In 2017, for the first time in 18 years, Yewande Komolafe went back to Lagos. So much had changed about the Nigerian city where she’d spent her youth; she could barely recognize the landmarks around her. But once she arrived at her family home, she felt the calm of the familiar: the brilliant yellow star fruit trees in the backyard, the clucking of chickens on her family’s farm, the perfume of scent leaf dancing in the air.
Komolafe had been living in the United States as an undocumented immigrant for more than a decade. Her marriage to an American man in 2016 gave her a green card that allowed her, at long last, to hop on a 13-hour flight to see her parents in Nigeria, moving freely between countries without threat. She hadn’t returned in so long that she started to believe that the story she often told of her upbringing in Nigeria was one she made up.
“Maybe I’m not really Nigerian,” she recalls thinking. “I started having these questions, questioning my reality, asking myself, Did you really grow up in Nigeria?” That trip was confirmation that she hadn’t been spinning fiction all those years. Her memories were real.
Komolafe, now a cooking writer and columnist at the New York Times, wrestles with what it means to search for one’s place in the world in her cookbook My Everyday Lagos, which Ten Speed Press will publish in October. It was a book she didn’t even plan on writing. A bevy of publishers approached her after the publication of her “10 Essential Nigerian Recipes” feature in the New York Times in 2019, asking if she might have a book in her. “Shit, I have to write a book now,” she remembers thinking to herself, laughing.
The cookbook is a portrait of a city’s palate and the little girl who grew up experiencing it before circumstance kept her away, her imagination morphing her picture of the Lagos she once knew. Komolafe extracted many of these recipes by “digging deep into my memory of my family members who are now ancestors,” she says. Her recipe for ọ̀jọ̀jọ̀, for example, pays homage to her grandmother, who liked those grated water yam fritters stippled with minced onions and green chiles. And Komolafe plaits this book with unsparing essays about her own life, chronicling the uncertainty of coming to an unknown country as a teenager and surviving traumas that made her wonder where she belonged. The quest for internal security, she says, is ongoing: “I’m still figuring out what home looks like.”
Komolafe knows her upbringing wasn’t typical for most other kids she grew up with in Lagos. Her mother was a food scientist who worked for Cadbury, meaning that 5-pound bags of confections would just sit around in the family home. (“We’d have friends over, and they were like, Holy shit. What?” she remembers.) Her father, meanwhile, harbored such affection for nature that the family had a small-scale farm in their backyard with chickens, pigs, maybe even goats at one point, Komolafe surmises. Vegetables grew in abundance. If her mother wanted to prepare some spinach for dinner, she’d ask Komolafe to roam outside and pluck some. “I didn’t realize how strange that was, or how different that was, until I was older,” she says with a laugh.
A middle child sandwiched between two brothers, Komolafe wanted to be a food scientist like her mother, and she baked avidly as a little girl. She’d make Russian tea cakes, blizzarding them with sugar, for her father to take to work, while also saving some for her school lunch box. She approached her baking experiments with giddy enthusiasm, using the food coloring that her mother got through work to make cakes that were electric blue or Lisa Frank pink.
The spell of what Komolafe calls her “sheltered” life in Lagos broke upon her move to America in 1998, when she was 16. Both of her parents had gone to college abroad, and it was only natural that she’d follow family precedent. Her older brother was already in the States for school. “I don’t know that anything in my childhood prepared me,” she says of what awaited her.
Arriving in Newark, New Jersey, she lived in an apartment with her aunt, unaware of how to adjust to certain parts of American life. She had never even caught a bus before. When she was 17, she began college at the University of Maryland with the intention of studying biochemistry, just as her parents had instructed her, only to find it was a total chore. (“I got to Chem 101, and I was like, Fuuuuuck,” she says.)
Her brother’s companionship on campus was one of her few points of comfort. They’d always had a tight bond. They even looked alike, so much that people often asked if they were twins. And like Komolafe, he had sickle cell anemia, a shared condition that made them feel even closer. But the disease claimed him just a few months after Komolafe started college; he was only 19.
“The college campus was sort of haunted to me with his presence,” Komolafe remembers of the time after his death. Somewhere in that period of mourning, though, her parents’ strictures eased: Her grief gave her permission to chase her passions. “I feel like that was a shift in my family,” she remembers. “Because at this point, my parents knew that I was here alone. And they just wanted me to be happy.”
She promptly switched programs to biopsychology, a more manageable course of study. But it was a subsequent memory that made her realize what she wanted to do. Before she’d entered college, she’d received an advertisement in the mail for the Culinary Institute of America. She hadn’t known that you could go to school for a degree in the culinary arts, but now, in the midst of her bereavement, the possibility spoke to her. “I was like, I’m going to be a chef and fling knives!” she says. “That was peak Food Network era.” After finishing her biopsychology degree in 2003, she enrolled in culinary school at Baltimore International College.
