Preface – A Tale Of Five Kitchens
This cookbook tells the story of five kitchens—three generations of women who came to weighing more than two hundred pounds, and a fourth generation that absolutely refused ever to weigh two hundred pounds. It’s the story of a hundred years of cooking and eating in one black American family.
On these pages we share the kitchen memories, kitchen gossip, and foodways that sustained two great-grandmothers, a grandmother, and us: a mother and a daughter.
Dear’s kitchen, Grandma’s kitchen, Nana’s kitchen, Mama’s kitchen (Alice’s), and Baby Girl’s kitchen (Caroline’s). All are sacred places in our family. But only one is simple: Baby Girl’s.
The recipes in this book are from Baby Girl’s kitchen. You can cook every one from a Walmart shelf. Or you can cook them from your home garden, or Whole Foods—but wherever you get your foodstuffs, cook these recipes and you will be tasting the past swerving into a new and healthier future. You will be tasting us using what we got to get where we want to go—to Fitland without forgetting, shaming, or blaming traditional soul foods or traditional soul foodways.
Our kitchen celebrates forgotten soul food staples. We love sweet potatoes, peanuts, and sardines. Our ancestresses loved them, too. For us the path to our black food future runs through our black food past. And it requires radical change.
The kitchen has historically been a fraught place for many black Americans. Our family is among the many. It has been a place of servitude and scarcity, and sometimes violence, as well as a place of solace, shelter, creativity, commerce, and communion.
In our family, and in many Southern families, the abundant kitchen has become an antidote for what pains and afflicts us. Somewhere along the way, abundance became excess. Then the excess became illness.
Today the kitchen that once saved us is killing us. And avoidance of the kitchen is killing us, too. Foodways in much of black America are plain broke-down. Too many young black women have lower life expectancies than their mothers. And most don’t even know it.
And it’s not just black America. The Sun Belt is now the Stroke Belt. Fat-fueled diseases—diabetes, hypertension, stroke, and cancer—ravage the nation. But black America is particularly hard-hit. We can change that in the kitchen, on the quick and on the cheap.
We know because we did it in our family—fought back hard against fat while holding proud to our table. Others are doing it, too, becoming kitchen-sink Amazons—winning the war on fat—one tasty home-fixed and healthy meal at a time.
And by home-fixed we’re not talking just about where you cook. We’re talking about what you cook. We’re talking about connecting with our mothers’ mothers through taste. We’re talking about celebrating all we created and all we endured by holding close to some of the flavors that were with us when we were creating and enduring.
And we’re talking about letting some of them go. Anything that’s killing us is poison, not food.
The kitchens in this book are the kitchens that had the most impact on our bodies and lives. As with many black families, there are missing leaves in our family tree. Alice’s mother, who never cooked for Caroline and seldom cooked for Alice, was orphaned at five. The Lutheran Lady, as she styled herself, didn’t know either of her grandmothers and barely remembered her mother. We think they were from Ohio. Those leaves remain lost.
But there are leaves aplenty. And they are scattered widely.
Kitchens, like people, migrate. The kitchens we will recollect were located, at various times, in three different Southern states—Georgia, Alabama, and Tennessee; in the Midwestern metropolises of Detroit and Chicago; and in the imperial black city of the East Coast: Harlem.
Some of the kitchens that go into the making of our tables were constructed in dire poverty, others in sepia privilege. All of this allows us to claim: if you’re a black American, our roots are likely to cross yours. We cover a lot of territory. Tracing kitchen migrations, we’ve encountered many surprises.
A pleasant one we found while shaking our culinary family tree: one of the earliest black vegan movements—the black Seventh-day Adventists. Grandma spent a good part of her life as an Adventist cooking vegetarian recipes supplied by The Message, a black Seventh-day Adventist magazine.
All the surprises were not pleasant. Until we started working together on this volume, we knew the kitchen was a difficult territory for some black women—but we had never contemplated the significance of kitchen rape, an event we discovered was sufficiently common in our family history as to merit the coining of a phrase so that the atrocity might be better mourned.
Dear was born in the nineteenth century, 1897. Baby Girl was born in the twentieth century, 1987, and came of age in the twenty-first. The family kitchen stories we have collected stretch across three centuries. We are proud to write that. Within Dear and Grandma’s stories are accounts they heard directly from aunts and grandmothers who were enslaved. These are the tales and recipes of generations learning and re-learning to feed themselves, their families, and their communities in adversity and prosperity, in rural acres and on urban corners in America.
Our ideal is a table that delights, fortifies, and remembers.
The recipes are the work of a daughter who searched out the healthier bites and bits from her family’s cooking history and remixed the best of the rest into something greener, into something healthier and easier—working beside a mother determined to change her own foodways so that she might change her daughter’s food future. This is the story of our search for a kitchen where what’s good is good for you.
And nothing is finer than a good taste on a healthy tongue.