I was cooking dinner when I heard Soleil Banguid had died.
I stepped away from the stove for a moment to gather myself. The pinto beans I was making could wait, and if there’s one thing I learned from watching Soleil cook, it’s that food should only be cooked from a place of love and happiness—tears and dinner do not mix.
Food served by Soleil and his wife, TJ, came with big hugs and even bigger smiles. This was not just about eating, it was about friendship and community and family. And Soleil served at the center of it all, clapping his hands together to punctuate great joy, smiling so wide it was as if nothing else mattered beyond those moments of connection.
I had no idea how fleeting those moments would be. When my parents visited at Thanksgiving, we took them to Soleil’s African Cuisine in Alameda for their last dinner before they flew back to Ohio. They had gone with me to Soleil’s restaurant in Coralville, Iowa, and I wanted them to see where he’d landed, here, in the Golden State, where he and TJ were turning out not just those same dishes we loved back in the heart of the country, but even more. I wanted to tell him that The Unicorn and I were engaged, because I knew he, too, had his own story of a journey to find real happiness in California.
I took home enough leftovers that night to make two more meals. I let nothing go to waste.
“I’m so sorry it’s been so long since we’ve gotten over here,” I told him that night. “But I promise we’ll be back soon.”
But these days, life moves at the speed of anything but African time, so we didn’t make it back to the restaurant.
When I lived in Iowa, Soleil’s food was like home, especially if you were me, adrift in the center of the country, grasping for something that reminded me of better times. His was the first pop-up restaurant I ever ate at. Steve and I would bring a bottle of wine and walk down Iowa Avenue through the icy air on a Saturday night, and turn into Lou Henri’s, where the usual smells of French toast and hash browns had been replaced by the scent of coconut and chilies. There was Congolese music on the stereo, and for Steve, who had served in Africa with the Peace Corps, and for me, who had spent time in Nigeria growing up, it was a cheap and imaginary trip away to something we recognized deeply.
He opened the restaurant in Coralville, and it was a wonderful and strange sun-yellow space with all kinds of tracts and African goods for sale at the front. But in the back, it was all about the food. It was a small menu, and he couldn’t always source as much tilapia as he wanted, but everything was delicious, and it all came with a hug and his ever-bright smile.
When he disappeared from Iowa, I puzzled over the fact that he was gone.
Then I moved to California and found him, and his marvelous cooking, again.
The last time I ate Soleil’s food, it was not at his restaurant, but at a Communications training here in Oakland in January. I was expecting the usual deli sandwich platter for lunch, but came around the corner to find trays of his Cameroonian Ndole, or chicken in groundnut sauce, his rice, and his Makemba, or fried sweet plantains. I ate two plates that day, barely waiting until everyone had gotten a first helping before I went back for seconds.
I remember feeling guilty, for a moment, that I was eating so much, but my three team members who were there with me went back for more, too.
I couldn’t have imagined it was the last time I’d get to eat his food. If I had, I might have eaten three plates instead of two. I might have wrapped some up, taken it home, and saved it for a night when I could have heated it up, played some Congolese music in his honor, and smiled, widely, in his memory. It wouldn’t have been the same as seeing him again, but it would have, mouthful by mouthful, been something.