The Kitchen Goddess is watching me as I rinse the collard greens to put them into the large pot to begin cooking for Thanksgiving dinner. The greens will join the chunked potatoes, onions, garlic and tri-colored bell peppers already simmering in butter, garlic and Portabello mushrooms at the bottom of the pot. Soon they will be joined by three ham hocks boiling in a couple of cups of chardonnay to create the stock for the greens.
The kitchen smells wonderful.
The Kitchen Goddess smiles approvingly.
Everything I know about cooking I learned from the two most important women in my life. One was the Kitchen Goddess, Henrietta Hadley, our beloved Nanny. The other was St. Marge, my beloved Mother.
I think she’d be proud…
The shrine to our Nanny turned Kitchen Goddess is actually a large cookie jar which stands on the shelves on which we keep our pots and pans against the far wall of the kitchen. I bought the cookie jar years ago at an African-American Heritage event at Hannibal Square. It’s the heart of the historically black section of Winter Park complete with an arts center and municipal auditorium. It’s also the part of Winter Park where African-Americans are struggling with forces of “gentrification,” a condescending description which masks the reality of a minority population being displaced by wealthier, and largely white, developers.
The arts center is where the Equal Justice Initiative Task Force of which I am a member meets monthly. Our goal is to commemorate a massacre of up to 60 African-Americans in nearby Ocoee as a result of their attempts to vote in the 1920 presidential election. The task force is also charged with erecting a marker to commemorate the lynching of July Perry in Orlando consequent to that massacre.
I think Henrietta would be proud. She was the one who made me aware of why it was dangerous for her grandchildren to be out of the house on nights when white men wreaking of Budweiser and Jim Beam would careen through the Lincoln Terrace section of Bushnell, Confederate flags fluttering from the back of pickup trucks without mufflers.
Her’s was the face that made it impossible for me to buy into the sea of racism in which my childhood occurred. She was the example that proved the living refutation of all the dehumanizing things that passed for conventional “wisdom” about black people in a small town in Central Florida on the edge of the Bible Belt during the conflict-ridden days of desegregation in the 1960s.
She was simultaneously the source of my most painful ongoing cognitive dissonance as well as the object of my deepest loving gratitude.
And I will always be in her debt.
Smiling approval and that knowing look….
I feel her eyes on me as I sauté the yellow and zucchini squash for the casserole. I don’t use nearly as much black pepper as she did in her squash, a spicy soul food dish cooked in bacon grease that to this day still brings back happy memories from the kitchen in our home. No doubt my own ongoing love of soul food finds its roots in her cooking. But I can hear her directions as I mix in the bell peppers, onions, mushrooms and garlic (Don’t let it burn, Harry) and get ready to add the egg and cheese mixture before going into the oven.
There are smaller representations of black nannies around my kitchen that came from our home in Bushnell. Henrietta worked for my family about 20 years from before my sister’s birth in 1963 until after her graduation from high school, just after Henrietta's own grand-daughter graduated. Long after she no longer worked for us, we continued to go to her home in Lincoln Terrace, which my Mother had helped refurbish through her work at the Farmer’s Home Administration. It was the highlight of our Christmas Day to take her presents and a few dishes from our Christmas dinner.
Some might see these small statuettes as racist. And perhaps for some they are, sold as they are in truck stops at the exits of interstate highways across the Bible Belt and in souvenir shops in more charming venues like Charleston and New Orleans.
But I always smile when I see the small statues of black nannies around my kitchen. For me, they convey the almost palpable presence of a woman I deeply loved who changed my life forever.
I hear her voice freely giving expert advice - when asked - on everything from my love life to folk remedies for rashes from stinging nettles to who would win the high school football game Friday night. I see her holding my sister – her baby, she told people – on the front seat of Daddy’s pickup truck as I would drive her home in the afternoons once I finally got my driver’s license. And I remember her standing in line to vote with my Father after work down at the Bushnell Woman’s Club where the poll was located. It would be many years before I figured out that my Dad stood there silently with her to make sure Henrietta was not denied the right to vote.
I also see the face of her oldest daughter nodding at me with that same knowing look. It was she who came in Henrietta’s place to my Mother’s funeral years after Henrietta herself had died, the only person of color in the First United Methodist Church in Bushnell that day.
“Stolen plants grow the best…”
The smells in the kitchen are wonderful. Dinner time is drawing near. The Kitchen Goddess nods approvingly.
I look through my kitchen window to the jungle in my back yard. The angel trumpets are gorgeous right now with their foot long blossoms that begin white, turn yellow and finally orange, their perfume pervading the damp night air.
I can hear her voice saying, “You know, stolen plants always grow better.” And, truth be told, that’s how a lot of plants from the golden cassia tree to the glossy leaved Morea irises came to be in our yard in Bushnell and now populate my jungle in Orlando. “Just take you a little piece of this and stick in the dirt and water it. It’ll grow,” she said.
And she was right, as she almost always was.
Christmas Day, 1982
There is something wonderful about feeling the presence of those you love who have gone before you. That’s particularly true in the context of a Thanksgiving meal being prepared for a crowd of 17 loved ones, family of birth and family of choice. There is a positively sacramental aspect in seeing the symbols of loved ones, envisioning their faces and hearing the echo of their long-gone voices, reminders of a grace-filled life that was full of loving relationship.
The Kitchen Goddess is absolutely beaming as the last dish is pulled from the oven.
I call everyone together to the dining room. We circle around the recently refinished dining room table, the table on which we all grew up eating family dinners, now covered with my Mother’s table cloth, glowing with candles. We join hands and silently give thanks for all the many blessings of this life. I conclude with a short prayer from the Book of Common Prayer: “For these and all thy other many blessings, may G-d’s holy name be praised through Jesus the Christ our Lord.”
Now it’s time to eat.
Buried Chests of Family Treasures
Before the night is over, my Brother will have brought in from his car two huge boxes of family photos that he found in our house in Bushnell. When he and Ruthie, his wife, picked up the bed from my sister’s old room to move it to the van to bring back to Winter Park, the two long, shallow boxes suddenly revealed themselves, bearing decades of family history.
Once the pies are all cleared away, David deposits them on the dining table and opens them up.
We pick through the photos together, telling family stories and trying to remember names of relatives and friends long gone. There are photos of the three of us as children. My brother and I rag my sister on her first Easter photo in 1964. “You have no have no idea how hard we had to work to get that bunny hat on you and to get you to hold still long enough to take the photo.”
There were photos of my Brother and I in our hippie days, long hair and sideburns. And there were photos of our parents in the days of their courtship and marriage when they were students at the University of Florida in the late 1940s.
Perhaps it was no accident that the first photo my fingers touched bore the image of Henrietta Hadley. From the next room, I could feel the smile of the Kitchen Goddess, that knowing look on her face.
Harry Scott Coverston
If the unexamined life is not worth living, surely an unexamined belief system, be it religious or political, is not worth holding.
Most things worth considering do not come in sound bites.
For what does G-d require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your G-d? (Micah 6:8, Hebrew Scriptures)
© Harry Coverston 2017