I grew up in a multi-cultural household. Meaning, my father was from Manhattan and my mother was from the backwoods of western North Carolina. I like to think I inherited the best from both worlds. My dad instilled in me a certain metropolitan sophistication, as well as a love of Big Band music, travel, and ice- cold martinis. My mom, on the other hand, gave me a strong work ethic, common sense, and true grit. Along with a fair amount of guilt. But while I was living with my parents, one thing neither of them gave me was decent food.
My dad rarely cooked, and when he did, it was an elaborate process involving multiple pots, pans, and utensils, along with a pantry full of ingredients. When he would finally emerge from the kitchen, he’d look like a Waf e House cook after a double shift but with nothing more to show for his efforts than a platter of silver dollar pancakes or a plate of corned beef hash, which looked suspiciously like what we fed every morning to the family dog. My mother was a much more efficient cook but an equally boring one. Her idea of “gourmet” was crosshatching strips of Spam on top of macaroni and cheese. She will tell you I was a picky eater, but growing up in that house, one had no choice.
For real food, I relied on my mom’s mom, my grandma. She was a big woman, about two hundred and fty pounds of housedress. But like Mario Batali or Paul Prudhomme, she’d earned her girth. While Grandma would shuffle around the kitchen in her orthopedic sneakers, I’d sit in the living room and play checkers with my grandpa anticipating her calling us to the table. Every visit to their house was like a trip to Cracker Barrel.
Grandma baked homemade biscuits every single morning, hand- mixing our, butter, Crisco, and buttermilk, and then dropping spoonfuls of the wet dough into a hot cast-iron skillet. Later in the day she’d use that same skillet to make cornbread with course- ground cornmeal and a generous ladle of bacon grease. I’d crumble a warm wedge of that cornbread onto a plate and cover it with slow-cooked pinto beans, homemade relish, pickled beets, and chopped onions. I’d then bury myself in this mountain of fat- back-soaked carbs while my father looked on as if I were eating something I’d scraped off the front bumper of the station wagon.
Then there were the chicken and dumplings, and chicken fried steak with sausage gravy. And the pork chops and collard greens and barbecue chicken and fried okra. While there was a feebly fought culinary war between the states at my parents’ home, at Grandma’s the war was over and the South had decidedly won.
There’s a strong connection between love and food. Even now, a proper Southern biscuit or bowl of pinto beans whisks me back to my sweet grandmother’s table. If not for her, I would have starved to death.