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When I first started entertaining the idea that I would devote time and energy to food writing, as opposed to just eating and talking about food; I tried my hand at peeling the Big Apple for its culinary secrets. I kept finding myself out of the loop. Everywhere I looked seemed to be passe, hackneyed, old, brand new, out of the moment, in the moment….I felt two hours too late or ten years behind. The gastronomic capital of the world felt like a poisoned feast where things were always passed due—but beloved, or just being born and distrusted or embraced with an intensely passionate novelty-love….all on a grid I never really seemed to be able to navigate. I spent a day each month for 8 months demonstrating recipes for the greenmarket at Union Square, I chatted up vendors, bought heirloom tomatoes from Tim Stark, apples from Upstate, fingerlings from Joe–whose last name I still don’t know–but whose earth-stained hands showed me I could trust every word he said about his potatoes. Maple candy, some fish we Marylanders would never call “striped bass,” garlic scapes, goat cheese I’m sure I paid way too much money for, a Korean-American farm’s Concord grape and apple punch I always bought a quart of, and O’Henry yams….surely an education but not quite enough
I was always sort of an anomaly there—I wore the kippah–and invariably collected stares and inquiries that unnerved some and drew others in. Jewish school groups would cluster in and ask, “Ma Nishmah?” or “Is it kosher?” I could never look up fast enough to see if it was a test/challenge or a genuine verbal hug. Happy was my soul when a Lubavitcher said Chag Sameach (Happy Holiday!) during Sukkos, while a member of another sect, barely five minutes earlier said, “Oh thanks…..” in response to my Chag Sameach…as if I wasn’t Jewish. I could always tell Sephardim and Israelis from religious Ashkenazim–if they saw the food was vegetarian–they’d try it. Our co-religionists would ask a lot of questions, maybe take a picture of me and move on. In the most Jewish place on earth outside of Eretz Israel, there I was at the center and the periphery—not unlike the rest of my people….
The African immigrants and Caribbean family were close but a tiny bit far away from where I was “located.” Many couldn’t get over their shock that an African-American knew where their country was or its capital. “How you know about that man?” We talked about sadza, mountain chicken–which is definitely not chicken–, soursop, fufu, alligator pepper, and the bins of niebe–cowpeas from Senegal in Harlem. Some gave me kinship, others disdain. To the African-Americans the first question was usually, “Where are your people from?”
My answer was always, “Yonder.”
It was like a code word. Like “amcho” during World War II in the concentration camps; or “Lundsman” on the Lower East Side at the turn of the 20th century; a shibboleth that meant, “my roots are down South.” If they laughed at my response, they got my genealogy al-regel-achat–(on one foot)…if they didn’t I know they couldn’t go very far beyond Bedford-Stuyvestant, Adam Clayton Powell, southside Queens, or Yonkers. It dawned on me, that it is the unrelenting search for ourselves in others that leads us to find out who we are, as if another’s understanding was a mirror probing deeper than the flesh and tendons and rawness of our meat….
The food told them I was kin. The food was pointing in the direction where I was, where I belonged, what I was a part of, and what I brought to the table. My terroir was not the asphalt and parkland, greenspace and rooftop gardens and honeybee laced urban air–it was the fields and farms of the past, the scary scary past–the colonial and antebellum past—with its bayous, backwoods, creeks, swamps, mountainsides, Black Belts, sandy bottomlands and sweeping subtropical valleys. My terroir was my enslaved past–and the enslaved past of us all.
My plate was haunted. It had been haunted all along. I didn’t know where the newest hotspot was at the corner of so and so and such and such. I didn’t have a clue–and still don’t why being a Chicagoan means eating a hot dog covered in what appears to be salad fixins to an outsider—or why if you don’t fuse your food in LA you are damn near called a segregationist. Meh….bah….I was eating with my forebears, growing with them, taking advice, living on the cusp of breathing and the permanent silence and cool of the grave. I was from Yonder, I cooked from a place in my soul called Yonder, and to Yonder I would return. “Over Yonder,” where my stories lie was where blackberries grew on the hills outside of Birmingham; or the sweet potato field in Lancaster county, SC that got my grandfather and his orphaned siblings through the Depression; the pippins fried in butter and topped off with sorghum molasses in Prince Edward county, VA. I never tasted any of these–I just heard about them until the people who talked about them died. I was supposed to be thankful for those edibles–because if they were not, I would not be.
