I am not normally a big fan of holidays, but I was sad to hear that my mother wasn’t cooking anything for fourth of July. I love my mother’s cooking. Her recipe for potato salad is simple but so scrumptious. Her chicken and beef ribs are crazy delicious, marinated slow cooked. She makes homemade barbecue sauce, I can almost smell it simmering over the stove. She’s been stressed out lately and cooking a lot less and the meals have been less extravagant.
Everybody loves their momma’s cooking. But I’m telling you my momma and grandma cook some screaming food. I, myself, have spun off into my own realm of ethnic food. While my grandma has that good ole Georgia style of cooking, my mother adopted some influences from her loved ones and neighbors. There are still some smells, tastes and textures that bring me joy. I grew up eating a mixture of soul food and West Indian flavors. Greens, salt fish and shredded cucumbers, plantains, slow cooked pot roasts, black eyed peas, fresh fish, fried chicken, curried goat, red beans and rice, pallau, macaroni and cheese, rich sauces, spicy crab boils, candied yams, sweet potato pie, barbecues and chicken dumpling soup. Each dish has a special memory of home.
Some things I learned to master, with my own flair. When I lived at home, each one of us became my mother’s apprentice in the kitchen. She would tell me her cooking secrets, add this, brown that, thicken this, stir that in. As a kid, I would experiment in the kitchen, but it wasn’t until I was about 12 that I really started to put an effort into learning how to cook.
Before my sister was born, my mother had just me and my brother. But she would cook up a feast on holidays. I think she cooked to remind herself of her mother, sisters, and brother who were still in New Jersey. Certain things we craved from New Jersey, things I remembered by smell and taste decades before. Like Hoagies and cheesesteak sandwiches. But mom’s cooking was always around in abundance during Thanksgiving and Christmas. No one cared about the holiday itself. My brother always begrudgingly left his room and ate. We always had leftovers for days. But every year I learned more about my mother’s techniques. She spent hours in that kitchen sauteeing, simmering, basting, mixing, braising, and baking. When I became Muslim, I had to alter the family secrets. I couldn’t cook with the pork, I found smoked turkey, turkey sausage, beef bacon. I learned to make the soul food that reminded me of holidays when our small family came together.
When I went over friends’ houses, they introduced me to new dishes and types of food. I fell in love with mid-eastern food and experimented nearly daily on the family that I worked for as a nanny. At the same time, I fell in love with Creole food and the flavors of New Orleans. I cooked for friends and family, gatherings, and all of those smells and tastes are part of my memories.
I read “Like Water for Chocolate” and the passion that went into each prepared dish in that novel. I think of the sweet passion and love that went into some of my best culinary creations. I haven’t been able to replicate those same tastes and textures because I haven’t been able to put my whole soul into preparing a dish. I remember in my early twenties, after preparing a dish with love, he looked over the table and said, “This reminds me of my grandma.” Single and living by myself, I stopped cooking like that. Food was a communal thing. Loved ones had to be there when I cooked. I had to see the enjoyment on their face as they enjoyed the textures and complexity that went into each dish I prepared.
This year, I had been bragging about my culinary skills, but began worrying that my skills were slipping. I remember practicing one day, in preparation that I would be called on it. In a poorly equipped kitchen, I attempted to reclaim my glory. Not my best work, but not bad either. Like my momma’s, he said. But, I’m going to go visit mine this summer and work on making some dishes like my momma’s.