Friday, September 27, 2013

How I Found my Soul in Soul Food

Some say dreams are made here in this city boasting so many clichés that its tagline reads a paragraph long. But I beg the contrary; that if your dreams are planted deep enough and press hard enough they may eventually break through the concrete jungle of Manhattan (barring that they don’t sprout under a thirty story apartment building).  It was a languid September, and although I was not ready to give up entirely, I certainly was without much will to continue. I found myself in a pit of unhappiness where hope may as well come sold in a repurposed tuna can for the recession price 99 cents.

That week I was to spend every day back where it all began more than two years ago. In an old Bedford-Stuyvesant brownstone lived an even older great great aunt. Apart from our 75 year age difference and her love for the color pink, there is virtually nothing different about us. Moreover we shared the greatest common denominator of all: a love of food.

I’d become a brilliant chef and my dinner parties have never ended with complaints or leftovers. But should you ask me to bake I would certainly fail everytime. My cookies taste like crackers, my cakes are always over baking powdered, and I have the most irrational fear of yeast. Never in my life have I made a successful  baked dessert that wasn’t pre-packaged.

“But what are you going to eat?” my aunt said to me for the fourth time that hour. “You can’t just not eat!”

Hardship has a way of taking away things we love the most. Perhaps I could tell her that I was unhappy and that my appetite was among the wreckage of everything else I had recently lost. But her eyes seemed to melt with concern beneath her disappointing gray wig. If not for myself, I thought, I must somehow find a to way eat with her.

Two years ago she wanted nothing more than to feed me. Yet I became a vegetarian when I was fifteen out of health consciousness and political teenage angst. For a southern lady like Aunt Noots, I might as well have told her I was a cantaloupe.

My soul: peaches, honey, and rose petals.
I’ll admit what I’ve done is not fair to any radical animal activist, but I suppose if I would eat a fish for anyone it’d be for this 98 year old woman. Love is, after all, the noblest cause. Aunt Noots loved fried fish and she loved most that if she cooked fish, then I would eat it.

She slammed her butcher knife between the head and shoulder of the croaker she had just scaled. We cooked with such soul that the fire alarm went off. I boiled the grits, buttered peas, and attempted to create something special on the side.

It turned out perfectly.
I rolled up my sleeves, turned on Mahalia Jackson, and with every ounce of hope I had left baked my heart into the only dessert that has ever come out of the oven edible: a perfect peach cobbler. While it wasn't always pretty, for the first time in a very long time something finally worked out.

“Now what?” said Noots.
“We EAT!” I said.
“Hand me a fork!”

“Thank God for good food,” she said paddling another forkful of cobbler.

cleaned my plate and mended my wounded heart somewhere deep in the soul of an old kitchen in Brooklyn. This is why they call it soul food.