The ache for home lives in all of us, the safe place where we can go as we are and not be questioned. Maya Angelou
The birds were soooooo loud that, had they been human, I would have complained. And yet, I’d been waiting all winter for their song. The sky, a soft pearly gray, was on the cusp of becoming dawn. I smiled. I had recently been reflecting on my life choices and wondered what my life would have been had I married, raised children and settled in one place that I could call home. I don’t think I was regretful exactly because, given my life experiences, I would make the same choices again. For the moment, with the birdsong, all was well.
I lay in bed reading My Kitchen Year: 136 Recipes That Saved My Life, a memoir by Ruth Reichl. She is one of my favorite food memoirists. Her heartwarming stories are insights into food as a vocation. Reading about the discovery, cooking, and sharing of food usually draws me into a joyful place. But this was not the case that morning. Instead, I placed the book on my chest and became reflective. What was I feeling? Yearning.
As the warm colors of the dawn sky filled my window, I wanted to get on with my day, to put those uneasy feelings out of my mind. Encouraged by Reichl’s sensual writing, I got up to fix breakfast. I knew exactly what I wanted: banana pancakes, homemade blueberry syrup, vegetarian sausage, and a boiled egg. Such a treat. I had been making kale smoothies for breakfast, and the sweetness of the bananas mixed with the blueberries was a delicious change!
The steady, rhythmic activity of making blueberry syrup and pancake batter was meditative, giving me time to focus on what I was feeling. Then, like a fog clearing, it came to me. I was feeling homesick. I felt as if I had missed something very important in my life.
Homesick. The word repeated itself inside like bubbles floating in the air. Where, I wondered, was home? I had left so many places behind. Beautiful cities, emerald mountains, oceans. Where was that place to which I could return for complete acceptance and safety?
After breakfast, I watched an episode of Chefs Table, a Netflix series that documents the lives of chefs and their paths to culinary vocations. This particular episode examined the life of Mashama Bailey, an African American chef in Savannah, Georgia, and her return to home. The landscape of rivers, rural farms and the relationship among southern cooking, culture, and home deepened my sadness. I missed the summers of southern beauty that I shared so often with my family. Growing up, I loved the food. I hated the racist, violent South. Still, the gatherings at meals were safe, healthy moments. Then, as I watched Chef Bailey’s story, I surprised myself: tears. Where was that place that was, as Maya Angelou said, a “safe place where we can go as we are and not be questioned”? Watching Chef Bailey’s story, I had tears, but I did not have an answer.
During my initial crisis with CIDP ─ chronic inflammatory demyelinating polyneuropathy ─ I was placed in a skilled nursing facility (still working on that essay…). I could not raise my arms nor use my hands. I could barely walk. One of the occupational therapists said to me “You should accept this. All those complicated meals you cooked in the past are probably over.” She was trying to be kind, even helpful, but she had poked the bear. My rage shut down conversation in the room. “Don’t you ever tell me what I won’t be able to do!” When she returned from the administrator’s office, I was assigned a new occupational therapist who had no better understanding of my condition or what my abilities might be than the first. I moved to a different facility with therapists who had a broader understanding of the importance of cooking. In doing so, I really began to understand something that is an essential part of me: I feel safe and free when I am exploring the culinary world. Food is major to my sense of feeling at home.
In the documentary, Chef Bailey poignantly made the connection between food and her relationship to home. Her heart was in Savannah where she’d spent so much of her early childhood. In later years, after failing as a social worker in New York, she went on to study the culinary arts with Anne Willan, founder of the prestigious École de Cuisine La Varenne in France and Gabrielle Hamilton at Prune in New York. With that experience and the memory of the warmth generated by food, culture, and community in her native Savannah, things eventually became clear. Returning to Savannah with its fresh seafood, local farms, and lush green marshes, she met her business partner, John Morisano.
