Soul Food

“Mamma, I neeeed some collard greens and okra.” Yep. That’s what my children say, especially after a stint away from home or a busy time when we’ve had too much restaurant food. Even our foster daughter, who will assert that she hates cooked vegetables, devours greens and okra in massive quantities. Every time I place a southern meal on my California table, my soul is filled. My daddy would have been proud. Food is the one part of southern life I have been able to pass on to my SoCal babies.

Last week, my daughter and I sat in a theater completely absorbed in the movie The Help. I cried, of course. Well, didn’t everyone? Afterwards, my daughter had questions to ask. “Didn’t you have a black maid when you were little?” “Was it like that?” “Did you love her?” Well, yes, my parents did hire a woman to look after my youngest brother and me after school and to start dinner. But it wasn’t at all like The Help. First of all, I was born in 1965, so by the time I remember anything, desegregation had already ocurred. Perhaps my four much older brothers would have had a different opinion of the people my parents hired since they were in the midst of the civil rights movement and all of the positive change that time of history entailed. It might have made a difference, also, that we lived in central Florida and not Mississippi. I came from a family of homesteaders, tough Florida crackers who believed in doing their own work as much as they were able. Even if it had been a different time and place, I cannot imagine my parents treating any human being the way some of those women were treated in that movie. I hope I am not wrong about that.

Did I love Lilly, our maid? Well, she was okay. I liked her as much as any child likes a part-time babysitter, as much as the children my daughter cares for like her. But mostly, I loved my parents; it was they who raised me. Was she a good cook? Yes, she was, but my Daddy was better. My own upbringing was not anything like that of the children in this movie. Nonetheless, my daughter came away with valuable historical and life lessons, and she came home hungry for all the food she had seen on those southern tables.

That experience led me to remember another film I saw many years ago, a movie called  Soul Food. This film portrayed a black family going through many struggles, but it focused on the family coming together for Sunday dinner with all of my favorite southern foods. Fried chicken and smothered pork chops; okra, greens, and black-eyed peas; sweet potato pie — amazing foods that bring comfort to aching souls and are a point of reference for people of any race who hail from the south, and maybe now from southern California, because I have certainly sold my kids’ friends on the benefits of a crispy fried okra, much to the chagrin of their California parents!

As I write, I am boiling up some greens and black-eyed peas. I’m certain these health-conscious Californians would be appalled to see me flavoring my dishes with fat-laden ham hocks and lots of salt. It is my humble opinion, however, that the nutrients in these colorful foods counteract the fat and sodium. You will never convince me otherwise. And besides this is soul food, the kind of food that heals and unites.  I can’t wait to sit around the table with my family tonight and iron out all the problems of the world. Anyone want to join us?

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