Last Wednesday, when my husband and I came home from work, we were greeted by a large, unmarked white box on the kitchen table. Inside, a styrofoam cooler packed with all the Philly food you can think of: hoagies, cheesesteaks and five packages of scrapple. My husband is a New Jersey boy, and from time to time he gets a hankering for the taste of home. When these packages arrive, it’s the scrapple that gets me excited. Scrapple is, for the uninitiated, pig parts–”everything but the oink” as they say–smooshed together with cornmeal and flour in a sort of a congealed block o’ goodness. Fry a slice up on a Sunday morning with some scrambled cheese eggs and…mmmm…heaven.
Scrapple reminds me of my grandmother. Though born in the South and raised in the Midwest, Grandmama′ spent some time living with relatives in Pennsylvania after she graduated high school and she returned to Indiana with the ability to make a mean plate of scrapple, though the dish, which has German and Pennsylvania Dutch roots, was not her speciality. My grandmother was an amazing, intuitive cook. And like a lot of black grandmothers of her time, her specialty was soul food. You haven’t had fried chicken or cobbler or baked spaghetti or smothered pork chops like my Grandmama′ used to make–or like my mother still makes for special holiday meals.
My husband and I sometimes talk about the comfort food of our childhood–about soul food–the dishes common to African American families like ours. We talk not just about the Southern dishes that the majority culture can consume at sanitized soul food restaurants: the fried chicken and sweet potatoes and peach cobbler; we speak fondly about the other stuff: the neck bones, pig’s feet and hog’s head cheese. At one time, some of these foods–refuse from white folk’s tables–were a symbol of black enslavement and oppression, but they became part of black American culture and enduring symbols of love and family and togetherness.
Food marks many of my fondest memories. I remember summer picnics under the cherry tree in my grandparents’ backyard with pineapple ice cream that my grandmother made from scratch and my grandfather froze by turning the crank on a big, blue, old-fashioned ice cream maker. Summer trips “down South” to visit my father’s family in Mississippi meant hearty “suppers” (a mealtime I’d not heard of in the Midwest) and returning home with jars of “cha cha,” a relish that paired wonderfully greens and beans. I recall sitting in the family kitchen with my mom, on a snowy, winter afternoon, eating a plate of chicken giblets–boiled, seasoned and sprinkled with hot sauce. Today, I look forward to Thanksgiving and Christmas as much for the amazing dinners my mother sets on the table (The best dressing you’ll ever taste!) as the fellowship that happens around it.
When I eat soul food, it inevitably jogs some memory. It also makes me feel connected to “my people.” Food and food traditions help define cultures. Sweet potato pie and fried green tomatoes bind me to my heritage. I think this is true of most every group. For instance, when I was growing up, our neighbor, an elderly Lithuanian woman named Mrs. Kaminsky, would bring us stuffed cabbage and these delicious, little rolls bursting with meat, and would become teary as she sat and talked with my mother about “the old country.”
There is something, also, about soul food that makes me feel embraced and comforted. Maybe because, like generations of black women, my mother (and her mother before her) demonstrates her love and cares for her family through cooking. Mind you, I am not saying that women have to express themselves this way; I just mention that women have done this and many, like my mother, have enjoyed it.
It is unfortunate, but my stepchildren, nieces and nephews won’t know this part of our culture like I do. They are now two generations removed from the roots of that good, down home cooking.