I am a product of the eaters and the eaten. Co-evolved. I am Ned the Hog—so much for my Kosher Soul, huh? I am the critter they call rat-de-bois in the bayou country, you know him as possum. I am the crawfish that made mud towers in the cities of the dead; and I am the dominiker chickens that faded into the unconscious seeing their world spin like a merry go round. Over Yonder was where the crowder peas came from that my mother had to shell at my grandfather’s insistence on the step in Cinncinati, and the sugarcane and country melons that made Over Yonder seem like a foreign land–and it was to her and her siblings–they never went Over Yonder, because once my grandmother left Over Yonder, she couldn’t see herself going back to the un-promised Land.
In my maternal grandmothers’ day you turned over the plate after Grace to eat. My haunted plate, turned over , so shined, so polished revealed my face and all the faces that stared into it before me, going back to a face that had never seen a plate like that before.
Virginia/North Carolina/South Carolina/Georgia/Tennessee/Alabama=home
To Be a Slave
I am always surprised how many people “don’t get it.” Furniture, dishes, wallpaper, plaster moulding, receipt books, gardens laid out in Enlightenment orgasms of symmetry and reason….
Shoot me dammit. I can appreciate those things….but…….why doesn’t anybody really want to go there–to the log….
When my friend Wisteria Perry worked at Pamplin Historical Park in Petersburg, Virginia; I cried when I saw the log. Damn, that log beat any table carved from mahogany and chiseled and carved by who the hell ever. That log was hauled out a tupelo bog. Some of my people may have served somebody at the fine mahogany table, but their table was the log–and you know what they say in Africa–sit at my table, eat and you will know me. That beautiful rotten log with the chipped leftover china and cracked gourd. The gourd that made people think of flying North to freedom and made well water sweet….Somebody has to sit at that log and keep the traditions going–that came from Africa, mixed with Europe and Native America and made the U.S. into Us.
I cried when I saw the tough for that matter too. It was from Louisiana and was part of the America I Am exhibit through Tavis Smiley and the National Geographic Society. That trough was everywhere from Maryland to Texas, Missouri to Florida. That trough made Frederick Douglass want to learn to read and run the hell away from slavery. The civil war began at that trough.
It’s not all about the past you know–its standing in the kitchen of the Lee ancestral home, Stratford Hall and having guests laugh at you when you’ve spilled some water on the hearth….and you can tell its not a nice laugh…You’ve been on your feet for hours, you’ve built the fire, you’re exhausted, you’ve carried 60 pound pots…and you have a table full of things you’ve cooked and you feel embarrassed and the people who are watching you seem remarkably unsympathetic even mocking–as if they—could do this–day after day after day–
Did they know I could have been whipped if was enslaved in that time for a mistake like that? Taught a lesson? This horrifies me, this “Over Yonder” place, where you cross rivers and you cross time and all of a sudden things are unfathomable. A slave was not a job position or a member of a caste. An enslaved person was property, a possession considered subhuman, a draft animal.
Did they also know that as a cook I could be a real bastard and tell them all to get out? Rolled eyes, smirks, laughter…Bemusement my tuchus. Those early Black cooks were not necessarily demanding mammies and faithful eunuch-like uncles as they have been depicted—they were channels of power, gatekeepers in modern corporate-speak—lions of the one room where tempers could flare like the almost everlasting flames in the hearth. There is so much to be learned from these dynamics—the last one to go was the cook.
Struggling to wake up./Half burned hoecake/day old mush/off to the field/up before dawn/striking the fire/punching down the dough/breakfast ready when Miss is in the kitchen/making the morning meal alongside Miss/breakfast served at a fine table at 7/breakfast taken to the field with Miss/being yelled at for spilling/burning your arm/the day has to go on/nobody cares about your lower back/old mamas cooking over an iron pot under a shelter for the folks in the field/hoecake lady making her mark/going shopping with Miss toting the baskets in the city streets/babies fed at the trough–muddy hands at all/cuts on the hands-nobody cares/mama feeds baby by field nursing with the only food nobody controls but her/baby lying in the grass/lullaby/all the pretty little horses/lunch break in the field/feel full/hold it down/300 pounds a day/sugar house/rice task/priming leaves/stained hands/hemp/wheat/corn/ironworks and salt pork/Adams in the garden picking up leaves/mamas stir the peas and pork/do not ruin the roux/cabbage bubbles for all white and black on this small farm/supper is to be prompt at 2 the Madisons are coming from over yonder–8 hours on an oxcart/fine dinner service/ham and turkey you will never taste or touch/damn you/no tarts/no salamagundi/no quince preserves/no tasso/prepare for supper/catfish stew/hoecake and buttermilk/possum time/spitting/joking/mush again–same as yesterday/leftovers supper/dishes time/stories from Africa/lullabies/hush harbor/fall into bed, work at 4/if the rooster crows you’re already late/always hungry/always wanting/always empty