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ESSAY / Freezer Peanuts / Liyou Mesfin Libsekal

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I believe my mother’s love for freezers began when we started moving from place to place. The woman was, understandably, attached to our traditional food and would be damned if she didn’t figure out a way to bring it to wherever it was we were going. This is an essential theme in Ethiopian-ness, if you walk into the airport in Addis Ababa, you’d be hard pressed to find a suitcase that is devoid of food, or at the very least, raw ingredients. Years after my mother stopped transporting entire lambs across borders, I was still dealing with the fallout. Every time I went through customs in DC—a hotspot for Ethiopians—the officer would unfailingly look at me, then at my passport and then suspiciously at my customs form.

“Nothing to declare, huh?” he’d look me up and down. “You don’t have any dorowotwith you? No kibe? No shiro, no berbere?” He already knew what my people were up to. But I’d been embarrassed enough by the plastic-fulls of frozen stews falling out at customs checkpoints around the world, to take anything with me to university. This didn’t mean that whenever I was about to leave home I wasn’t subjected to the usual argument about all the delicious things I could take, and eat—as if DC was barren of food—but mostly, I managed to put my foot down.

“No,” I’d say to the officer, and he’d insist on searching my suitcase anyway. “Sure,” I’d say, and fling it onto the table, open it with the flair of an amateur Vegas magician. Tada! No frozen stews! No spices! No dried meats! And the officer would unfailingly be thoroughly surprised.

During my childhood, most customs checkpoints were spent with lines building up behind us as my mother explained exactly what went into each stew. Before every trip that started off in Addis Ababa, the house would smell of food for days. Plastic sheets would line the counters and the stews, prepared with whole chickens, whole lambs, would be spooned into the plastic freezer bags, sealed over candle flames, and put into the freezer.

Before we left for the airport, the frozen blocks of stew would be packed into suitcases my sister and I refused to associate with. When we got home to wherever we were living, our mother would put the food in the large freezer, which was still stacked with food we’d brought home from another trip. This, I believe, is how her love affair with freezers began. Those summers and Christmases spent hauling frozen goodness must have acted as a gateway drug because at some point, my sister and I noticed that our mother was freezing everything.

It wasn’t until my early twenties, when our mother was living alone in Addis Ababa, that it all came to a head. My sister and I were away in school and our father was working in Afghanistan, and our mother, was by herself for most of the year. I came home one Christmas, and noticed that this habit of our mother’s, had gone off the rails. It was as if her empty nest syndrome had triggered some freezing frenzy. Some panicked need to preserve. I summoned my sister downstairs and pointed in the freezer.

“Yeah. I know,” she said, and didn’t bat an eyelid. In the freezer, were two rock solid containers of milk. The more I looked, the more this freezing addiction, this frozen world of our mother’s, revealed itself to me. There were blocks of Parmesan cheese I’d left the previous summer, there was butter, and one-kilo bags of peanuts. There was kolo, and plastic containers labeled “crushed garlic”.

“Is she alright?” I whispered to my sister, who shrugged her shoulders before coming to our mother’s defense.

“It’s what she does, okay? Don’t bring it up.”

Of course, I brought it up to my mother, who was freezing milk and probably making the morning oatmeal with it. The confrontation led to the Great Freezer Fight of 2010, after which I refused to eat oatmeal, and my mother’s lasagna, on account of the frozen mozzarella. This fight would be repeated each time I needed something for a recipe and found that everything was frozen. The last Freezer Fight took place in 2016, when I found my mother hastily defrosting cream for the carbonara. By this point, the variety of freezable things had expanded. That, or living at home had led me to notice the extent of my mother’s compulsion. Steamed spinach would be put in Tupperware and stuck in the back of the freezer, ground ginger, and puréed tomatoes, all left to crystallize.

My mother seemed to be under the impression that the freezer was beyond time and space. It was as if freezing things would preserve something she wanted to hold on to. Something more than the mozzarella left over from the pizza I’d made weeks before. Everything that came out of the freezer was referred to as “fresh,” no matter what I told her Gordon Ramsay would have to say about it. Still, it wasn’t my freezer and therefore it was none of my business. And sure, I could never be a hundred percent certain that whatever I ate at my mother’s house had not been frozen for two years, but I put that out of my mind because mostly, I liked her cooking.

When I moved out of my parents’ house and got my own apartment, I began accepting lasagnas with mozzarella I never looked too much into. And so, we lived our lives turning a blind eye to my mother’s obsession, while also eating it. This was until one day my mother showed up at my apartment with a plastic bag full of passion fruit from her garden, and a face that made you think of a very sickly puffer fish.

“Are you okay?” I asked, letting her in to the living room.

“Hmm, yes,” she said, hurtling in and taking a seat. I knew something was wrong because she didn’t take her shoes off and demand “house slippers” at the door.

“You don’t look okay,” I said. She had a look about her like she was holding something in at both ends. I watched her rock a little forward in the chair she’d rushed to.

“Oh, you know, that thing with my stomach.”

“Jesus mom, you’ve got to stop eating spinach, why do you keep doing that?”

“Who says it’s the spinach? Where you get this from?”

