How to Taste a Memory
When our ancestors pass away, we reckon with what they leave us. That can be objects, or money, or land, or a host of other material things. But for some folks, the most important thing bequeathed by an ancestor is the food, the recipes, because in those tastes—sometimes…if we’re lucky—there is magic. Salvation South editor Chuck Reece has a story about that magic in this week’s commentary.
How do we commune with our community and our family? Now I’m not just talking about the folks who still walk this Earth. How do you resurrect the memory of folks who left us their love and their ideas and their ways?
Now, I’m not talking about seances or other such hocus-pocus. But you know as well as I do that all of us are acutely aware of how certain people — sometimes family, sometimes not — shaped our lives. Made us who we are. And when they’ve gone on to whatever’s next, we remember. And we want to bring those memories back to life.
Now, most priests and preachers and rabbis and imams will tell you that prayer and meditation can help you go down that road. Recently, I got to know a Baptist preacher named Justin Cox who gets up early, early every morning to bake something for his wife and kids to eat. And that ritual, he told me, is like a prayer. He wrote an essay about this for Salvation South, the online magazine I edit.
He turns on the lights, gets the coffee going, and turns on the oven. Here’s what he wrote about what happens next:
“Sometimes, in those holy hours, with the help of flour, butter, and sugar, I stumble upon an incantation so potent I can travel back in time.”
That’s how he reconnected with his grandmother, whom he loved better than nearly anybody. With both his parents working 9-to-5 jobs, Justin spent nearly every afternoon with Dood. That was his grandma’s nickname. Dood. And on most of those days, he’d eat a chunk of Dood’s cornbread. Which was, Justin told me, “magnificent.”
But when Dood died in 2001, she didn’t leave any recipes.
So, that left Justin to spend years searching through cookbook after cookbook, trying to find a recipe for cornbread that tasted like Dood’s. Until finally, he discovered a recipe called simply “Real Cornbread” in a cookbook by a woman named Ronni Lundy. If you’ve studied Southern foodways at any depth, you probably have heard her name. She’s been preserving the practices of Appalachian cooks for decades.
In Salvation South, Justin writes beautifully about the early morning when he first cooked that “real cornbread.”
“I take the first bite, and I taste absolution. No sounds from the bedroom where my spouse and daughter sleep. They don’t know; they don’t see me — a 40-something man in a union suit with bedhead and beard…openly weeping because he has tasted a memory.”
Cooking what your ancestors cooked really is like a prayer. If you’re lucky enough to have some passed-down recipes on index cards, pull one out this weekend and try to do it justice in your kitchen. Since it’s apple season, I think I’m gonna make a cobbler.
But that’s a whole different story.
Come see us at SalvationSouth.com.
Salvation South editor Chuck Reece comments on Southern culture and values in a weekly segment that airs Fridays at 7:45 a.m. during Morning Edition and 4:44 p.m. during All Things Considered on GPB Radio. You can also find them here at GPB.org/Salvation-South and please download and subscribe on your favorite podcast platform as well.