Together they turned a formerly segregated Jim Crow era bus station into The Grey, one of Savannah’s premier restaurants. Chef Bailey’s business acumen and talent won her the prestigious James Beard Award. Her love for food and joy at being where she considers home is changing hearts, plate by plate.
I know what that warmth of being at home feels like, particularly in relationship to the South and the sumptuous summers I spent there. I embrace my Gullah heritage, and I am joyful when in harmony with my Southern traditions. I revere the farmland and farmers. But. The South is not my home; it was my parents’ home.
Later, I prepared a lunch of roasted chicken, baked potato, a tossed salad, and roasted Brussels sprouts. As I washed and sliced the sprouts, the physical connection to home grew stronger and stronger. The warmth of the oven, the peace and serenity of music, the afternoon spring light streaming through a window. There it was, that place of safety where I could be all of who I am.
There was no one sharing those moments with me, and yet, in that space in time, the yearning was gone. Cooking had brought me back to the place that is my home. My heart.
“Let us break bread together on our knees.” I remember Mom’s soprano filling the apartment with melody.
The lyrics are branded on my heart, and I’m reminded of three principles spawned from eating with family and friends. Gratitude. Service. Healing.
Gratitude for having access to food no matter how humble. Service in preparing food to share with others. The Healing that comes with sharing prayers, laughter, and companionship.
When I allow myself to feel the sadness that can come from eating alone ─ a consequence of the pandemic lockdown and my being medically unvaccinated ─ I recognize that sharing a meal is fundamental to self-nurturing.
I don’t remember the exact holiday. Some 50 years ago, at Passover, Rosh Hashana, or a Friday evening Shabbat, I sat across from my Jewish hosts. I knew nothing about Judaism except for what they explained about Kosher meals. Nineteen years old, Black and, most definitely raised Baptist, I nevertheless felt an intimacy with my new friends. We had mutual history: slavery, oppression, and escape from bondage. I relaxed into the comfort of being welcomed and learning about a new culture. I felt…nurtured and accepted. But I also nurtured and accepted them when I agreed to share a meal ─ “break bread” ─ with people I barely knew.
Recently, I came upon an article in The Atlantic by Amanda Mull entitled “How America Lost Dinner.” (https://www.theatlantic.com/health/archive/2019/10/work-its-whats-for-dinner/599770/ )
Mull outlines the path taken to our fast food, take-out culture and how we’ve become a society where so many of us are accustomed to eating alone. Family dinners, it seems, have been relegated to the back burner of American life. At first, I was reactive, thinking, “Well! That’s not my experience.”
Reaction instead of response is always a misstep.
By the time I finished reading, I was responding to Mull’s analysis that “By all indications, Americans want to cook and eat together.” Agreed. I rarely feel bad when I’m sharing mealtimes with others.
I grew up in a family that bonded when eating together. Maybe it’s because each of us contributed to the preparation of a meal. A task might not be pleasant, but it contributed to the health and joy of the meal. Yes, I said it. Joy. There was nothing like Daddy rolling from his chair onto the floor to exaggeratedly crawl away from the Thanksgiving table because the meal was so good and filling. Of course, once on all fours, he became a horse. There were plenty of siblings and cousins around to take advantage of his back.
My father liked to fish, bringing home perch or shad or whatever unlucky vertebrate took hold of his line that day. Cleaning fish taught me a kind of focus in the kitchen. Mom was always nearby watching. If I grabbed them the wrong way, the scales would prick my fingers.
“No. Do it this way!”
And I would do it as she instructed. When the fish’s body was smooth enough to run my hand along both sides without getting caught on the scales, I was ready for the nasty part ─ gutting. Sometimes, there was roe, a delicacy that, to this day, I will not eat. Call it caviar if you want.
The grossest part was the beheading. Looking into the blank eyes of a lifeless creature was my personal science fiction movie. With vacant eyes staring, it seemed, at me, I looked the other way as I severed the head from the body. And there, my friends, is another delicacy I will not touch ─ fish heads in any dish whatsoever.
