by Patricia Spears Jones, July 2008
Food is a subject so fraught, I am not sure I want to deal with it. Of course, Atim who is tall and slender probably can eat anything she wants. But I am short and round and when I wasn’t looking the pounds begat pounds making food both a comfort and enemy. While the weight struggle continues, now food is mostly about nurture and occasionally great pleasure. I appreciate a great meal whether prepared by friends or by wonderful, creative chefs.
Many years ago, my friend Lynn Cadwallader had a dinner at her cottage in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Richard, her English beau (they later married and now have a lovely daughter) snuck pheasants (with the shot in them) on a plane from London—this is all pre-September 11. It took her a full day to prepare them. She made an elaborate salad—this was late summer and I think there were new potatoes and fresh fruit. We all brought desserts and alcoholic beverages. There was a lot of red wine and sparkling water. And lots of talk as the birds were consumed, the salad chewed, the wine imbibed. I remember feeling a wonderful sense of our humanity, of why we feast. And at dinner’s end her friend, a tall, impossibly handsome man offered to take me home—I lived like clear across Boston. What I felt was how generous we can be especially around food.
And a few years ago, Atim and I went to Grand Dakar in Clinton Hill where Pierre Thiam continues to make wonderful Senegalese-based food for a fairly diverse group of diners. A celebrated singer from Senegal was performing. It seemed as if all of hip Africa was in the restaurant. The singer was tall and beautiful—a Goddess with her rather large and well-dressed entourage-manager, daughter, granddaughter in tow. She was swathed in yellow and wore lots of gold jewelry and when she sang hip Africa showered her with bills. I was watching the pot at the end of the rainbow singing. Meanwhile, the kitchen was overwhelmed so that by the time our meals arrived, we were both famished and noncommittal. Was the food good, perhaps? But what was fascinating was the singer, her family, other singers, the patrons who seemed to be from all of West Africa, and the scents of fish and spices and a feeling being elsewhere. As we know food is often the catalyst for ways of being, for building community, which is why food is at the heart of all cultures.
I know that when there are block parties and neighborhood gatherings in New York, often ethnic foods are shared—they are the ways into which we sample each other’s culture. This has often been denigrated as a Kumbaya moment, but what is wrong with trying to come together? What we put in our mouths is important. How food is prepared is important. What kinds of spices are or not used–all important. That people are willing to share what they love to eat and prepare it for strangers is a gift. Maybe we should begin again to understand the necessity of generosity and grow our ability to accept what is offered in friendship and joy.
I grew up in the heart of the South on fried and smothered chicken; barbecue (pork really—we are talking Arkansas and Tennessee); chicken and dumplings, greens (mustard, collards), sweet potatoes (baked, mashed, and in pies—I make a mean sweet potato pie from my Mama’s recipe, which will remain in my family), rice as breakfast cereal; pork chops (fried or smothered), peach cobbler, biscuits from scratch; corn bread (and not this overly sweet mess they pawn off on unsuspecting New Yorkers); ham hocks and string beans and grits. Those are my comfort foods in memory and in life when I can find a place that can cook collards and thankfully there are a few places in Bed-Stuy where they can and when all else fails I go to Tom’s Diner in Prospect Heights for scrambled eggs and grits. I know he’s Greek, but some how Gus strikes me as a man who understands good Southern cooking.