It is well known in my family that if we go out to a restaurant and the menu offers shrimp and grits, that is what I will inevitably order. And I do that not because I don't have a diverse palate, but because for several years I've been seeking the perfect bowl - which has been elusive, to say the least. In my quest, I've had some that were too 'fancy', some that were too bacon-heavy, some too sweet with tomatoes. I've had some sublimely delicious ones, including one that was a riff on South Indian upma and sambar, but still didn't satisfy what I was searching for.
And then yesterday, I had the perfect bowl: the grits retained some of their 'grit', but were creamy and unctuous, the shrimp plump and cooked to perfection, and then there was the sauce - briny and bayou-reminiscent, in the best possible way. It made me think of the slaves who were given the most meager rations, including the grittiest part of the corn kernel and expected to produce back-breaking labor. Grits that did not provide enough nutrition to thrive, but survive just long enough to return the investment made into their purchase, room and board. Through the years, when able to forage and fish, Creoles first made the grits not just palatable, but comfort-inducing, and then crave-worthy by adding shrimp poached in spices that were the only memory of home that they could recreate time and again.
You'll pardon my irritation then, when after consuming (notice I didn't say enjoying) a bowl at an acclaimed restaurant that touted its regionally sourced ingredients last year, I learned that the grits with a Gullah name didn't come from Gullah pedigree. That the ingredients were indeed fresh and local, and the dish prepared with technical precision, but it had no soul. That restaurant may be located in the land of haint blue porch ceilings, in a city built by black islanders, but the slave market still standing in the middle of town was no more than a building to them, not a place where ghosts still searched for their stolen children.
Now, more than ever, I would like to see diners in this country not just rave over 'ethnic' and 'soul' food with its nuanced and complex flavors, but see those same nuances and complexities in the people who cook, and serve it to them. I'm not just an immigrant with an accent. My children are not just bi-racial. Black people are not just black, they are descendants of dynasties, tribes and communities they cannot even trace. They give their children names that have dignified meanings in the old country, only to have them mocked by people who choose not to inquire about their origins. Oftentimes I have observed a black woman with queenly bearing and it makes me wonder what her life would be like now, if her ancestor hadn't been stolen from their kingdom.
It's lazy to look at someone and assign them an identity based on the color of their skin. Get to know someone first. Listen to their story. Think about the skills and grit it took for their ancestors to survive atrocity upon atrocity, and still possess the optimism to start a family. Compassion, kindness and humanity make for a society worth inhabiting, but grit - that ability to make it no matter what is thrown your way - that builds strong people and societies, and towns and cities. Please, allow people of color - black men especially - who carry this grit deep within their DNA - to live. Give them hope, and the room to grow while making mistakes. Stop killing them for those things, and in some cases for no reason at all. Let them breathe, as you've been able to.
On the cusp of the week when the world stopped, we hosted some chefs, and a couple of food enthusiasts for a pot luck meal, and chit chat. One of the chefs I had previously met, and had gone into rhapsodies over the Indian meal she had cooked. The other chef came with serious food chops, and a huge fan following for her sock-you-in-the-face flavors executed with finesse.
The night before our pot luck, I had cooked Jamaican jerk chicken, marinated in a jar of sauce that I was told was as authentic as it could get. The result was delicious, even though it probably took off a layer of skin from the roof my mouth with its incinerating heat. It was however, not the usual marinade that my husband had been expecting, so he opted for something else - leaving me with a large quantity of leftovers.
Of course I wanted to impress our guests the next day - how could I not? The bar had been set very high, and so I did the two things I normally do when stressed - I procrastinated, and I worked myself up into a frenzy. An hour and a half before our guests were expected, I had a set dining table, the house was clean-ish, and I still had no idea what I was serving. Standing in front of the refrigerator with the door open yielded nothing but jerk chicken leftovers, a sad bundle of cilantro, and a couple dozen eggs. This next part makes me cringe, but bear with me. I washed the marinade off the cooked chicken, charred some ginger, tied a bundle of cilantro stems together, and made congee. With water, not chicken stock. At the very end, with chopped up chicken thrown into the pot, and topped with jammy eggs, crisp garlic chips and ginger matchsticks, sautéed spinach and mushrooms, then finished with fragrant and nutty sesame oil, I set that congee on the table without even having tried a bite for seasoning.
