While dining with a friend, I reflected out loud, “I want a lot of softness around me.” It was a prayer released into the air. I was so tired of the drama with folks who felt that aggression was the way to success. In that moment, a few seconds felt like I was frozen in time.
When I became aware of the movement around me again—people bussing trays and the café filled with noisy chatter—I knew I had hit on a significant truth about myself. Apparently, my friend understood completely because she nodded her head and said “yes!”. It was a desire for fewer disagreements, more kindness, honest listening, and deeper sharing with friends and family. With her recognition of this desire, I didn’t feel alone anymore.
January 2018 had started with a bundle of newness: new writing, new personal insights, and a new food management plan. Then Mom died.
It was not unexpected. She’d had Alzheimer’s for several years and was a month short of 96. Attending her funeral would be my first travel experience since I had been diagnosed with Chronic Inflammatory Demyelinating Polyneuropathy (CIDP) in 2013, a condition that had, at that time, left me paralyzed and weak in the legs for many months. I was nervous about the journey, but after all my years of progressive recovery, I felt strong and ready.
In going to Washington, D.C. for nine days, I would be surrounded by relatives I hadn’t seen in decades. There would be dinners with siblings and other family and a funeral repast with old family acquaintances and neighbors. I’d be stretching myself to the limit with travel by train, social interactions, and using Uber to go between the hotel and my brother’s home where there were too many steps for me to stay there. The physical effort meant being outside in sub-freezing weather, pulling luggage, and staying up until 11 every night as my siblings and I worked on funeral details.
The likelihood of staying on my new meal plan was doomed. Pizzas, fried chicken, and breakfast pastries became the daily cuisine—fast, filling, and cooked by someone else. I wanted—and needed—someone to walk with me; someone who could hold me up and carry my heart gently in his or her hands. Someone, perhaps, who really knew me.
My family is stoical. We do not “do” feelings. This is something that’s bothered me for as far back as I can remember. I’ve always been envious of families that can mourn together, folks who can physically embrace each other while shedding tears. In our family, my tendency to express feelings has earned me the label of “emotional.”
Overnight, the five of us had become orphans, and yet we did not share that familial intimacy. Perhaps this was why I felt desperate for a friend with whom I could share the thoughts close to my heart. But is there a friendship that can meet such a need? Every person has a boundary when it comes to openness and vulnerability. In choosing friends, I have made some mistakes.
I was thinking about the concept of “softness around me” on the day I returned from my mother’s funeral. Feeling sad, I called a woman that I considered a new friend since moving to Pennsylvania. In the past, we had talked about politics, philosophy, and where to find good men. We had cooked together and shared family pictures during holiday meals. So…when I got back to town, I rang her up. Phone calls were not returned. Neither were text messages or emails. Weeks later when I heard from her, I was stunned to learn that she thought our “expectations for friendship are different.” I did not know what she meant.
I was hurt, but also angry. Faced with the realization that I had somehow unwittingly made someone uncomfortable, I had to look at how I choose friends and what my expectations are. Clearly, my inner “friend-picker” needed repair. I was now faced with another new task for the New Year: Approaching my seventies, I would have to learn how to choose new friends.
When I graduated from high school, my classmates and I used to write a common verse in each other’s yearbooks. Love many, trust few; learn to paddle your own canoe.
My need for deep friendship on any given day can remain securely hidden behind the pots and spices in my kitchen. But need has a way of breaking out of hiding places. When it does, judgment dissolves.
A good friend, like good food, is a reliable source of comfort. I use great care when selecting ingredients for cooking. Will I be able to, going forward, choose friends in the same way? Some friendships I thought would last for years, end or fade. And, of course, I change. Understanding this, the future stands before me with thoughtful friendship experiences and more “softness around me.”
Just Pass the Grits. Okay?
It happened last week. A neighbor uttered two words that don’t go together: “cauliflower grits.”
Nooo. Cauliflower is not grits and never will be.
I understand concerns about diet and health. Lord knows it’s been a daily struggle for me, especially since living with complications from Guillain-Barre Syndrome. Sixteen months in a wheelchair can pack on pounds.
I’m a gal with strong southern roots. I would not trade a bowl of stewed tomatoes and grits, cheese grits or grits with liver and gravy for cauliflower “grits.”
As my nieces would say, “That’s just wrong.”
For anyone without southern roots, I can forgive the confusion. My neighbor is a woman of solid culinary tastes. She eats at fancy Italian restaurants and thrills over Vietnamese cuisine. She is also a cauliflower devotee.
“You will love it,” she gushes.
No. I will not love it because I have never loved cauliflower, a vegetable that I choose to call white broccoli. Seriously, I’d walk barefoot over hot rocks before subbing cauliflower for grits.
I don’t just cook for nourishment. I cook for joy, otherwise what’s the point? Love of food and the kitchen makes me happy.
My mother died this month. When I was asked to write some words for her obituary, I wrote about her love for God and how she instilled that love in each of her children. But really, I could have written about her prowess as a home chef with exemplary imagination and culinary skill. Everything we learned about food came from her southern roots: her kitchen, our grandmothers’ kitchens, and our aunts’ kitchens. Food and kitchens make me happy.
There were childhood breakfasts with bowls of hot grits, fried chicken livers and onions, and hot biscuits. If for no other reason than the legacy of southern cooking, I take full affront to the idea of replacing grits, rice or potatoes with a ground-up vegetable.
This morning, I sautéed onions, kale (in homage to the green veggie craze), garlic, and mock sausage. I mixed all the veggies into a creamy pot of grits and added cheese. As I watched it all come together with a kind of brown gravy tint, I felt sorry for folks who will never enjoy the warm belly comfort of real grits or rice.
“Cauliflower tastes just like rice” says my neighbor.
No. It doesn’t taste just like rice.
There are real reasons that some folks are choosing cauliflower instead of starchy grains. Recently, concerns have been expressed about rice. Where is it grown? Does the soil have arsenic? Is it from the southern United States or Vietnam? White rice is high on the glycemic index and can contribute to blood sugar level spikes. I acknowledge these concerns, but a good rice pudding or cream of potato soup ain’t the same with cauliflower.
When I was a child, foods like grits, kale, and collards were standard southern fare. However things have changed, and with change I find myself in a world where organic collards, once almost free for the picking, are three dollars a bunch and grits are nouvelle cuisine. With change comes a cultural temptation to make things “better,” healthier, to explore new tastes.
“Have you tried the cauliflower pizza crust?”
No. If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.
The more my friend yammered on about cauliflower rice, the stronger was my pull for a dish of rice covered with a rich chicken stew. So, I followed the urge and─
“Cauliflower would have been good in that stew!”
Posted in Creative Non-Fiction, Essay, Family memories, Food, Humor, Memoir, Writing. Loving.
Tagged Commentary, Creative Non-Fiction, essay, food and humor, food and memory, Humor, Life Stories, memoir, Opinions, Reflections