Mother’s Day, a reminder of past Sunday dinners


**FOR USE WITH AP LIFESTYLES** Comfort food does not have to also mean unhealthy. A few careful ingredient changes from the classic recipe gives this Macaroni and Cheese Light, shown on Jan. 29, 2008, the flavor you look for with much less fat. (AP Photo/Larry Crowe) (LARRY CROWE/ASSOCIATED PRESS)

M y grandmother's hands are wrinkled and buttered and floury.

Her swollen knuckles knead the flour into crusts for the pies.

Now she is hopping on her good leg to get to the sink, where she will drain the boiling sweet potatoes, the steam rolling off the water, melting her curls. Her red lipstick is glistening in the kitchen heat.

She will mash the potatoes with sugar and butter and add some cinnamon and nutmeg. And she will beat the eggs and squeeze in a little fresh lemon to keep the pies from turning brown.

She will wash the roast and season it and put it in the oven. She will wash the collard greens and boil them until they are tender. She will scrape the corn off the cob and mix it with a little flour and salt and pepper and fry it in some butter.

Her aching hands scrape and mix and season and dust and wash and stir as she hops around that little kitchen in Kansas on her one good leg.

The sun hasn't even come up yet, and Christine Taylor has been up an hour making Sunday dinner, banging pots and pans, running water. The rest of her family, now spread over town in their own little houses, is sleeping. Nobody really knows when she cooks. But they know Sunday dinner will be ready after church.

I remember sitting in the pew, waiting for those dinners. But the preacher always stood between me and Grandmother's feast. He stood up there in the pulpit, preaching his sermon, long sermon. Reading the Scripture, long Scriptures.

I remember sitting on those hard church benches, my mind trying to listen to the sermon, but wrestling with worldly concerns:

Fried corn, greens, turkey, peach cobbler -- and sweet potato pie -- waiting on Grandmother's table.

The preacher would huff and the church organ would jump on his words, emphasizing each syllable.

And I would wait, sitting in my Sunday dress, hair pressed and tied, tight, in ribbons, sitting with my knees lotioned, socks turned down and patent leather shoes polished.

Praying little prayers, like: "God, please let the service end so I can go eat. Amen."

Sometimes, He would answer those prayers sooner than later.

Church would end at 1:58 p.m. rather than the regular 2:30.

We would shake the pastors' hand. Wait for my mother to finish talking. Wait for the cars to file out of the gravel parking lot. Wait, in the back seat of the white Ford Granada, windows rolled down, hand stuck out the window, beating the waves of the wind, traveling all the way down to where Grandmother lived in a little white house up a broken driveway. There, the food sat, like a glorified offering.

Grandmother would open the door. "Come on in, baby. Help yourselves. Plates are on the table."

And we would dig in.

"Mother, this is so good," my mother would say. "You really put your foot in it today."

(Putting your foot in it means "This is an excellent meal! You seasoned it perfectly." But at these Sunday dinners, nobody but the proper cousins talked like that.) We would dip into the sweet, red Kool-Aid punch with its ring of ice floating like an iceberg. We would eat until we were bursting. No pretense was needed. No need to make small, polite conversation. No need to talk at all. You could just sit on a sofa and eat, and nobody would think you were rude. And when you became a teenager, you could eat, put your plate in the sink and leave without helping to clean up, and nobody would say you were wrong.

At Grandmother's house, it was always about the Food.

This was Soul Food, food for the soul. Sunday dinner was the glue in the amily, like flour and water -- always spiced with drama.

I remember when the uncle brought home the new wife who was from "another culture, " and everybody stopped eating when the uncle put some chitlins on her plate. We waited for her to actually eat these meticulously cleaned, incredibly rich pig intestines. And when she did, we knew she would fit in.

As I grew and went off into the world, I would encounter other people's cooking at holidays and always leave slightly disappointed by the blandness, the lack of salt, the lack of seasoning -- the lack of drama.

Grandmother grew up in Mississippi, a pretty little thing who got married at 17 to get out of the house. Took the train north to Chicago. She doesn't talk about that part of her life much. Only bits and pieces slip out every now and again. Like the time I was helping her get dressed and I asked her about the scars on her back, three slashes on each side of her pretty back. The kind that you see in photos at the Smithsonian.

She doesn't talk much about that or having to move aside on the sidewalk in a segregated town.

Doesn't talk much about the first husband, whom she left because he was mean. Doesn't talk much about the second husband, who was good to her but was in the service and her kids didn't want to travel the world with him, so she stayed home. She doesn't talk much about the move from Chicago to Oklahoma to Kansas, where she worked in a hospital for 25 years, cooking for more than 300 people each day, getting up at 4 every morning for the day shift. Twenty-five years -- until one day she asked for a vacation and they didn't give her the days she wanted, so she retired early. She's been retired 13 years. She is 79.

Now she hops around in her own kitchen, hopping to keep the family together.

Sometimes, I wonder how far I have gone from Grandmother's house.

It has come to this. I rarely eat greens. Who has time to wash each leaf, checking it for ladybugs? . . . I rarely eat homemade macaroni and cheese anymore. Who has time to make the roux and dice the onion finely? In fact, I don't have big Sunday dinners anymore because everything has changed and I have moved so far away from family.

On Sundays, I call Grandmother's house and she says, "Hey, baby. How you doin'? I'm so proud of you."

I hang up and turn to my own Sunday dinner, something quick: grilled salmon and brown rice, a sliced organic tomato with extra-virgin olive oil. Grandmother would have never had this on her Sunday dinner menu. My dinner is not soul food.

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DeNeen L. Brown is an award-winning staff writer at The Washington Post who has covered night police, education, courts, politics and culture.
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