I come from a long line of Southern women. Strong women. Crazy women. Feisty women.
Women who cook.
One of my greatest regrets was that I only learned to love cooking after I moved to New York, far away from that line of women. Before I had the chance to realize what those moments in the kitchen meant to me, they started dying. An aunt, then a cousin, and then my grandmother. And suddenly, all that cooking was gone with them.
I asked my mom to find their recipe books, to make copies, to send me what was left. I craved my Nanny’s chess pie, my Aunt Helen’s canned grean beans, my cousin Laura’s hushpuppies. But there are no recipes, my mother told me. They just cooked, they didn’t need recipes.
I’ve spent the last ten years trying to recreate those dishes, wandering through my memories, remember family gatherings and the food those women would make. My grandmother would cook a kind of Mexican spaghetti on the weekends when I would pop over for a surprise visit. She was one of those women who created meals from whatever was in the pantry – there was no going out to the store for special ingredients just to make a meal. I spent over two years deconstructing that dish – trying version after version, taking away ingredients here and there, and adding new ones. I finally hit on a close version but it still wasn’t quite the same. It wasn’t hers.
Her pea salad was a bit easier. I was so very close – and I finally got it right when my mother sent me a can of peas from the grocery store near my grandmother’s house. They didn’t sell that brand up here, and apparently, that’s what it needed for everything to click.
It’s become more and more apparent, though, that no matter how much I take the recipes apart and put them back together again, it’s just not the same. My cornbread and milk just isn’t the same because I’m not eating it while sitting at the dining table with my grandfather late at night, the house dark and silent everywhere but the kitchen. He didn’t take the leftover cornbread from supper, crumble it into a glass, and pour milk over it. He didn’t hand me the long teaspoon to eat it with.
My fried catfish just isn’t the same because my grandmother didn’t spend Saturday at the pond, three fishing rods set out before her, as she contentedly whiled away the day just fishin’. It just isn’t the same because my grandfather didn’t clean them out back, or carefully pick out the bones before giving me my plate.
It’s the same story with the wilted lettuce and onions, the squash casserole, the fried green tomatoes. I’ve tried making them, I’ve spent hours tearing the process apart and trying to rebuild it. But there’s that one, vital ingredient missing – my family.
I’ll keep trying though. I’ll mutter when the cornbread is too sweet, when the chicken fried steak is too tough, or when the potato soup is too runny. I’ll keep trying because even in those moments of frustration, the women of my family are in the kitchen with me. Even if they are laughing at me.
Especially if they are laughing at me.
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