Monday, November 27, 2017

Grits as Icon and Sacrament: Mothering through Food

Grits as Icon and Sacrament: Mothering through Food

Grits are an iconic food of the American South. I grew up with them. My mother was from the piedmont area of central North Carolina, and she fixed them for breakfast frequently. My father was from the mountains of North Carolina (Ashe County), where he ate hominy instead of grits, but he liked them and grits are inexpensive, so there were no power struggles there.
     Grits are also iconic of my cooking as a mother. When my three children came into being, it was natural that I would make grits for them—although I frequently had to purchase them during summer trips to North Carolina since they weren’t available in grocery stores in northwest Ohio. (Now they are; times have changed--for the better in this case!) It was perhaps partly because they were not easily available that grits became a tradition for special breakfasts as well as an everyday item. I would fix them with salt, lots of butter, and optional cheddar cheese chunks stirred into each bowl according to each child’s preference. Once my children grew up and went off the college, grits became one of their homecoming foods. I would usually serve them with scrambled eggs (or tofu or tempeh for the vegan ones) and maybe vegan sausages.
       It was with great delight, then, that I responded to my oldest son’s request to make grits when I went to spend Thanksgiving with him and my younger son in Wisconsin. At 31 and 28, they had their own busy lives to enjoy. Unfortunately, colon cancer had overtaken the older one, and they called on the Thursday before Thanksgiving to see if we could come out sooner than planned. We drove out early the next day, and I was pleased to be asked to make grits for breakfast in the morning. Of course, I did, and the following 2 days as well. The last bowl I made took my son 2 days to finish, and it was one of the last things he ate. (The very last thing was vegetable sushi and a small taste of vegan pumpkin pie.) Grits have become more than just a tradition and a ritual meal. With apologies to any friends who are perhaps more orthodox in their theology, grits now represent a sacrament. It was my son’s gift to me to request this tangible evidence of both my own identity and my love for him.

     I include the recipe here. Grits are made like any other hot cereal, but they should be stirred constantly and then treated like a savory dish, not a sweet one. Also, grits are more nutritious than corn meal (a nice little feather in the cap for the on-going friendly family rivalry between New England and the South.) They are ground from dried hominy, which is corn soaked in an alkaline solution (originally, wood ashes) until the hull softens and the kernels expand. This treatment, called nixtamalization in Central America where native peoples invented it, causes a chemical change that releases niacin (vitamin b3) as well as other nutrients. The over-reliance on cornbread made from untreated corn meal in poor southern diets led to an epidemic in the first half of the 1900s of pellagra, a fatal disease. So eat your grits for health as well as for a taste of region, and perhaps, for some others, family memories and comfort.
   Recipe--Bring 2 cups of water to a boil. Add about 1 teaspoon of salt. Stir in ½ cup of grits, then lower the temperature to a simmer. Keep stirring, but be careful to turn down the heat quickly. Otherwise, the grits will start bubbling and splattering, and can actually burn your skin. Depending on the brand of grits being used, they need to cook around 5 minutes. If they seem to be getting too stiff, add a little water. They shouldn’t be runny, but not too thick either. When ready, serve on a plate or bowl and top with butter (we use vegan substitutes). I also stir in cheese, and nutritional yeast to add a pleasant nuttiness. Eat as soon as possible, before the grits cool completely and solidify. Leftovers are best reheated in the pan with a little water added. Or, as my mother used to do, poor the grits into a loaf pan. They naturally solidify. Slice into ½ inch slabs, dredge in flour, then fry until golden brown. Sweet toppings--syrup, honey, molasses, jam—are allowed on this version of grits. 

Saturday, November 25, 2017

The comfort of rituals/ Thanksgiving dinner (Nov.25, 2017)