I got it from her. When she first started having stomach issues and I told her to stop drinking coffee, she’d blamed it on the vegetables, and I had believed her. But bouts of minor stomach pain were a regular occurrence for her, and they were never too bad so I dropped the subject and called her into my room to show her photos of cats stuck in precarious positions.

Normally, I had to come up with such things in order to get my mother to stick around. We had a routine, where I’d suggest her looking at something I’d found on the Internet and she feigned disinterest by listing all the places she had to go, and then eventually stuck around. I should have realized something was really wrong when she complied right away. And horribly wrong when she sat down on my bed, which she never does—a silent protest of unmade beds.

“Look,” I said, pointing to a cat sandwiched between sliding glass doors.

“Huh-mm,” she made another puffer fish face.  As I pulled up the next picture, I saw, in the corner of my eye, my mother rock back onto my bed. Her legs swung in the air like she didn’t know what to do with herself. I turned to look at her, now in a casual fetal position on a bed she’d only ever touched in order to forcefully make up. She blinked up at me innocently.

“What’s going on? How come—” I looked at her face, her eyes blinking to hide some pain, her knees creeping to her chest “—wait, you’re really sick!”

“Oh, you’re so dramatic, I’m fine!” Blink. Blink.

Normally, my mother could easily be mistaken for a professional martyr. Though she has always had a high threshold for pain, she didn’t mind people knowing her suffering. Why was she, all of the sudden, hiding it? I had a lot of questions. What was going on? Did she want some limewater? The bathroom? Was she dying? It wouldn’t be the first time our parents had kept a serious medical issue from me. The more questions I asked, the more my mother rushed to leave. She had places to be, she insisted between contortions.

When I called to check on her that evening, I could hear retching in the background.

“Hi! Sweetheart!” my mother said nervously. I heard her loudly shut a door.

“What was that?” I asked.

“Oh nothing, how are you?”

“How am I? How are you? Was that dad in the background?”

I suppose it could have been from the delirium of illness, but my mother gave in and let me know that my father was also not feeling well.

“What the hell is going on?” I asked.

“Oh just a stomach thing, you know.” The more probing I did, the more I learned, which was unusual for my mother considering that most of the time, she would die before she gave away information she didn’t want you to have. Since our childhood, my sister and I knew that our mother could keep a secret better than the CIA. But now, she was spilling the beans faster than my father was spilling his guts into the toilet. Apparently, my father had been sick in bed for three days. The ease with which I pried this information from my mother’s sickly grip was more startling to me than the fact that she and my father were both sick.

“Go to the doctor!” I yelled into the phone—no one in our family is very good at feeling anything other than panic and irritation in situations that might warrant concern. Besides, a few months before, a cholera epidemic had swept through Addis Ababa, and it had been weeks before the government decided that perhaps the news shouldn’t be hush-hush, on account of the fact that people were literally shitting themselves to death.

“It’s not cholera!” my mother hissed into the phone, “it’s…we, we ate something bad,” she said.

This was highly suspicious to me. My parents never ate out. Even if there was some social obligation, they mostly ate for show. Had there been a wedding? A social engagement where the host force-fed my poor parents? (This is perfectly normal, if not expected, in Ethiopia.)

“Some, some bad peanuts, okay? It’s nothing, you know how your father is when he gets sick…”

“Bad peanuts?” it took me a few moments to put it all together. My mother’s secrecy being the last spark that set off the light bulb.

“Oh you are a cruel girl!” she said, as I laughed. “Who would believe it, my own daughter, laughing as I suffer?” my mother was incensed. By the tone of her, I knew she would tell anyone who would listen, about the time my parents were both ill, and I laughed about it. But she’d leave out the part where she had poisoned both herself and my father, with freezer peanuts.

The sickness lasted longer than your average food poisoning. And my poor father bore the brunt of it. He really liked peanuts then, I don’t know how he feels about them now.

“I told her,” he said, looking miserable in his robe, in front of the television on the first day he was able to leave his bed. “I said, ‘I don’t know about these peanuts, Amsale’” He lifted his hands and showed me his palms, as if to say ‘now, we’re left with this tragedy’.

I am not a cruel daughter, but I couldn’t keep myself together. My mother sat in her chair looking thoroughly ill, and embarrassed. But still, none of it would change her freezing obsession.

The peanut incident was the sickest I had seen my mother. And through the pain, she had tried her hardest to keep me from finding out. She had fought for the good name of the freezer. Showed up at my door with a plastic bag full of unripe passion fruit, unprompted, in an effort to preempt suspicion. She didn’t want to believe the extent to which the freezer had let her down.

I thought the poisoning my mother had done would end her reign as Queen of Freezing Things. The peanuts, when my mother could lift herself up without the danger of losing it out of both ends, were unceremoniously thrown out. But my mother is a true believer. Right now, there is a block of milk sitting in my mother’s freezer. There are medleys of nuts, and cheeses. There are steamed veggies; and frozen garlic chunks teetering at the edge of botulism. Something in her needs to freeze, to preserve. So I let her freeze what she likes in peace, and keep an eye out for the day she starts looking at Dad, or the cat for that matter, with an icy glint in her eye.


Liyou Mesfin Libsekal is an Ethiopian writer living in Addis Ababa. She writes poetry and essays.