Sunday, February 14, 2010

Uncovering my "soul"

Wednesday, on the commute home from work, my husband and I started talking about the comfort food of our childhood. We talked about soul food--the dishes common to African American families like ours. We talked not just about the Southern dishes that the majority culture can consume at sanitized soul food restaurants: the fried chicken and sweet potatoes and peach cobbler; we spoke fondly about the other stuff: the neck bones, pig's feet and hog's head cheese. At one time, some of these foods--refuse from white folk's tables--were a symbol of black enslavement and oppression, but they became part of black American culture and enduring symbols of love and family and togetherness.

Food marks many of my fondest memories. I remember summer picnics under the cherry tree in my grandparents' backyard with pineapple ice cream that my grandmother made from scratch and my grandfather froze by turning the crank on a big, blue, old-fashioned ice cream maker. Summer trips "down South" to visit my father's family in Mississippi meant hearty "suppers" (a mealtime I'd not heard of in the Midwest) and returning home with jars of "cha cha," a relish that paired wonderfully greens and beans. I recall sitting in the family kitchen with my mom, on a snowy, winter afternoon, eating a plate of chicken giblets--boiled, seasoned and sprinkled with hot sauce. Today, I look forward to Thanksgiving and Christmas as much for the amazing dinners my mother sets on the table (The best dressing you'll ever taste!) as the fellowship that happens around it.

When I eat soul food, it inevitably jogs some memory like the ones above. It also makes me feel connected to "my people."
Food and food traditions help define cultures. Sweet potato pie and fried green tomatoes bind me to my heritage. I think this is true of most every group. For instance, when I was growing up, our neighbor, an elderly Lithuanian woman named Mrs. Kaminsky, would bring us stuffed cabbage and these delicious, little rolls bursting with meat, and would become teary as she sat and talked with my mother about "the old country." There is something, also, about this food that makes me feel embraced and comforted. Maybe because, like generations of black women, my mother (and her mother before her) demonstrates her love and cares for her family through cooking. Mind you, I am not saying that women have to express themselves this way; I just mention that women have done this and many, like my mother, have enjoyed it.

As my husband and I talked about black comfort food, I realized that my stepchildren, nieces and nephews won't know this part of our culture like I do. They are now two generations removed from the roots of that good, down home cooking. Our lives are so different now. My grandmother, a housewife, put a lot of care into cooking three, hearty squares for her family each day. And her holiday meals--oh, they were amazing! The cobblers...the homemade ice cream...the rolls--folks would drool over my grandmother's rolls. My mother would come home from her job as a teacher and cook a complete and very tasty meal--meat, vegetable and starch--from scratch nearly every night. Me? My daily schedule, which includes more than two hours of commute, means I generally go for quick and uncomplicated. I am very fond of the "go for what you know" night a.k.a. "you find it; you fix it." What is found and fixed is often eaten in front of the TV...on paper plates. Note that I cannot claim to have more responsibilities or less time than my mother or grandmother. It's just that, for one reason or another, I have not prioritized homemade cooking or creating a comforting mealtime.

Then, there is the demonization of traditional, black cooking that keeps us away from many of the dishes our parents and grandparents grew up on. I don't minimize the health problems that plague the black community, many of which are influenced by poor diet. No one would advocate a diet based on a foundation of ham hocks and macaroni and cheese. But in the scheme of an overall healthy diet paired with exercise, an occasional soul food meal is surely no more deadly than occasional Italian food or German food or Chinese food.

I'm not even sure where, in our still not very diverse town, where one might find, say, neck bones. I have to make a special trip to a grocery store 30 minutes away just to get some decent salted, smoked turkey for greens. Perhaps, as a result, I simply don't think of these foods often.

So, because of shifting priorities, real concerns about African American health and negativity surrounding black foodways, increasing integration and maybe just the march of time, an important part of African American culture is in danger of being lost. That is a shame. I find myself wanting to do something about this fact, something to preserve my family's culture in the same way that I seek to preserve our stories by researching and recording our family history.

I was struck, while my husband and I were talking, with this idea to learn to make more of the dishes that were so much a part of my family as I was growing up--the ones that gave me so much joy. I don't want them to pass from my life. I want to perfect and preserve these recipes for future generations. Just a couple times a month, I want to devote time to cooking these things and serving them at the table on the pretty dishes. I want to chronicle this effort here--my mistakes and successes--maybe share a few recipes. Through the end of this year, I want to take you on this journey with me to uncover my "soul" through cooking.

Do you honor the food traditions of your family and ancestors? If so, how?


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