There it sat, on a table groaning with some of the finest pork I've ever eaten, my first taste of esquite rice, a richly aromatic keema and hot buttered pavs, a delicious kohlrabi soup, and more. Finally, having relaxed, I confessed about the imposter congee.
As luck would have it, the congee worked. Somehow, the spice of Scotch bonnets was tempered by the creaminess of broken down grains of jasmine rice, the acidity from the citrus in the jerk marinade absorbed and yet lingering. It was comfort at its finest, and the company in which it was consumed couldn't have mirrored it better. A farmer's daughter from Boston, a soft-spoken Indian who speaks loudly with the flavors in her cooking, a voluble Brazilian who had cooked some incredible Puerto Rican pork, and me. We sat around that table and ate, and talked and then ate some more. About the unfamiliar landscape whose devastating consequences we were yet to discover. About our roots, and where we chose to transplant them. About food, and how we were going to help get it to people who were sure to need it in the upcoming weeks.
And I will reiterate what I say time and again - food people are the best people. In kitchens both professional and at home, with high-profile chefs who are just as vulnerable as you and me, whether they are providing meals for a thousand people or sharing hard-to-find ingredients with the community, food people show up, time and again. So when they talk, I urge you to listen. They know what's coming before you do. They feared for their staff and the interruption in supply chains before the thought occurred to any journalist. They've been caring for, and feeding people quietly, and sometimes loudly, so you will listen while enjoying your uninterrupted income. When they petition to save restaurants, join them. They are talking about saving farmers, and delivery drivers and commissioned salespeople, not just their own dining rooms. Step out of your boxes, and do something that is not comfortable, to make life possible for someone else. Who knows, you might even like it, being part of the bigger picture. Just like you would enjoy some Jamaican congee, as out of the box as it was. Heck call me, and I'll even make you some. Because nobody shares like food people do.
What will we remember of this time, when the world came to a standstill? Will we remember that it felt like a summer vacation in our backyards, or that we were paralyzed with fear, not knowing if our children would have a backyard to play in come next month? Were we cooking up delicacies, or waiting for a hastily slapped-together jelly sandwich from an overworked volunteer? Were we prettying up our homes with paint, or pacing the hallway while on hold with the unemployment office for the second straight hour? Were we playing Scrabble with our families, or staring blank-eyed at the television screen?
Guilt, grief, isolation, peace, gratitude, anxiety, uncertainty, helplessness - we've all been riding a rollercoaster no matter which of the questions above describe our situation. But, grief feels very different depending on which of the questions above applies to you. Is this where the divisiveness of our responses to this situation comes from? Because we are only seeking answers to the questions that apply to us?
Time has opened up for us, been handed to us whether we asked for it or not. Is it a welcome respite from mad-dash commutes, or has it opened up a chasm into which you find yourself falling? An unwelcome gift, that you would gladly return, if it meant returning to a bustling Saturday night at the restaurant that was your pride and joy, or the Senior Prom which will never be a reality now?
I have no answers, only thoughts. All we have is here, and now. The past, whether glorious or merely tolerable, can simply not be recreated. The future is covered with a haze, that of the unknown, no matter how longed for. What we can do, is learn from generations past. Try not to repeat the mistakes of our forefathers, but take a step forward, and then another after that. Be mindful of the place we have in this inter-connected web of life, and preserve a space for the next person. Share, not hoard. Understand, not condemn. And hope that someone will extend the same to us. Not because we deserve it, but because they care enough.
Wife, mother, baker, jam maker, hug dispenser, reader.