A Kitchen Full

By John Ballantine

he chicken breast is soft, moist, and succulent, covered with a gentle crust. Crispy with no grease, just the warm smell of centuries of song cooking the fried chicken. Henrietta rolls the floured chicken leg in the light breadcrumb batter. It blankets the leg with a thin layer before slipping slowly into the simmering oil—four minutes later, a perfect lightly-browned leg is placed on the platter next to the breast, thigh, and neck.

Looking in at the cast iron stove, set deep in the cooking alcove, and a flour-spattered tin table at the center of the kitchen, you would see the rhythmic movements—back and forth from table with parboiled chicken rolled in flour and dipped quickly in the breadcrumb batter before it makes its way to the black frying pan with bubbling oil. Each piece of chicken is deliberately put in the cast iron pan, worn dark by years of cooking, and then as the batter browns, it is gently moved to the platter on the counter.

Henrietta flows with music I cannot hear, but I see her as she touches the history of frying chicken on Alabama sharecropping farms. Special Sunday meals for the poor black folk after church. The soul of black-eyed peas, carrots in butter, mashed potatoes, and fried chicken is all you need to keep you going through the tribulations of living down South. Each week families gather, amens fill the air, heads are bowed, and hands reach across the table.

Food is love. It binds the soul and fills the heart with history and all that comes at you. I did not know the written history or hear the songs when I was eight, but I tasted the sustenance of life. Henrietta shared her time with us in the kitchen, passing on the wisdom of years slowed down, meandering songs, and the sermons that hold us together.

It was not just the fried chicken, apple pies, or greens that let us white folk, her black children, and grandchildren learn that the kitchen was safe. A sanctuary from the world out there with all of its shouting, misery, and meanness. We gathered each day with Henrietta as she shushed the noise, “Now quiet down, listen up, and take that hand away from the food. Don’t spoil your dinner.”

I was taught the kitchen ritual; I was part of it each morning and night. We all were in our ways. Cleaning up, clearing the dishes, and witnesses to the dance of meals. At first Henrietta pulled the dinner together by instinct and years of watching—no books, no words—then, with tutoring and gentle guidance from Joy of Cooking that sat on the counter, her repasts grew—learned after years of lessons. Henrietta only read the Bible and passed-down cookbooks.

She knew batters, the silky smoothness of mouse, the English custards, legs of lamb with rosemary and garlic, and even the French sauces. Her affinity with the vegetables, chickens, and grains was uncanny. No schooling taught her the ingredients or measures. Just a touch of salt, a little curry there, two dabs of butter, and this spice and that sprig of rosemary or basil. The kitchen was full of magic and song; a goodness warming all who wandered in.

Of course my first meal—my mother’s milk—was a sweet, warm flow squeezed from her breast. My eyes closed, slowly opening with the May sun. I held my mother’s body, full of images: yellows, and grays, and even the dark pulsating purples of the womb. I was out in the world, slapped awake with a cry, and put into my mother’s care. Neither of us knew what to expect or where we would walk.

Soon I rolled on the blanket, looked at the sky, and crawled on my stomach. The pabulum and baby foods, ground up to keep me going, were terrible. Spit out and thrown against the wall as I sat locked in the baby high chair. Gerber tried to feed us right, but scientists forgot to ask kids the essentials of baby rearing. Cries were heard across the land. I was just one of the red-faced children looking not as cute as the baby ads. Mothers were distraught; Spock did not know how to feed his offspring.

We were thrown from the spinning Ferris wheels. The kaleidoscope of the 1950s pushed black sharecroppers from the farms, opened schools to black and white with Federal marshals, and created Madison Avenue men in gray flannel suits who knew nothing about child-rearing. The mushy food and jars of syrupy vegetable mixes littered the floor. Traumas were spawned everywhere.

My sister Chia and I were saved from these ill-thought-out lessons: not by design, but serendipity. Henrietta came by a long bus journey from Alabama with grown children soon to follow. She did not read or know how to drive, but kindness and gentleness flowed from her hands. Her quiet smile, soft voice, and firm hand was all my mother needed. At three I was too much, with Chia climbing out of the crib, Henrietta brought order to the family. Her room was over the garage—separate and part of our family.

Early on I pushed the liberties: talking back, grabbing, and taking what I wanted. Smack, a fast slap on the hand, “Don’t you do that.” She walked me on the leash before I ran too far ahead, put me to bed as my parents played with other adults, and cut the carrots, greens, and meat just right so I could eat all I wanted. My life was not like the other kids on the block. Food was love.

The miracles of the kitchen, the flour on the counter, the songs hummed with cut apples, corn meal, and crusts that crumbled in my mouth soon became our manna. We all sat at the kitchen table, heard the stories, the aphorisms, and the chuckles that rolled with the kneaded bread. Her arms wrapped around me as I grew taller with the years; we rocked back and forth knowing that love flowed from the food, the kitchen, and the songs that held us firm.

Here I stood as a small boy, teenager, and man pushing through the walls of controversy—the injustice and the questions of living in a world of white and black, brown and immigrant, poor and rich. We sat in the kitchen, equals sharing what held us together. There was nothing magical or divine about the food, yet care and love bathed me, my sister, and my family. Henrietta felt the wisdom of the fields, the land that birthed us all. We held court in the kitchen and learned how to walk into the storms that rose outside.

The kitchen meals were the center for me before I knew why we prayed or how to hold the ones I love. Henrietta filled her sanctuary, our kitchen, beyond her children, her black and brown grandchildren. She held me each day with the steaming pots, the aromas of freshly cut beans, clean milk bottles, and the lightly-sprinkled lamb leg with garlic, rosemary, and touch of maple syrup. Here I began each day, safely held with a huge hug, and a “Get going; you’ll be late.”

What fell in between, all that stuff out there, was just white folks stirring the pot. Henrietta feeds me still, as she sways back and forth in her special place up there. “And you had better believe me, or I will smack you real good.”

 

——————–

An economics professor at Brandeis International Business School, John Ballantine took his Bachelor’s degree in English at Harvard, with an M.A. from the University of Chicago and a Ph.D. in Economics from NYU Stern. He has published economic commentary in Salon and the Boston Globe. His literary work has appeared in Crack the Spine, Existere, Green Hill Literary Review, Penmen Review, Ragazine, Rubbertop Review, Saint Ann’s Review, Santa Clara Review, Santa Fe Literary Review, Slippery Elm, and SNReview. He writes to understand the world we walk in and stay in touch with essential truths.


Comments are closed.