Sold Early on Soul Food
There I sat, a 70-something white woman with no trace of a Southern accent, practically in tears listening to Ruth McRae and Sherrill and Kenneth Collins reminisce about soul food.
Credit a variegated background: My mother grew up in Greensboro, the daughter and niece of storied cooks. (Their velvety pound cakes scented with country butter, deep yellow from henhouse egg yolks cannot be reproduced.)
My father, son of Eastern European immigrants crammed into a tiny apartment on Manhattan's Lower East Side, couldn't get enough pickled herring and black bread smeared with rendered chicken fat.
I grew up in New York City loving bagels and lox, but spent childhood summers in my grandmother's North Carolina kitchen helping her can tomatoes and roll out biscuits. Her biscuit tray, the wood worn thin at the bottom, sits on my living room bookshelf.
I'm told these trays are prized by antique dealers. They won't get mine.
My grandfather, a bricklayer, grew all the family's vegetables in a half-acre plot behind the house. He taught me how to pick tomatoes and okra, wash greens. I learned corn tastes fantastic raw, right off the stalk, under the blazing July sun, but deep-purple Concord grapes from his arbor were too sour until Nanny made them into preserves.
In New York we went to Chinatown once a year for noodles and strange delicacies. In Greensboro, Nanny let me soak up "pot likker" from slow-cooked collards with stale cornbread - yellow meal, no flour, no sugar. She kept, killed, plucked, eviscerated and fried the world's most delicious chickens in a black iron skillet. I begged for the liver. She ate the wings and back, because, she said, the sweetest meat is close to the bone.
Also because Granddaddy got first pick (the white meat), her sons and my mother second pick (drumsticks), and we grandchildren the rest.
My oh my, how the pecking order has changed.
In New York I waited for the Good Humor man. In Greensboro, Nanny folded fresh peaches, dripping with juice, into Pet vanilla ice cream.
Her "shiny beans" (she let me snap off the ends), cooked with fatback beyond any nutritional value, got better with each reheating.
The pot is in my cupboard.
In New York I ate brisket and latkes - pancakes made from grated potatoes. In Greensboro, boiled chuck roast and fluffy white rice with a flavor so distinctive it didn't need gravy, only a pat of butter. And potato salad - boiled Irish ("Ahrish") potatoes, hard-cooked eggs, celery, mayo and a touch of mustard. Divine.
Nanny made the world's best sweet potato pie with a lard crust. She wrapped a slice in a cloth napkin for Grandaddy's round-top metal lunch pail.
Her grits? Indescribable, from a double boiler on the back gas burner. She scraped leftovers into a loaf pan to chill, slice and fry in bacon grease for breakfast the next morning.
In New York I ate Nathan's hot dogs and Boston baked beans at the Automat. In Greensboro, chicken-fried steak with cream gravy. Pimento cheese sandwiches on mushy white bread. Black-eyed peas.
I disliked the black-eyed peas. Recently we became reacquainted and are making up for lost time.
My memories remain especially dear since I no longer eat meat, butter or much else suspect. But I have learned to make decent shiny beans without pork. Once in a while, I sneak a biscuit at Mac's or heavenly grits at Jake's Diner in Greensboro.
Which is why the collards at UPro in Aberdeen sent me right over the edge ... seasoning meat and all. They stirred my soul/Southern roots, which run deeper than I ever imagined.
Contact Deborah Salomon at email@example.com.
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