Savoring Solace: Native American and African American origins of Southern comfort food
I had come to Pittsburgh to be close to someone that I really knew. College days had found me in Virginia, far from my cousins in North Carolina and even farther from my parents in Georgia. I decided to visit a friend I had known since middle school. She sensed my restlessness and took me to a favorite restaurant of hers.
I read the sign, Cafe Mimi, with no clue as to what lay within. The menu was unusual. Where I expected to see burgers and mozzarella sticks, I only found mashed potatoes and chicken soup for the soul. Cafe Mimi was devoted to comfort food; a safe haven for the gastronomically corrupt who have dined too long on martinis and hip, chic cuisine.
Surely, anyone who remembers childhood knows comfort food. It was what you ate on rainy days when you couldn’t play outside. It was what you found at the table when your pet goldfish died or your dog ran away. No matter what race you are or how much money you have, comfort food cradles the palette like a familiar bed envelopes the body.
I recognized the menu, which tugged at my heart but did not possess it. This was comfort food, indeed, but not for me.
My comfort food is born from a rich heritage of African and Cherokee roots. I grew up mixed and misunderstood in Macon, Georgia. I knew no one else like myself and only had my parents and brother to lean on. The rest of our family was hours away in North Carolina. Returning home gave me an older peace, one my parents could not provide me since they, too, had moved and were unsettled, just like me.
In my grandmother’s kitchen was solace and stability. On every burner and around every fork rested soul-satisfaction. Her kitchen was warm and inviting; I would sit on a yellow stool and watch her create with gentle, strong fingers. Each pepper sliced with love, each bean cooked just right. Her eyes held the hope of nourishment. Here, I knew I was loved, beautiful and worthy. The cruelties of the world no longer mattered.
My youth never labeled these meals as comfort. I simply acknowledged the tranquility that was born inside from eating them. When most of America was having macaroni and cheese, I dined on bean bread, pepper pot soup, and connuche. How easily I cleaned my plate, and asked for more, wanting to gorge myself.
The new day found me watching grandmother again, eager to see her next creation. Often, she would experiment, and only I would view this work in progress. She would mix Cajun spices with Cherokee dishes, or serve a Tsalagi soup with Southern soul food. This produced wonderful sensations of taste. My grandmother was a fusion gourmet long before Wolfgang Puck and Spargos.
Looking back, I realize that watching my grandmother and eating her cooking allowed me to travel in her world. This was an ancient trek that many had journeyed. We were eating like generations before us had eaten, breaking the same bread and relishing the same tastes. These recipes were more than a how-to on cooking, they were a how-to on living Cherokee.
My mother never got all of these recipes, and she regrets it. Grandmother died before any of us could find out everything we wanted to know from her. When I cook, now, I piece together what my mind can still gather. This is a bittersweet process. I wonder why my mind still recalls ingredients when my English-crowded brain has forgotten many Cherokee words taught to me. The food I remember with lucidity, while most of my grandmother’s stories have escaped. This is a fate shared by many Native Americans, and everyone is fumbling to reverse it.
The Cherokee of North Carolina are playing catch-up, like most modern-day Native American tribes. It is a game of hide and go seek- the people of my grandmother’s generation are getting older and will soon be gone. The goal is to gather as much elder knowledge as possible. This includes language, dance, the arts, and recipes.
It is an uphill battle in many respects. Most younger Cherokee have difficulty trying to say certain words, or may not find the grain of the wood as easily as their father did.
The food, on the other hand, seems almost effortless. The mind readily owns a recipe, and almost unconsciously adds the right ingredients. The taste may not be exactly the same, but the concept is easily preserved. Perhaps this is caused by the ease inherit in comfort dishes. They are typically simple in preparation, for no one wants to wait forever to be calmed.
Every culture has their comfort cuisine: the tamales of Mexico, Vietnamese beef soup, and Hungarian venison stew, to name a few. These foods are simple and pleasing to the eye, with no harsh borders or jagged edges. They are steeped in heritage. Their flavors are safe, nurturing, and evoke the past. Experiencing this richness during your formative years makes it almost impossible to forget. You remember it just as you recollect riding a bike or the way your mom held you while you cried.
Mainstream America sees a profit in preserving comfort food with Kraft products and Campbell soup. For the Cherokee and other ethnic cultures, mama’s cooking is not so readily available. It doesn’t come in boxes or cans in aisles at the supermarket. It must be made by hand from scratch. The guidance for making these dishes is innate, since there’s no pop culture forum. Most chefs on The Food Network or PBS are not producing Native American recipes. They go for the exotic dishes of Thailand or stick with traditional French menus. This spills over into what is offered in restaurants. There are no Cherokee equivalents of Cafe Mimi in major cities.
The only public venue for Cherokee cuisine is at a festival or tribal meeting. This does not make it less important. Food, like language, is born from tradition and concept. For the Cherokee, it allows us to see the world the way our ancestors did, experience the same ambrosia and ritual.
Recipes exhibit a psychology: this is how my ancestors enjoyed life, these are the dishes that were served with most pride. For a marginalized person living in modern America, this realization can save your soul. When so much is lost from assimilation, it is truly soothing to know their is at least one thing that can connect you with the past, and, it was there all along.
Recently, I had a dream about my grandmother. She came to me during a period of lowness, when all I wanted to do was hold my head and moan. I had been working for 48 hours straight, with no sleep and hardly any food. I was too stressed to be hungry and welcomed the comfort of my pillow.
In my dream, grandmother was standing in her kitchen, smiling at me. It was a simple image. I woke, tortured by a deep, painful hunger.
My first thought was to attempt a return to sleep. My belly, however, would not allow this. So, I went to the kitchen and began to create. I decided to make bean bread. Sure, it is quick and filling, but there was a deeper reason. Something inside me needed it.
I slowly cooked the red beans. My tiny kitchen was rapidly consumed with the familiar smells of my youth. I waited for the beans to cool and then began to form the bread.
As my hands rolled the beans with the cornmeal, I was flooded with memories of skinned knees, my grandmother’s laugh, my parents dancing, and fresh cut grass. There is great catharsis in the preparation and application of what my grandmother taught me. I create with the same love; I smile the same smile upon completion.
Sitting down to eat was like being rocked to sleep- every bite eased my mind. True comfort food has this effect on the psyche. During times of trouble, one can cling to this for dear life.
I barely remember going back to sleep that night. I can hardly recall all the exhaustion I felt leading up to that pacifying meal at 3 A.M. The feeling of peace, however, is vital, still. So, when the world is too much, or too fast, or too lonely, I let this feeling bring me home.
Text and photo are Copyright © 2000 by Joy Donnell. All rights reserved.
A native of Macon, Georgia (USA), chronic wanderlust has led Joy Donnell to travel the world, endulging in fascinating cuisine and scenery. She currently writes and lives in Atlanta with two very spoiled dogs named Leo and Yuki.
(EDITOR’S NOTE: The preceding post originally appeared in the online multicultural journal New Tribal Dawn, which published essays, fiction and poetry from 1999 to 2007. Although the journal is no longer active, we are preserving its fine literary archive here for posterity.)