This post is part of a sponsored series commissioned by Wells Fargo as part of the #MyUntold Story Campaign.
It’s funny how food can evoke such strong memories. There is a scene in the Pixar film, Ratatouille, when the grizzled food critic takes one taste of the chef’s dish and is instantly transported to his childhood on the French countryside. His mind was flooded by memories of his youth and the love his mother showered on him.
I’ve experienced this feeling many times, mostly when I eat a dish that my grandmother used to make. I’ll go on record stating that my grandmother was the best cook to ever walk the Earth. She would have mopped the floor with Bobby Flay in a cooking competition.
Although it’s been over 35 years since I’ve tasted my grandmother’s cooking, the memories of her meals are still fresh in my mind. I hold these memories near my heart, because tangible reminders of my grandmother are nearly non-existent. I’ve only been able to find about two to three photos of her. None of my aunts or uncles saved any of the letters she wrote. Without any documentation, it’s almost as if she didn’t exist.
But the memories of sharing meals with her when I was a child are vivid and strong. Each summer, my mother would drive us from Houston to spend a few weeks with my parents in Big Cane, Louisiana (don’t try to find it on a map). My grandmother always greeted us at the door with a big smile and a warm hug (her hugs were the best).
“Come inside and get something to eat,” she would say. “I know you’re hungry after that long car ride.”
Even if we weren’t hungry, there was no way we could refuse a meal. She led us directly to the kitchen and started making plates for us.
I can still remember the sounds of the dishes clanking and the wonderful aromas of my grandmother’s made-from-scratch meals.
She was a master at cooking cajun, creole, and soul food dishes. One of the meals that I always looked forward to was her Smothered Chicken with rice and fresh picked okra and tomatoes with skillet cornbread. To this day, I have been trying to cook rice as well as my grandmother did. It was perfect. Each kernel was light, fluffily and flavorful. It was as if each one were kissed by an angel.
And don’t even get me started on her cornbread. I have never tasted cornbread as good as hers. It was moist like a cake, but the outer edges were crunchy. I could eat a whole pan of it because it was THAT good.
While we ate, my grandmother would share bits and pieces of her life. Although she was female and African-American in the Jim Crow South, she didn’t allow society’s view of her to affect how she viewed herself. She was strong, confident, and self-assured. As the wife of a sharecropper, she worked in the fields just as hard as any man, and at the end of the day, she cooked, cleaned, and cared for her nine children .
Nothing was more important to my grandmother than her family. She loved her kids immensely and did what she could to protect them from people who looked down on them because of the color of their skin. She taught each of them the importance of kindness, hard work, faith, and service. My uncle, who served in Vietnam, told me that my grandmother’s prayers, letters, and encouragement gave him the hope he needed to make it through each day.
But the way that my grandmother showed love the best was through her cooking. Although she never wrote down any of her recipes, my aunts and my mother managed to keep them alive and pass them down. Their versions of my grandmother’s dirty rice, étouffée, and greens are to die for.
As a tribute to my grandmother, I learned how to cook one of her signature dishes – gumbo. This hearty cajun stew is chock full of chicken, sausage, shrimp, crabs, and okra. It is a family favorite.
On Christmas I’d make the gumbo to bring to bring to our annual family gathering. While we ate hot bowls of gumbo, we also shared memories of my grandmother. It was always great listen to other people’s memories of her.
My grandmother died when I was about 11 years old. I still miss her, but I feel connected to her spirit every time I make a pot of gumbo or seek to make a pot of rice that comes close to hers. I refuse to attempt to cook her cornbread. Some things are better off left to memory.