Good Cookin’ Is a Family Tradition and I’m Passing It On (Sorta)

Soul foodAretha Franklin may be the undisputed Queen of Soul, but my grandmother was the long-reigning Queen of Soul Food. Wrap an apron around her, point her toward an oven, and Nana became a boiling, frying, sautéing mastermind: yams and fried fish, collard greens, cabbage and fried chicken, green beans and ham, cornbread or sweet rolls, topped off with sweet potato pie or devil’s food cake. Those hands even managed to make broccoli and carrots irresistible to a crew of picky grandkids. 

And folks wondered why I wore elastic-waist pants every Thanksgiving.

The recipes stashed in her mind weren’t executed out of duty as a wife and mother. Her cooking was a labor of love. I was thankful to be on the receiving end of her artistry, and now I’m taking a stab at being even half the cook she was — and passing the skills on for Tween Girl to use when she has her own family someday far, far from now

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You’ve seen the Madea movies, and the spread at the Harris table isn’t much different: soul food has been the common denominator for most of our gatherings. I remember Nana in a mistletoe-print apron on Christmas, bustling around an un-air conditioned kitchen, ceiling fan working overtime to push all kinds of good smells into every part of the house along with the heat. On Sundays after church, she presented a spread that made a hush fall over her chattery bunch, and not just for prayer. Me and my greedy self has said my own silent words of thanks for everything laid out deliciously in front of me.

It all sounds so clichéd, so stereotypical African-American, like something straight off a Mahogany greeting card, I know. But food has honestly been part of our family bonding, not just eating it (which has always been my favorite part), but cooking it together too.

I know fried foods and starches are socially unacceptable these days. I try to moderate how much we indulge, even though they bring me and The Girl great joy. Funny thing is — even though I dare you to try to wrestle any one of these things into my mouth — old folks have been eating stuff like scrapple, chitterlings, pigs' feet, and hamhocks their whole lives and some of them are scurrying around here 80, 90, darn near 100 years old. Fascinating. Nasty, but fascinating.

I love the tradition behind the food that my grandmother made. Each time she put pot to flame, she was tapping into the knowledge that was passed on to her. She learned from her grandmother who raised her, who was instructed by her mother before and taught her how to make culinary magic out of the most basic ingredients. That’s the soul of soul food. And it doesn’t even always have to be the kind that oozes with saturated, cholesterol-raising fats.

Four years ago, my dear, sweet, beloved Nana went on to heaven, but before she passed, I’d been her apprentice in the kitchen enough times to learn from the master. And it gave me the confidence to start tinkering around with seasonings and recipes, particularly because after I became a mother, I didn’t want my child growing up on TV dinners and fast food. And now, as she blossoms into her teen self, I’ve started pulling her into the meal-making so she can learn — just like I did — and carry on the Harris tradition of great cooks.

Seasoning collards and battering fish is a lot harder than it tastes. But when my grandmother nodded in approval at something I cooked, it might as well have been Michael Jordan complimenting a rookie on a good game. I can only hope to master her fusion between soul food and food for the soul, and pass that on to Girl Child along the way.

What foods are special to your family? And are you teaching your kid how to cook them?

Image via Jen SFO-BCN/Flickr

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