Yesterday was one of those serene, wonderful days that come all too rarely in life. I didn't have to go into town, so the morning went delightfully slow with hours to myself. I wrote, then I sat down and read a wonderful newspaper piece by DeNeen L. Brown on soul food. The first-person essay was beautifully written, from the detailed, relaxed preparation of dinner to a vivid trip into the kitchens of her youth. While the essay was primarily syndicated because of Kwanzaa, I realized that the African-American aspect of soul food is but one reflection of Southern cuisine traditions born of necessity. Many of the dishes she mentioned I remember from my own childhood; in fact, a pot of pinto beans bubbled while I read the paper.
I, too, follow the habits of my mother when cooking, and those comforting, cheap dishes are the only ones that I can prepare easily and with skill. I 'look' the beans before washing them, just like she does, then wait to bake the cornbread until just before the beans are finished. Fresh, hot cornbread is yellow, crusty, and definitely not sweet, according to family tradition. As soon as it comes out of the oven, a thin slice along the crust must be cut and swirled with butter, then eaten by the cook. After that, it can set out to cool.
I remember Mom walking up the path, picking greens for poke salad. She loved it. I hated it, because I saw it as the Southern equivalent of the Japanese blowfish; it could be your last meal, unless it was prepared exactly right. I also remember hog jowls and black-eyed peas for New Year's Day, crackers made from leftover pie crust dough, fried chicken made crispy in Mom's favorite cast iron skillet, and the delicious taste of fried green tomatoes and squash, golden brown on each side. My favorite meal on earth is pinto beans, hot cornbread, fried potatoes, and fresh green onions and tomatoes just fifteen minutes out of the garden. Extra bonus: fresh, chilled cucumber slices. Mmmm. One taste of homegrown cukes, and you'll never touch those waxy, green torpedoes from the supermarket again.
On a truly soulful and peaceful day, I thank Ms. Brown for bringing all those excellent memories of my mother's kitchen back to my mind.