Just because we can't gather doesn't mean we can't grub. The holidays look a little different this year, but no matter where you might find yourself this season, we offer these Southern family recipes and stories of Indigenous love and resistance to keep you warm.
Watching my messy efforts in the kitchen and my imperfect knife skills, my mother promptly called her favorite barbecue joint and ordered a rack of ribs. But my mother gives me hope that one day I will be a better and more intuitive cook. Maybe I'll become a practitioner of, as cookbook author and TV host Vertamae Grosvenor called it, "vibration cooking"—where you know from the feeling that the recipe is right and tight.
My mother is known in our family as a masterful home cook with a diverse and tasty repertoire. Everyone coveted her contributions to our all-family cookouts at a cousin's mountain vacation home, which we called pigouts. She also once almost-poisoned my Aunt Dot with her clam dip—and there was a recent Thanksgiving mishap with that Southern abomination called ambrosia.
But when I think of her cooking, it's the kielbasa and cabbage; cobblers and collards; shrimp fried rice; fried chicken that leaves a slight salty sting on your lips; Salisbury steak; steamed bok choy; beautiful fruit salads; banana pudding; and one of my sister's favorite dishes, macaroni and cheese.
I last met my parents for lunch at Leonoro's in early March, when COVID-19 allegedly hadn't hit West Virginia yet, but there was plenty of news about spikes in other states, potential school closings, and shoppers circling toilet paper aisles like sharks in a frenzy.
"It's so hard to tell what's going to happen with all this," mom said over an iceberg lettuce salad doused in Leonoro's unique tomato-based house dressing.
Beyond time-honored recipes for pasta sauce and meatballs, Leonoro's has offered so much as a beacon of comfort in times of uncertainty. My family's never felt that more than we have over the past year.
It was late-August when mom sat in a windowside booth by herself during a Thursday lunchtime rush, moments after leaving the doctor's office.
She ordered an extra meatball, something familiar to ease her scattered mind. Then she went home and called me with the news—she'd just been diagnosed with a rare and aggressive form of cancer.
When my mind and spirit are in distress—a familiar condition in this time of pandemic and deadly police violence that steadily robs Black lives—I tick off some ingredients in my head. Listing each one calms me, reminds me that I am anchored in a tradition of love so deep that it transcends emotion. To me, love looks like a pan of hot cornbread.
Salt. Cornmeal. A little flour.
Cornbread is the first food I learned to cook. Girls in the South tend to learn the ways of the kitchen early; at age 11, I was overdue. I was tired of being the string bean snapper, relegated to the back porch with a big pan and a bag of beans while my older cousins chopped, seasoned, and fried their way toward womanhood. They looked so grown, tending a stove full of boiling pots, teasing each other and whispering secrets. I envied them.
That summer, my mama's mama, Alabama-born Grandma Lacey, declared me ready to cook cornbread and was thereafter my teacher, clucking softly at my heavy handedness with flour.
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Gumbo, jambalaya, red beans and rice, shrimp Creole, you know the Cajun roll call. That also means much of this newsletter revolves around Indigenous Gulf Coast cuisine, as this week's guest, Dr. Jeffery Darensbourg, a councilmember for the Alligator Band of the Atakapa-Ishak Nation of Southwest Louisiana and Southeast Texas, tells me. Darensbourg is also the writer and publisher of the New Orleans-local zine, Bulbancha Is Still A Place: Indigenous Culture from New Orleans.