Heart and Soul

You Grow Up, Change Your Life, Travel A Million Miles. Why Does the Spirit of This Food Stay With You?

By DeNeen L. Brown
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, October 10, 2007; Page F01

I never thought I would end up here, barefoot in my kitchen, humming to gospel music on a Sunday afternoon. My hands wrinkled from water. My belly pressed against the kitchen sink. I shift my weight and go between counter and refrigerator, moving around my kitchen with the confidence of womanhood, pulling out pans and cutting boards, imitating the women of my childhood.

[See Recipe: Collards With a Dash of Soul]

Life is funny how it takes you back. Despite all the places you've been. Sometimes it stops you and reminds you of the lessons you were once taught. Tells you not to forget where you came from.

And you end up in the kitchen with your memories. And the water is running, and you are washing a chicken, the way Mother did. Dumping cups of flour in a brown bag, shaking in seasoning, salt and pepper, heating up oil in a cast-iron skillet. Waiting for the oil to get hot, the way Mother instructed. Dropping in just a touch of flour to watch it bubble. Coating the chicken with the flour and placing the chicken in the oil, tenderly, piece by piece. Jumping back from the oil as it leaps from the skillet, chasing you like it did when you were a little girl. And from a distance, you watch the chicken fry until it turns brown. Golden.

I scour the sink and take collard greens out of the bags. Wash each leaf meticulously, checking for ladybugs. Ha! I find one. It rides running water down the drain. I inspect more leaves. Scrub them with salt, the way Mother taught me. Cut each leaf and stem, placing them in a pot with salt and homegrown tomatoes, olive oil, sweet onion and garlic, and letting them steam.

I pull out the cornmeal, crack brown eggs and beat them, adding baking powder, salt, milk, oil. I heat the oven to 425. Sift the dry ingredients. Mix in the milk, the beaten eggs, folding them into the batter. I pour the batter into a skillet with grease at the bottom, the way Mother taught me.

I wash six yams and peel the skin carefully, so carefully, cutting around the eyes of the potatoes, slicing them. Boiling water. Covering the yams with brown sugar, cinnamon, nutmeg, butter. Cooking until the sugar makes thick syrup like candy.

Then I add a little love, the way Mother did. Pray that it nourishes my family. Adding love means preparing the food with care, putting in just the right amount of spice. Food cooked with this kind of love is the best you can eat. You can't find it in a box or over a white tablecloth in a restaurant. It is an ingredient invisible, but necessary. Intangible, but required when cooking soul food; for without the love, you might as well get takeout from some greasy restaurant up the street, or a platter from the deli section of the organic food store. It may taste okay, but it won't be soul food.

Soul food is steeped in memory, coated in history. A food for healing. An art of taking a little of nothing and making it into a meal. Cooking with what you have. No recipe books. Cooking with what you were taught by the women in the family. While they talked, you listened, listened to stories as the food was prepared, not understanding the life they were talking about. Grown-up talk. Wisdom.

"What you do in the dark will show in the light."

"Don't pay no attention to those fast girls up the street."

"Forget about those boys and get your education. No one can ever take that away from you."

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