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Tragedy Broke My Grandmother's Will to Cook—But Not Ours

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"I pray they will always bake their bread in the daylight."
"I pray they will always bake their bread in the daylight." Photo by Rocky Luten

As a Southern woman who loves to cook (because she loves to eat), who dances in her chair when anticipating a meal, and purrs when sinking her teeth into warm bread, it had long stuck in my craw that I could not make biscuits. To remedy this, my Auntie Pam came over to show me one sunny Sunday. She gently explained not to knead the dough too vigorously, to handle it like a sleeping baby. When the biscuits rose, light and fluffy, I felt resurrected: biscuits could be mine whenever I pleased.

My aunt mentioned offhandedly that my grandmother used to make biscuits all the time, but this was news to me. My mother didn’t know how to make biscuits, which had me wondering why my grandmother never taught my mother to make biscuits. Did she teach Auntie Pam, but not my mother? My mother taught me everything I knew about cooking, so I assumed that her mother did the same.

Very early on in my life, my mother would chirp, “Little girls need practice in the kitchen,” and haul me in to help her. At first, she tasked me with chopping the browning ground beef into crumbles with the thin edge of a spatula. Then I graduated to making the side dishes—a pot of green beans or mixed frozen vegetables with lima beans. By age 13, I worked my way up to cooking the entire family’s meal by myself, once a week.

My mother’s cooking reminds me of the way news anchors scrub their speech of regional accents. The foods she makes appear to hail from nowhere in particular, like our favorite casserole: layered cubes of ham, shredded cheddar, and tender potatoes with a sour cream sauce. She makes killer baked beans flavored with bacon, brown sugar, and pineapple—this dish, unlike her, doesn’t come from Detroit. Even her Southern collards have a slightly untraditional twist—seasoned so liberally with Texas Pete Hot Sauce that we knew they were done only when they made us cough. Her food had no distinct geographical stamp but it always tasted like home.

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When I asked my mother who taught her how to cook, she answered, “I taught myself.” But I simply could not believe it. I would query her periodically, when she sprinkled a healthy dose of cinnamon on the candied yams, “Did your mom teach you this?” I hoped the shake of seasoning would jog her memory. But she always replied, “No.” After many years of this, I blurted, “Well, did your mother teach you anything?”

My mother’s mother, Gina, never taught my mother to cook because she was too busy trying to keep herself alive. Part of the first generation of Clark women born in the Midwest, she became pregnant with her first child while attending college. She and my grandfather married under the shadow of a proverbial shotgun. She bore seven children in 12 years.

Grandma Gina worked full time as a secretary but still carried the expectation of all the homemaking and childrearing. Neighbors whispered she should stay home with her children. For a time, she had, until she’d had no other choice. Mouths had to be fed.

My grandmother (far right, top row), and my mother (far left, bottom row) in the 1970s.
My grandmother (far right, top row), and my mother (far left, bottom row) in the 1970s. Photo by The Bonner-Clark Family

My grandmother could cook, a skill she learned from her mother before her. Black Southern women could make meals from scraps and bones if need be. Family legend has it that my great-aunt Connie used to make a pot of chitterlings so good, my mom, only a child then, didn’t realize they were pig intestines. The house would stink of ripe excrement for hours. But Aunt Connie knew how to get the ropy meat clean as a new pin. By the time my mother found out what chitlins were, she loved them too much to care. But none of this explained why family recipes were lost when we lost my grandmother.

The women in my family passed down just one possible explanation: My grandmother’s sixth child died as an infant in his sleep, a victim of Sudden Infant Death Syndrome. Wracked with grief, her husband turned inward, and to the bottle, gulping down his sorrow and anger. My grandmother conceived another child, but she was terrified that the deadly sleep would claim him, too. So she kept watch all night, while the baby slept, periodically flicking his heel to make sure he was breathing. She baked from midnight to dawn to keep herself awake: cakes, rolls, homemade breads. The five older children would regularly awaken to an apartment that smelled of yeast and sweet relief. Her son lived, but in the wake of her grief, her recipes did not.

As her descendants, we lost much more than recipes—we lost a vital connection to our heritage as Black women. Toni Tipton-Martin likewise affirms in The Jemima Code, her treasury of historical Black cookbooks, African-American cooks typically “transferred important cultural traditions from one generation to another through face-to-face, personal exchanges.” The systematic denial of education to Black people in the United States fostered an oral system of passing down family dishes. Also, as Stacia L. Brown writes in The New Republic, Black cooks have often been shut out of the cookbook publishing industry:

For context, a 2012 Cooking Light list of top cookbooks noted that more than 50,000 cookbooks had been published in the 25 years since its inaugural issue. The David Walker Lupton African American Cookbook Collection, on the other hand, contains roughly 500 publications—it’s one of the largest collections of known African American cookbooks in the country.

While some Black cooks are self-taught, it's more common that they got their start at the apron skirts of a female relative. But even as largely self-taught cooks, my mother and aunt still adopted the African-American oral tradition of sharing culinary knowledge. They called on remembrance of family gatherings, cookbooks, and other Black women to piece together their own repertoire. When Auntie Pam was in her 20s, her neighbor, an older lady named Ms. Marie, taught her how to make biscuits like air. My aunt recited this same biscuit recipe to me from memory that Sunday morning like scripture.

Today, I am teaching my eldest daughter to cook by taste, by scent, by memory, by heart. Now that she is five, I let her squish overripe bananas into pulp, and her giggles sweeten the batter for banana nut loaf. We have a deal: I measure and she pours. She loves the way the sugar slides into the bowl with a muted whoosh. My youngest daughter supervises the mixing impatiently from her high chair. Soon enough, I let her down to crowd the step stool next to her sister, her head barely reaching the countertop. Together, my two girls and I will peer into the lit oven watching the mixture grow into something brown and beautiful. I pray they will always bake their bread in the daylight.

Tags: Culture, Essay, Black History