The Comfort of Rituals/ Thanksgiving Dinner
Saturday  Nov 25, 2017

I’m well aware of the various meanings that can be attached to the Thanksgiving holiday. I’ve written about those and taught about them for years. But I’m also familiar with the nature of rituals and symbols—that they’re polysemic, that meanings are constructed; that individuals might interpret them differently from how the user intended. I also know that festive events function in diverse ways: social bonding, emotional release, personal affirmation, and more.
      Be that as it may, I didn’t think Thanksgiving would be celebrated this year (2017) in my family. The plan was to drive out to Madison, WI on the Monday or Tuesday before to spend the holiday with my 2 sons. Thursday evening, though, right before I had to go to my 6 pm class to teach intro to folklore (lesson on children’s folklore and the subversiveness of the game Mother May I), I got a phone call from my younger son (28). His older brother, (31), wanted us out there earlier. He has been dealing with (living with, battling, journeying with? There are no words to adequately describe this process…) colon cancer for the last 3 ½ years. After numerous chemo treatments and surgeries, he decided last summer that he wouldn’t do any more of those. He wanted to live to the fullest, and chemo couldn’t help him do that. Now his liver and lungs were full of it also.
       I somehow taught my class, and we left early the next morning for the 7 hour drive. My daughter (26) had already arrived, flying in from Ireland where she was working on a PhD in sociology. A hospice nurse met us at the boys’ apartment. She told us that Ian’s liver was shutting down and that there was nothing they could do. She didn’t know how much longer he had—maybe the weekend. He was sleepy but still lucid and very worried about us. I talked to him instead about the menu for Thanksgiving dinner.
        Thanksgiving had always been a significant holiday in our family (in a way, all holidays are given that both parents are folklorists). We talked about the various meanings and tried to open our home to others who were away from home or didn’t have family to be with. For us, the holiday meal brought together regional differences—New England (their father), the Piedmont and Appalachian South (me), and the eastern Midwest where all 3 children were born. Also, over the years, the menu had become more and more vegetarian and vegan.
My oldest child always enjoyed helping plan the meal and finding recipes, especially for turkey substitutes, since he’s vegan and has been since an early age. He developed his own way of roasting a Tofurkey loaf that made it a tasty centerpiece. I brought one with us for this Thanksgiving dinner. He was worried that he would ruin our holiday.
      On Wed., he was still here, and I started thinking I should do a shopping for ingredients. He approved, although he was rapidly losing ground. Thursday morning didn’t feel festive at all, but I started gradually preparing dishes. He was lucid enough to request vegan pumpkin pie, so I made a run with my daughter to the local coop that we knew carried such things. By the afternoon, the meal was somehow coming together—roasted sweet potatoes and white potatoes, roasted tofu loaf (from Trader Joe’s), stuffing, gravy, green bean casserole (made from scratch), apple waldorf salad, brussel sprouts, cranberry sauce, bread, French apple tart, and pumpkin pie. We had to eat buffet style and with plates on our laps since the apartment is small and also included Ian’s girlfriend and her housemate. I sat next to Ian with my plate, talking about each dish and the memories that come with it. He roused at one point to tell me that Fiona the cat wanted pumpkin pie. He didn’t eat anything, but he did join us for part of a video—Free Birds (animated story of how a turkey went back in time and changed the main course of Thanksgiving dinner to pizza).

     As I write this, I’m sitting next to my son, listening to his breathing. Just like I did when he was a baby and looked at him in awe of the wonder of his existence. The wonder is still there, although the breathing is different, no longer portending life. No words can adequately describe this experience—or ease the pain that accompanies it—but I find comfort in the shared meal, in the sharing of thanks through that meal of a life well lived, and in the knowledge that every year, this ritual will continue and the memories of this particular thanksgiving meal will stay with me and others, and that through it, Ian will be celebrated.

Saturday, April 22, 2017

From Culinary Tourism and Curiosity to Comfort Food: North African food in Wisconsin (April 22, 2017)

I wandered into Zuzu CafĂ© 3 years ago when I was visiting my two sons in Madison, Wisconsin. Located next to the zoo (free admission), we went in to get coffee and a sandwich. Their menu, though, caught my eye—North African breakfast and other specialties. Of course, I was curious and had to try the breakfast, lablabi, a bowl of beans topped with a fried egg and harissa (chili) sauce. Delicious!

 Unexpectedly, I found that I was spending a good deal of time in Madison when my oldest son was diagnosed with 4th stage colon cancer. Healthy and fit, a life long vegetarian and vegan, and only 30, the diagnosis came out of the blue. It now meant 7-hour drives from home to be able to be there when needed. Friends put me up—and nurtured and distracted me with music, food, conversation, and friendship—and I often myself exploring both the incredible diversity of food venues in Madison and the wonderful parks (with free public beaches for swimming!!).

I went back to Zuzu several times to try other items on the menu, which now leans to sandwiches and salads. During one of these trips, I was working on editing and writing entries for the Ethnic American Food Today: A Cultural Encyclopedia, a massive 2-volume project with an additional cookbook, Ethnic American Cooking: Recipes for Living in a New World. I realized that information was lacking for some of the North African entries, so I headed over to Zuzu. The owner, Sabri Darsouni, was born in Algeria and came to the US 25 years ago. He was more than happy to help me, explaining that Tunisian and Algerian food shared many commonalities—including influences from Italian colonization—but that Tunisian dishes were distinctive in their reddish color and their use of tomato paste. He also pointed out that the food fit more closely with other Mediterranean cuisines than with African or Middle Eastern, even though politically, culturally, and geographically Algeria is frequently lumped in with those cultures. An interesting point that I’ll follow up another time. 

I approached Zuzu very differently this time I visited (April 2017). I drove up just to spend the Easter-Passover weekend with sons. We had a wonderful day and a half of going to their favorite vegetarian restaurant, watching movies, and talking. Then, on Sunday, instead of the anticipated trip to a meadow where my oldest had been working on ecological restoration projects, we took him to the hospital instead. It’s been 7 days now, and he’s still here, stabilized, but still weak and in pain.

During the times that I’m not sitting by his bedside, I’ve gone over to Zuzu several times for coffee, breakfast, and a sandwich. Instead of the curiosity that first took me there, it was the familiarity and friendly welcome that brought me back. Life feeds into scholarship, and vice versa. This time I have with me the book on Comfort Food that I recently edited with Michael Owen Jones. I showed it to Sabri, and he started musing about how Algerian food—and traditional food in general—was always comforting. It’s only with modern conveniences and modern stresses that we eat food out of season, from factories, and without thought of it being comforting. I add my own thoughts that at least some of that stress is due to the current administration’s attitudes towards anyone different from their own narrow conception of who can be an American. Zuzu displays a sign next to its door stating that everyone is welcome and that there is no Islamaphobia—and any other phobias—inside. That welcome makes the food even more comforting to me, to know that I am eating food that was once “foreign” to me, but now familiar, and that it was prepared by like-minded people who also want to approach others with compassion, respect, and understanding. That comforts!