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In a parallel life, I think I might have been a cafeteria lady, baking industrial sized trays of yeast rolls every morning in a stainless steel kitchen, ladeling out clouds of mashed potatoes and smothering them with milk gravy.
Last Sunday I spent most of the day cooking a big, fragrant fall dinner for four guests and I couldn’t have been happier. No fancy-pants arrangements of pea tendrils and single asparagus spears in this kitchen, but hefty quantities of slow-cooked, heavily seasoned plain food – pork roast, scalloped potatoes, apple bundt cake – the kind of food the women who raised me cooked all their lives.
The iconic southern chef Edna Lewis, who died a few years back after spending many decades introducing the wonders of fresh, plain foods to city folk, wrote that “cooking is hard and demanding,” and that “what began as hard work became creative work” for many of her generation who cooked “in the home, in hotels, in boarding-houses, on boats, on trains, and in the White House.”
I cleaned up after the guests left, relishing the satisfaction of clean pots and a scrubbed counter top. I was tired, but still energized and couldn’t sleep, a common situation out here in the middle distance. I’m the age now that my mother was when she was a full-fledged grandmother, and in a state of fatigue, my mind tends toward all that is passing so fast. I get caught up in the race.
That night I thought of Aunt Bernice, my mother’s last surviving sister, in her 90s in a Tennessee nursing home she didn’t like at first but warmed to when they agreed to let her help in the kitchen every now and then. These days Aunt Bernice is sometimes lucid and sometimes not on the phone with my mother, and her kitchen days are over, but memories of some of her monumental dishes are still legend. Every December she’d pack a jam cake, heavy as a brick, in multiple layers of tin foil and mail it to my mother in a shoe box. The cake, dark and wet, would arrive and, unwrapped, its fruity, spicy scent would fill the kitchen – cinnamon, cloves, black walnuts, blackberry jam. Enveloping it, a sturdy caramel icing an inch thick, grainy with sugar. It makes my teeth hurt just to think about it. My mother would parcel out tiny pieces of Aunt Bernice’s cake to herself two or three times a day, and her nibbling at it barely made a dent. “I’ll never be able to eat this thing,” she’d say, “but it’s so good.”
The night of the pork roast dinner, I can’t sleep past the thought that I might not ever see Aunt Bernice again, and that her recipes will be lost to me. A few years back I wrote a book that was half about singing and half about eating, and how being in concert with others at church potluck dinners called “dinner on the grounds” fed the spirit as well as the body. I collected recipes from country women in Alabama who’d cooked good plain food for their families, on riverboats, for farm crews, and for their churches all their lives. I remember calling a woman to get her recipe for fresh creamed peas and new potatoes. There was a pause on her end of the line. “Well, I don’t really write it down,” she said. I explained that others had told me her vegetable dishes were their favorites and I wanted to include them in the book. Another pause. “Honey,” she said, “it’s jest foo-ood.”
I wonder if her girls moved as far away from their mother and their home kitchen as I did when they got older. If they did, I’m sure they discovered that it’s not just food, it’s the molecular detail of who they’ve been, who they are now, and who they and their children will be when the cooks before them are gone. It’s tradition lost and found – what we know and what we’ve forgotten.
Every winter when I visit my mother she talks about how she wishes she could re-create a dish from her childhood that she never learned to cook, a dish her Aunt Lily made for her. The night I can’t sleep, I find Edna Lewis’s recipe for Simmered Greens with Cornmeal Dumplings, just as my mother has described it, the dumplings slightly sweet with brown sugar against the acrid greens and their smoky pot likker. I’ll cook it for her when I go home, and see if it tastes the way she remembers it.
Kathryn Eastburn is the author of A Sacred Feast: Reflections of Sacred Harp Singing and Dinner on the Ground, and Simon Says: A True Story of Boys, Guns and Murder in the Rocky Mountain West. You can comment and read or listen to this column again at The Big Something at KRCC.org. “The Middle Distance” is published every Friday on The Big Something and airs each Saturday at 1 p.m. right after This American Life.