Holiday Food for Thought From B. Smith
The lifestyle maven and others reflect on the role that Thanksgiving plays in sharing traditions.
His own teenage daughter may not yet fully comprehend the incalculable cultural value of the cooking lessons that his wife recently began imparting in the family's home. But Allen is betting that she will someday realize that the exercise focused not only on food but also on other things -- ephemeral, cultural and practical.
When you come from cooks who made do with what was on hand, you will likely not learn to use a measuring cup to gauge the proper amount of water for boiling rice. Instead, the lifelines of an index finger will show the way. Cooks from that school don't follow "what an Internet recipe tells you," he said.
"How do older Gullah people pass this style of cooking to the younger generation so that they will be able to fend for themselves in case hard times -- as they have -- do come?" Allen said. "For some people that means getting up early in the morning if they want fish for breakfast. Instead of going to the fish market, they can go out to the creek."
That same reality, combined with time-crunched daily schedules and shrinking household budgets, gave rise more than 20 years ago to Glory Foods, said Michael Moore, an African American Experience Fund trustee and president of that Columbus, Ohio-based grocery line. It is largely dedicated to producing what are conventionally known as soul food dishes.
"Food is a huge component of culture," Moore said. "It helps define who we are." If the foods of Africa were not entirely transportable by slave ship, if they were "erased from memory when we came across the Middle Passage," he added, Africa's children have created new traditions in a new land.
"I have profound memories that go back to my grandparents in North Carolina," Moore said. "I can still taste the food that my grandmother and, frankly, my grandfather prepared. She prepared the core meal, but my grandfather baked these amazing cakes ... So it's this mash-up of the memories, the love, the family, food and culture, and this big stew on the table. Food is a vital anchor that grounds us and helps us celebrate what we've created in this country."
It isn't merely the sensory pleasure of food but what the food traditions -- especially the communal meal -- engender in the way of shared tales of success, hardship and even the lighter moments, B. Smith said, echoing her cohorts at the Experience Fund.
"I vividly remember the meals in the church basement when I was a little girl. We ate and the preacher rested," she said. "I remember going to my grandmother's for an afternoon meal. A holiday, a birth, a death -- we celebrate with food.
"When it's perfect, we're in a comfortable place -- our aunt's home, our grandparents' home, a restaurant … It doesn't matter where you do it," she Smith said. "If the children are involved, if there's a prayer involved, something that pulls us all together and makes us feel safe and makes us feel good, the food will do the rest."
Katti Gray is a Brooklyn, N.Y.-based freelance writer.