I am a big fan of everything about this time of year—the Christmas tree, holiday decorations, sparkly dresses with a hint of décolleté, and especially the FOOD—as in old-school, home-cooked, GOOD grub. I am the great-granddaughter, grand-daughter, niece and daughter of some of the BEST soul food cooks. I’m talking about women who put the SO in SOUL food, as in SO out of this world. Lucille, Helen, Catherine, Willie Mae, and Mary Catherine created magic in the kitchen. This culinary cohort was on top of #SlayDaily before it became a Beyoncé-endorsed hashtag.
These were my role models. They were women who fed my body and my spirit. Then they passed their cooking mantle in my direction. What a tall order. But I was ready.
I remember the first time I was asked to prepare the ENTIRE family Christmas meal. That was nearly 20 years ago.
I woke up the day before, Christmas Eve, ready to prep my meal. I planned to rinse, chop, stuff, stack, slice, and dice all day– just like my family’s gastronomic gurus had done for decades prior.
There I was, strutting around my kitchen, snacking twice as much as I stacked—feeling myself. Not. So. Fast. I had forgotten to buy the GREENS!! “No big deal,” I said aloud. I’ll just have my husband, Jimmy, grab some. But wait! It was Christmas Eve. All major grocery stores were closed on major holidays. I started to panic. Then I got a BRILLIANT idea.
A-Ha! I could use CANNED greens. I knew Walgreens sold them and they would be OPEN! I had seen them there when I’d gone shopping for peppermint sticks weeks prior. I gave Jimmy instructions on what to buy—canned ‘lead leaves’ with the word ‘Glory’ scribbled across the front. He returned with four or five cans of gastrointestinal goodies and placed them in my hands. My strut returned. It continued through my prep and presentation of this inventive vegetation at the family dinner.
I already know that YOU, dear reader, know what happened next. But keep reading, anyway.
It was now Christmas day, and my dinner had turned out flawlessly. The turkey was juicy. The ham fell off the bone. The macaroni and cheese was gooey and good. The dressing was divine. The entire meal was so succulent and savory that at several points throughout the meal my family periodically slapped each other. Then they slapped themselves. Twice. All was good until it wasn’t.
“Baby, what kind of greens are these?” That came from my Grandmother, Helen, a sweet, demure woman seated next to my grandfather, William, at the head of the table. She held a vanilla wafer swaddled in golden goodness in her left hand, evidence of the recent dip she’d taken into the homemade banana pudding that I’d slaved over the night before.
“Turnip,” I said confidently, proud of myself for remembering my family’s discerning taste for the type and taste of whatever greens they ate. Collards were for Sunday dinners and funeral repasts. Turnip greens were for holidays.
“Hmmm…,” she said while fingering her fork, which was draped with stringy, green threads. Her bottom lip was pulsating so violently it looked like it wanted to jump off her face and run away in disgust. My stomach started to bubble.
“Are these CANNED greens?” This question, once hurled from the lips of my late, great Aunt Catherine, took the form of an invisible lasso that was headed in my direction. Aunt Catherine had been a female firecracker, a woman who shot from the hip and kicked casualties to the ground with stiletto-clad feet (she had worn HIGH HEELS while pushing a walker). She passed away this past October, a stones’ throw from her 100th birthday. But on this day, back in 1999, she was alive and well.
“Well they came in a can, but I seasoned them with……………………….” I weakly murmured.
“AW LAWWWD!!!” My Aunt Catherine clutched her chest as she struck a Fred Sanford-inspired fake heart attack.
What happened next is a blur in my memory.
But those are the women who raised me. Traditional stalwarts who didn’t believe in taking any shortcuts, especially in the kitchen.
Today, I’m surprised by the number of women from my generation who don’t follow suit and prepare holiday meals, or any meal, for their families. As elder populations in the Black community continue to shrink, apparently so does the desire to carry on family mealtime traditions.
Research shows that the average American eats one in every five meals in a car, and one in four eats at least ONE fast food meal every day. According to a 2014 analysis from The Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), students who do not regularly eat with their parents are significantly more likely to be truant at school. The OECD study further reports that students who do not share meals with their families have higher rates of school absenteeism as well.
Granted, a large portion of students today are being raised in households where parents are trying to make ends meet, not shop for and prepare potatoes and meat. Mom and Dad are often too tired to even DREAM about sitting down at a dinner table. So perhaps the answer is to find a happy medium. The key is to try to SHARE a meal with the family as much as possible, whether the food is store-bought or homemade, in a car or at a table. In my house, there will be plenty of pots burning on the stove this year as I prepare our traditional family Christmas dinner. With everyone’s busy schedule, Christmas is one occasion that we always find time to break bread together. I will make the usual time-tested treats, which will include FRESH greens of course. Here’s wishing you and your loved ones. Merry Christmas!
Shanita Baraka Akintonde is a tenured professor in the Communication Department at Columbia College Chicago. She is also a wife, mother, professional speaker, podcaster and published author propelled by love. Her latest book, The Heart of a Leader, was released in September 2018. If you want to be added to her email distribution list, reach out to her today at firstname.lastname@example.org. You can also follow her on Twitter @SHAKINTONDE. Connect with her on Linked In www.linkedin.com/in/shanitaakintonde