We did not fillet our fish. I remember only too vividly my mother reaching into a child’s throat to remove a spiky bone. She may at times have resented motherhood, but she would not let us die.
We blessed the food. We ate the food. The fried fish, accompanied by biscuits, collard greens, mashed potatoes and gravy was well worth the trauma of the cleaning. In those moments of blessing, intimacy filled the space. If Daddy was home, we’d have spirited discussions about what was going on in the world. Assassinations ─ Gandhi. Malcolm X. President Kennedy. Civil Rights. Daddy shared some important wisdom: “Don’t ever judge another man unless you’ve walked in his shoes.” To this day, I hear his voice in my head as I meet all kinds of folk.
The pandemic has caused many of us to reevaluate and reprioritize our values and forced folks to slow down and acknowledge ─ positively or negatively ─ the people and communities surrounding them. For me, ironically, the lockdown highlighted the absence of cooking for folks and sharing a meal. I delighted in self-examination and sharing my time with the food writings of Ruth Teichl, Verta Mae Grosvenor, Edna Lewis and the delightful food adventures of Peter Mayle. I truly loved the stillness and nature’s rejuvenation and protection of the animals. However, there was something missing. I know it takes time to plan, shop, and prepare meals. But there is a huge ripple of love in the heart when serving others ─ that love is serving myself.
I was in a large vegetarian kitchen of an ashram. There were maybe fifteen of us or more. We were engaged in various stages of preparing the meal for a holiday celebration. Some were kneading bread, others chopping fruit and vegetables; a huge caldron of soup was being stirred and tofu “turkey” artistically prepared. The enthusiasm in preparing a meal to serve so many people ─ literally a few hundred ─ filled the room with ─ you got it ─ Joy. It was joy that came with gratitude for the chance to serve and for the personal satisfaction that comes with feeding others. Nurturing for them, nurturing for me.
Shortly after moving to Philadelphia, I lived in a house with a woman who lived in filth. I didn’t know this at first. When I went to check out the house, it was immaculate, but by the third week, the truth had revealed itself with the dog poop in the front yard that was left to dry on flagstone plates. The flies and stench irritated the neighbors who told me that it had been an ongoing problem. The laundry basement reeked of a cat litter box. My housemate was either unwilling or unable to help with kitchen and bathroom duties on a regular basis. I had been duped.
In a phone call with a clergyman, I whined, “Is Philadelphia hell?” He was kind; he chuckled, and gave me practical advice. Meditation, prayer, and finding someplace to volunteer. This made me feel better, and I began volunteering at a grocery coop where my job was ─ wait for it ─ weighing cuts of cheese and slicing bread. I was not homeless. I was not hopeless. My search for a new home began.
I ate in my room with the door closed, and in the days that followed, I consulted a psychic who told me: “Your housemate has unhealed trauma. People who live in filth have unhealed trauma.” I could hear Daddy’s voice again.
“Don’t ever judge another man unless you’ve walked in his shoes.” Lordy. What a mess.
Shortly after that call, I found some compassion, ordered pizza, and we ate together. Tensions began to dissolve, and I found my own apartment.
“Breaking bread opens people up. If you get in the habit of this as a family, you can talk about anything.”
My friend Tina said this to me almost 20 years ago. She and her husband had an ironclad commitment ─ which they keep to this day ─ to family dinners. At that time, they had eaten with the children every single day for 15 years. And I want to say that her children have become the most grounded, healthy, loving adults I know. Healthy traditions give birth to healthy families. Healthy families spawn unity. Unity is what we need in these miraculous, challenging, and eventful times.
Posted in Commentary, Essay, Family memories, Food, Gratitude, Heart and Mind, Memoir, Reflection, service, Stories about life, values and spirituality
Tagged essay, Family memories, food, Gratitude, memoir, Reflections, service, Stories about life, values and spirituality