run out of steam (no raised eyebrows there). In its place is a swanky outfit, one that delivers exactly what it says on the tin.
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