People learn to express love in a variety of ways. We identify what’s available to give, what we can share, and what will be enjoyed. From hugs to extravagant gifts, we find our love languages and become more fluent as we practice speaking and living them.
Food is a universal love language, and in the Black community, this love runs deep. It comes from a desire to nourish others, spend time together, maintain traditions, and stay within our means.
Although we experience the effects of racial inequality, from loss of life to living in food deserts, one thing that we all know how to do is make sure everyone gets fed.
Food is not only a form of love but also a way of building and protecting culture.
Migrant people retain knowledge of their homelands, bringing different names for ingredients and traditional preparation methods. Black parents ensure that their children and grandchildren learn those names and the necessary skills to transform them into their favorite dishes.
Thereby, food becomes a source of memory.
Black-eyed peas on New Year’s Day call prosperity to the household, securing their position on the menu every year. Everyone who eats from that pot remembers previous years, who made the black-eyed peas, and what the elders had to say about it.
Similarly, jerk chicken calls to mind the last visit to Jamaica when proper spices and seasonings were procured and our great-aunt shared the secret to the best potato salad.
As children, we are called into the kitchen to help make dinner.
Take the chicken out of the freezer before Mom gets home. Peel potatoes for the potato salad. Grate the cheese for macaroni pie. Wash the rice. Boil the eggs. Shred the cabbage. Shell the peas. Dice the onions. Mince the meat.
Elders ensure that we learn to do the prep work. As we get older, our responsibilities increase.
Go to the butcher and get the right cuts of meat. Clean the chicken. Watch the pot. Keep stirring, don’t stop.
We spend so much time in the kitchen and around the dining table that the memories are endless. When we sit down for meals on special occasions, there’s no telling which ones will come to the surface for us or the other people there.
We always know which dishes we need to cook for every holiday and occasion. What the new generation needs help with, however, is the process.
How is it possible that we spend so much time helping our elders with food preparation without learning the specific recipes?
First of all, there are no recipes. Even if someone has scribbled one down at the insistence of another relative, it’s an approximation. No piece of paper can tell you how to turn food into love.
Our grandmothers tell us to add a handful of cheese. They tell us to cook the pasta until it’s halfway done, then leave it in the water for a few minutes — but not too long! They warn us not to rinse after we drain. They give us measurements in handfuls, but our hands are not their hands. They suggest seasoning in sprinkles, dashes, coins, and “just enough.”
We want, so badly, for them to speak to us in cups and tablespoons.
They hear our desperation when we call them on the phone. As they “ummm” into their receivers, we can picture them, eyes closed, trying to think of something of comparable size, color, or texture.
“Please, Grammy,” we think. “Just tell me, ‘This much macaroni, this much cheese, this much milk. First do this, then this, then this.’”
Grammy says, “It’s just a little bit of this, a dash of that. Do it until it looks like pancake batter. Maybe a little bit thicker.”
Our elders tell us to just go do it. Do what feels right. It seems as if they trust us more than we trust ourselves.
We hunt for recipes, calling around in search of precise measurements and methods. All we can remember is the way it looked on our plates. The taste. The memory we had the last time we had it.
“What were you doing all that time when I was cooking?”
We complain that we were stuck peeling potatoes, but then we hear Grammy’s smile.
“How many potatoes did you peel?”
It all comes back. We know how many potatoes will feed our household. We remember what the mountain of grated cheese looked like. We weren’t paying attention when the chicken was being seasoned, but we remember what it looked like going into the oven. We can determine how many sprigs of rosemary went into it.
We can remember the color of the seasonings and the taste, so we can figure it out by sight and smell as we go.
Black elders don’t give recipes. They give us so much more. Their menus are secure in our memories. The smell of their kitchens never leaves us. They help us develop the skills and speed that make prep work a breeze.
Now that we’re adults, Black elders give us the freedom to explore on our own, with years of guidance and delicious food as our foundation.
We learn that food isn’t just science. It’s an art. It doesn’t just create feelings, it comes from feeling.
We joke about sprinkling ingredients “until the ancestors say, ‘Stop,’” but that is real. We learn to follow our intuition, be creative, and make every meal an experience, from preparation to post-dessert relaxation.
Black cooking is community building. Black meals are communal. Black creativity is a daily practice that turns nostalgia into the making of new memories.
Alicia A. Wallace is a queer Black feminist, women’s human rights defender, and writer. She’s passionate about social justice and community building. She enjoys cooking, baking, gardening, traveling, and talking to everyone and no one at the same time on Twitter.