Culinary school was an academic breeze — “I have never been so successful in my life!” Komolafe says, laughing — but it posed other challenges that would come to define her existence in this country. She wasn’t aware that culinary school required her to be enrolled in summer classes; that hadn’t been the case with her student visa during her undergraduate years. One day after she began culinary school, she got a call from an administrator asking if she’d signed up for the summer semester. She hadn’t. The school had already notified immigration authorities.
With her visa status revoked due to this clerical misunderstanding, Komolafe was now an undocumented immigrant. But she decided to stay. “My brother’s buried here,” she remembers telling herself. “In my head, I was like, I can’t leave him.” She was 19, the same age as her brother when he died.
The years that followed were a scary time: Komolafe would imagine the cops pulling her over and discovering she was undocumented, destroying the life she’d built for herself. Restaurant work, which she pursued after culinary school, eased her psychological precarity. It gave her the chance to be consumed by food and nothing but, and she motored through each day on adrenaline. “There was part of me that felt that I was already a misfit, and I found my place,” she says. “There was that part of me that just was able to be completely absorbed by what I was doing, and I think I needed an escape from my actual life. Nobody’s asking me if I’m undocumented. Half the people here are undocumented.”
In that time, she moved around constantly, cooking in restaurants in Baltimore, Atlanta, and New York, casually gathering her belongings and starting her life over again the way some people might change outfits. “It made me feel like, since home was nowhere, I could literally move anywhere,” Komolafe says. During those peripatetic years, she landed at the original location of Milk Bar, in New York, in 2008, before it was a national behemoth. As one of the bakery’s first employees, she was devising soft serve flavors and fillings for breads. But she also put one foot in the world of food media, working in the Saveur magazine test kitchen on her days off. Through that job, she met photographers and writers, and was soon assisting on photo shoots and cookbooks on top of her regular restaurant work. She would continue to frequently uproot herself, chasing different restaurant gigs in cities like Birmingham, Alabama, until eventually something shifted. The rhythm of standing for 12 hours a day, of going to bed at 3 a.m. just to rise four hours later for her next restaurant shift, started to wear on her health.
“I don’t really talk about having sickle cell anemia, but that’s been part of my story for as long as I’ve been alive,” Komolafe says. “And there was that period of my life where I just ignored it.” Her body was telling her to slow down. She decided to listen.
She transitioned into food media more fully by 2015, finding the pace was easier on her system. She began writing widely, including for the New York Times. The opportunities that transpired in the years that followed — along with securing a green card after her 2016 marriage — gave her stability after a period of unending motion, one whose debris she’s still sorting.
“In addition to trying to figure out what home looks like, I think that I’m also in the process of gathering the many selves that I have all around, that I’ve left in different places, and telling them, Come back now,” Komolafe says. “It’s safe to come back.”
This past July, on the anniversary of her brother’s death, Komolafe took her husband and two kids back to the apartment in Newark where she once lived with her aunt. “I just walked the grounds to confirm that my memory was the same,” she says. As she held her daughter’s hand on that visit, Komolafe felt peace, as if she was in a position to guard her daughter from the pain that this place contained. But she also felt connected to the girl she used to be. “It’s almost like I was protecting my younger self from the things that happened while I was there,” she says.
That instinct for self-preservation guides Komolafe’s work, too. Since joining the New York Times in 2021, Komolafe has tried to inure herself to the scrutiny that writing for a national newspaper invites. She doesn’t read the comments on her pieces. She bristles at the notion of “authenticity” and any litigation over it. When she writes about Nigerian cooking for the paper, she works from personal experience, from observation, from research, and she hopes that her humility is enough. “Because a lot of aspects of identity can be questioned,” she says. “But I write from the perspective of someone who grew up in Nigeria, someone who is Nigerian. And so, therefore, my perspective is Nigerian.”
There are struggles inherent to navigating an institution that has disregarded voices like hers for so long. “As a Black woman, there’s no reason why I should trust that if I come on board that my work will be taken seriously,” she remembers saying in one meeting before she joined the staff at the Times. “There’s no example for me of someone who’s been in this position specifically within food, and I think that makes it harder.”
She feels relief that her editors give her the latitude to write freely about her obsessions — say, rolex, the egg-and-chapati roll that’s popular in Uganda — rather than hemming her in to strictly writing about Nigerian food. Yet when she does take on the topic of Nigerian cooking, she’s also tried her best to center her own people in her storytelling and to imagine her reader as someone who looks like her.
Komolafe wrote My Everyday Lagos, too, for people like herself — people for whom she wouldn’t have to strenuously translate the meaning of àkàrà, those plump bean fritters that her grandmother would send over in oil-soaked newspaper packages. She knows that the book will take on an energy of its own depending on who’s holding it. But Komolafe hopes people in Nigeria or its diaspora might pick up the book and recognize their own stories in her words. “I don’t want to have to explain myself,” she says. “I don’t want to have to explain my presence. I just want to be here, because I’m supposed to be here.”
Mayukh Sen is the author of Taste Makers: Seven Immigrant Women Who Revolutionized Food in America. He has received a James Beard Award for his food writing, and his work has been anthologized in three editions of The Best American Food Writing.
Clay Williams is a Brooklyn-based food photographer and the co-founder of Black Food Folks.