Kindness. Compromise. Empathy.
In 2011, I started a blog as a sort of writing practice. How hard could it be? Choose a word. Write some stuff. Post.
A friend in my writing group generously offered to create the banner with my title for the blog and splashed bright, colorful, bold letters across the top of the page: W.O.R.D.S. Have color. Have vision. Have power. I gave it a subtitle: Stories about life and sometimes food. I forged ahead.
Photographs of my father and grandmother were awful, but I didn’t think they’d be offended. Both had long since passed on. A story about making pizza at home with my nieces netted me a lucrative writing contract.
It’s been said that if you want to make God laugh, tell Him your plans.
In November 2012, I was blindsided by a diagnosis of Guillain-Barré Syndrome. I quit my music performance group and, in 2013, as a result of complications, spent six months in hospitals and rehab. For a short time, I was completely incapacitated without use of my arms or hands. I could not walk and was confined to a wheelchair. But I had my laptop and dictation software. I kept posting.
As much as I tried to avoid the excrement of politics ─ the racism, classism, sexism, and religious nationalism ─ there were days when the poop landed square on my pages. Circumstances, of course, will compel me to step into the mess again. Still, honor, generosity, and love — genuine goodness and human kindness — are real. Inner conflicts are powerful. But here’s the reality. When I focus on the good, I write from joy.
Focus on living a food inspired life.
I clung to this like a mantra, a talisman, a life raft. Sometimes I wrote about what I ate or what I cooked.
I promised myself to write about contemporary Black chefs and their approaches to food. Feeling overwhelmed with my body mass index, I joined Weight Watchers. I explored new recipes, and I started feeling at ease. I realized that mine was already a food inspired life.
“Doggone it! There’s always something,” my mother used to say.
In March 2020, as the lockdown began, my monthly intravenous immune suppressing infusions were put on hold for the first time in nine years.
“It’s unsafe,” said the nurse coming to my apartment, “to continue to administer in your home.” She worked in a hospital flooded with COVID. My neurologist said, “Let’s see how you get on. If necessary, you can go to the hospital.”
“Um. Aren’t people in hospitals dying of COVID? No thanks.”
On the bright side, it seemed that the whole world was returning to the joy of cooking and eating at home. The stillness of roads without tires slapping cement and the silence of streets without human chatter filled me with pleasure. Across the street on the college grounds and nature walk, I saw a fox. Deer, unmolested by our human presence, returned to nibble plants. Scores of butterflies and moths fluttered in the trees across the road and in the trees outside my window.
The Canal Grande, in Venice, Italy, became so clear that you could see dolphins, octopus, and crabs in the waters. This had me whooping for joy.
“Keep the visitors away,” I said. “Keep the big cruisers out of the canals!” For me, the lockdown presented an image of paradise. I relaxed in the fluctuating winds, rain, snow, and sunny days. Contemplating food prep, I watched cooking shows, read food memoirs, and researched food writers. It was a sloooow-down time, making way for delights like the writings of Gullah culinary anthropologist Verta Mae Grosvenor and the food adventures of Peter Mayle.
I put aside concerns about the pandemic as my food inspired life consumed me.
If I may say so myself ─ and I do ─ my tiny kitchen is a chef-worthy kitchen. Two heavy duty juicers cram against each other and line up near the microwave where spiralizer and electric kettle are squished near the edge of the counter. A large food processor nestles near a high-powered blender (one that converts grains to flour) and an air fryer. The pressure cooker/instant pot, rice cooker, and bread machine are jammed into remaining space. And still, I desire more…a standing mixer perhaps?
My wonderful friend Rae, an amazing artist, writer, and food enthusiast, sent me a gift: a hydroponic planter. Now, I thought, I can fancy myself a “farm to table” cook. There was no space for the 6″ x 14″ planter in the kitchen, so I tucked it on a side table between the sofa and the living room wall.
For starters, I put basil, Bibb lettuce, cherry tomatoes, and spinach into the germination sponges.
In just a short time, I had two very large lettuce plants, enough for salad.
Magical! I pinched a leaf and placed it on my tongue. It was tender, delicate in flavor and almost weightless. The basil grew like a wild thing, while the spinach took its sweet time. The tomatoes? This was something really special. In almost no time, I had to re-pot the basil and the tomatoes.
Farm to table? Perhaps not. But it’s settled. Mine is already a food inspired life.
“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