Being raised by both my mother and grandmother had its advantages. Thinking back to life uptown during my 1970s wonder years, one of the first thoughts that come to mind is the food that was constantly cooking on our old stove.
Dark as mahogany, grandma came from Harrisonburg, Virginia; born into a family of country chefs who dwelled in the Negro neighborhood known as New Town (her own grandmother’s fresh biscuits and jelly were legendary), she seemed to think it was a sin if something wasn’t frying, broiling, simmering, boiling, baking or in the process of cooling off.
“Grandma cooks and mommy heats up,” I once told one of my mother’s friends. Yet, since grandma worked in a factory in New Jersey and was out of the flat before I awoke, Sunday mornings was the only time she made a full breakfast. Returning home from nine o’clock mass at St. Catherine of Genoa, where I was an altar-boy, the hearty smell of eggs, bacon, sausages and grits met me at the front door.
Though I’m not sure what was on my mind, I always said I didn’t want any grits. Maybe it was the way they looked or the way grits hardened in the pot when they were cold, but I wasn’t feeling them. “Boy don’t know what he missing, Mary,” grandma’s boyfriend Joe said and laughed. Staring at his plate, a yellow river of yolk from his over-easy eggs pooled into the grits.
“Well, if he don’t want’em, I can’t force him,” she replied. Although I could hear in her voice that my rejection of the grits was a slight betrayal to her, I refused to relent. In the same way that I (at the time) detested chicken and dumplings and pig feet, I spent my entire childhood gritless. A few years later, when I was fourteen, me, mom and baby brother moved to Baltimore. I stayed in the City of Poe graduating from high school. Then, in the August of ’81, I returned to Harlem and to my grandma’s soulful kitchen.
Although it was just the two of us living there, grandma still cooked as though an army was coming. Yet, as a freshman at Long Island University in Brooklyn, I became poplar because I often brought home hungry friends for Sunday dinner. “Now make sure you get enough,” she’ll say sweetly, her dark hands holding the spoon tightly as she put more food on our plates.
Afterwards, grandma wrapped-up the food in heavy aluminum foil and insisted my friend took some grub back to the dorm. I recall once asking if she had her recipes written down, but she just laughed. “I don’t need any recipes,” she said proudly, pointing to her temple. “I got them all up here.”
To this day, I can’t quite explain what got me eating grits; perhaps, as an adult, they became less gross or I just got more curious about what was such the big deal. I had put a little salt, butter and cheese on them, and shoved them in the mouth.
Expecting the worse, I was blown away by the taste. I thought about Joe, who had died years before, teasing me at Sunday breakfast. It was at that moment that my tongue began to do the happy dance. “Not you eating grits,” grandma blurted proudly that summer Sunday morning as we sat at the faux-wood kitchen table.
Fourteen years after grandma’s death on March 8, 1994, I still eat grits on Sunday mornings whenever possible; and with each massive forkful, I think about grandma. (end)
Michael A. Gonzales writes for Vibe, Stop Smiling and New York magazine, and blogs at uptownlife.net. A Harlem native with a southern sensibility, he lives in Brooklyn.