This time of year I always seem to cook more than I do in the spring and summer months. It’s just something about the fall and winter that makes me want to be in the kitchen. Of course, the colder months make me want more comfort foods, and with the extra hour we gain I tend to cook more meals that take longer to cook. And the holidays always make me dust off some traditional recipes for our family dinners. Food for me has always been about family. I can have a piece of sweet potato pie and get instantly taken back to my Granny’s kitchen back in Newport, Arkansas during my youth.
I am an African American woman from the south. So for me to say that most of my memories are associated with food would be an understatement. Food has always had a special place in my family. Every occasion was a reason to cook something, a wedding, a graduation, a baby being born, a birthday, or when company was coming over. My first memory of my grandparents was a moment with them and food. Our summers in Newport always included my dad barbequing or frying fish. During the summer is when my relatives from out of town came home to visit. So the house was always full of people, and there was always something cooking in the kitchen. We would sit out on the porch and shell peas, shuck corn on the cob, pick through greens, and churn homemade vanilla ice cream.
Then there were the holidays when food was always front and center. Thanksgiving we would always have a traditional meal, turkey, ham, dressing, macaroni and cheese, green bean casserole, cornbread, cranberry sauce, greens, black-eyed peas, sweet potato pie, and pecan pie. Our Christmas menu was usually the exact same except we would usually have caramel cake or red velvet cake in addition to the pies. Cookies on Christmas Eve have always been a tradition. I remember making cookies on Christmas Eve when I was in Jr. High School. I’m not sure how or when it started. I have continued the tradition with my nephews and my son. I hope those are memories that they will always have of us spending time together. We would always have a ham for Easter along with dressing, macaroni and cheese, cabbage, black-eyed peas, and sweet potato pie. On a regular Sunday, we would have pot roast or roast chicken with scalloped potatoes, green beans, rolls, and marble cake. This is the food of my youth. This is the food I still crave.
My food memories aren’t just isolated to Newport and my youth. I remember the first time I went to meet my husband’s parents. His mom asked me to help her in the kitchen. She was making chicken and dressing for Sunday dinner the next day. I like to believe that I made a good impression on her with my knowledge and skills that I had learned from my grandmothers. We spent about an hour chopping vegetables, mixing cornbread, and talking about nothing in particular. I remember telling Phillip that his mom cooked like my grandmothers, and it was nice being in the kitchen like that again.
I often think how different my son’s childhood is than mine was when it comes to food. Wesley has never shelled peas until his fingers are purple. He has never churned ice cream. He has never made ice tea in the sun. He loves pizza, nachos, and Chick Fil A. But when we go to see my dad in Newport, Wesley expects to have some of my dad’s barbeque ribs no matter what time of the year it is. And Wesley tells everyone that his Grandma (Mrs. Cummings) makes the best pound cake in the world. He always remembers to ask my sister to make a ham for Christmas. So I guess he is making his own food memories after all.
The past two years I have talked about this journey more and more with family members. And it’s usually around a table while we are eating. When I went to interview my oldest living relative in Chicago last year, we talked while eating fried chicken, macaroni and cheese, green beans, and sweet potato pie. Anytime I talk to my dad there’s always food around. I recently had a wonderful conversation with Mrs. Cummings about how she met Mr. Cummings and the maternal side of her family while sitting in her kitchen. When I’m at family reunions or funerals, there’s always food around. Food is as much a part of my family history as the people that I’m researching. This journey is allowing me to remember and celebrate my ancestors while spending time with my family and enjoying the food we all love. And this is why my journey continues….