For the umpteenth time, Omalicha uncovered the pot of soup boiling on the green single-burner kerosene stove. The back of the pot was already covered in soot and it was only Tuesday. Omalicha washed the back of the pots on Saturdays, Saturdays because she didn’t go to school on weekends. Omalicha never took time to ensure that the wicks in the stove were positioned well before she put on the burner; often she would place the burner askew on the wicks haphazardly, and as if in protest the stove produced rebellious red flames, instead of the benign blue ones.
On Saturdays, Omailcha carried the black pots from her parents 2nd floor flat, careful not to get the soot on her clothes, to the open yard on the ground floor. She placed them near a tap of running water where she scrubbed the black pots with blue omo and sand until the pots became a shiny silver. The sound from grinding the sand on the pot sent uncomfortable sensations through Omalicha’s thirteen-year old fragile body. Omalicha never had a refined scrubbing powder bought from the market to wash the pots. Once, she intentionally broke her mother’s porcelain plate, staging it as an accident, so that she could use them to make a scrubbing powder as she had been taught in her Home Economics class. But after sustaining bruises from crushing the broken plates with a stone, she thought that the trouble wasn’t worth breaking more of her mother’s china plates. On an occasion, her friend Egodi told her that ashes were effective in getting black pots clean, she walked half a mile to collect ashes from Mama Ijeoma, a woman who prepared and sold akara and pap in the mornings. She had been disappointed at how little ash the burnt coal had deposited in Mama Ijeoma’s hearth. Much as she would have loved to trade places with Kelechi, her neighbor whose mother cooked with a gas cooker that produced no soot, Omalicha was stuck with washing black pots on Saturdays with coarse sand that occasionally bruised her small hands.
Omalicha removed the cover of the pot again. The soup got smaller with each time she checked, the liquid drying up as Omalicha waited for Ebube to finish with the vegetables. Looking over her shoulder, she saw Ebube bent over the sink washing ugu leaves. Ebube was arranging the stalks of the leaves so that they were all perfectly aligned before she set them down on the enamel tray to cut. Omalicha never understood why Ebube took so long to get ugu ready; why she washed them five cycles and took time to get the stalks together before cutting the leaves. Omalicha typically washed ugu once, twice only if she felt grits when she placed her hand at the bottom of the bowl after the first wash. While she knew that arranging the stalk helped for a neater cutting, Omalicha believed that it made no difference if she sliced leaves finely or otherwise since the leaves wilted when cooked .
Though Omalicha’s senior by two years, Ebube was never in charge in the kitchen. The few times Omalicha allowed Ebube to take the lead, they ate dinner late and her mother chastised Ebube for being too sluggish. Her mother reprimanded Ebube,’Can’t you see how fast Omalicha is? How many heads does she have?’. But Omalicha knew why Ebube never seemed to finish any task in time. To prepare salad for example, where Omalicha will barely scrape the carrot, Ebube took time to peel the carrots until they glowed a bright orange before she proceeded to meticulously dice them so that each cube is similar to the other. Once, after Omalicha had sliced the cabbage, green beans, potato, cucumber and tomatoes for salad, and Ebube was still bent over the five stick of carrots she had to slice, Omalicha had been infuriated and told her reticent sister that her carrots were too perfect even for a carrot dicing contest. Omalicha didn’t care whether carrots in salad were in circles or cubes. Irrespective of the shape in which they were eaten, cube or circle, they nourished the body. Omalicha felt that Ebube had no justification for cutting them the way she did. Ebube’s measured moves often resulted in Omalicha not going out to play with her friends even when she finished her chores early enough. Their mother always insisted none of them left the kitchen until they finished cooking.
Omalicha got her share of criticism from her mother for her lack of thoroughness. She always failed to pick up clothes littered on the floor before sweeping the rooms and would leave the kitchen after washing plates without emptying the vegetables collected on the kitchen sink drain strainer. Omalicha never let her mother’s chastisements get to her. Her mother knew who to call when: Ebube for a tasty fried rice when they were having guests over, in which case they were sure to have a late dinner, or Omalicha, when she needed a quick dinner of white yam eaten with red oil and coarsely chopped onion and pepper. Once, when their mother’s sister, Mama Ejima visited, Omalicha’s mother told her how different her daughters were. Characteristically, Mama Ejima had chosen to see the glass as half empty and had joked about how Omalicha and Ebube were like the two proverbial knives at Eleke’s house – the sharp one had no handle and the one with a handle was blunt. Omalicha dreaded Mama Ejima‘s visits because she was always quick to notice when the bathroom tiles were dirty and needed scrubbing.
Ebube stirred the pot one more time and looked over to see Ebube straining water from the ugu leaves. Despite their mother’s repeated counsel that removing water from shredded ugu was tantamount to stripping the vegetable of its nutrients only to eat Chaff, Ebube always strained her leaves when their mother wasn’t at home. She said excess water from the leaves left soup tasteless. While Omalicha didn’t care about preserving the nutrients in the vegetables, she cared that Ebube’s attention to detail invariably robbed her of her leisure time. And on this day, as she looked out the balcony and saw Anulika and Chiazokam playing tempa and oga, she wished for a fleeting moment that she had a different sister. She preferred the rhythm coming from the oga: tempa…twenty…thirty to Ebube’s as she hunched over the sink straining the vegetables. But she couldn’t run downstairs to play oga or her family would have a late dinner.
P.S, So how do you roll in the Kitchen? Are you an Ebube or an Omalicha?