Plate by Plate
Food is sacrament. Forkful by forkful, something old unfolds and something new begins to take its first breath.
Food is sacrament. Through its creations and sharing, I am educated in how to give and bless back the family and friends that purpose my living. Family albums bloom with snapshots where we celebrate anniversaries, show thanks for another year via birthday dinners, mark rites of passage such as retirement and commiserate over one’s passing.
Growing up, creating Mother’s Day dinner was how I showed—in small part given the grandness of her love—the honor and appreciation I held for her. I tired my father in an exhaustive day of shopping for everything we did not already have in pantry or freezer. I used every pot and pan, to my father’s frustration as he was the designated dishwasher. I enveloped the kitchen in a fury of preparing exotic dishes (one year attempting Hunter Style Chicken for dinner, another year a complicated strawberry crepe-style cookie with homemade whipped cream for dessert) in an effort to convey a love supreme. Dinner would be met with my mother’s humble smile, receptive palate, and a willing stomach. When an adult, and in the hospital recuperating from my tonsillectomy, she traveled a great distance via mass transportation just to bring me Carvel pistachio ice cream. Although melted after her long trip, both my eyes and throat swelled with gratitude. She came to see me, and brought with her a cherished artifact of childhood to help me heal.
The cooking for others has become for me a humble tool to thank others for the difference they have made in my life. I would throw dinner parties as a teenager, and even as a young adult. It was my parents’ way of “compensating” for being old school in not letting me go to house parties or hang out in the city.
Although somewhat sheltered, I did not feel shrunken. Rather, their strictness churned my innovation to think of ways to spend time with friends. Food became a means to hang out, to preserve, affirm, and harness friendships. And, it was one of the few times my parents would allow me to be in mixed company.
Regardless of attending universities and colleges in different parts of the country, these “tribal gatherings” as they would come to be called was where over the breaking of bread we, old friends and new budding buddies, would rekindle memories of crazy times growing up, and new life experiences. And we would laugh, laugh, laugh. I remember N’Gai breaking out in singing Rick James’ part of “Fire and Desire,” and how his dramatization both impressed us (he could SING), and humor us as was characteristic of him. My home, and the food prepared there, became means to bridge the old parts of me that happened there and in the old neighborhood with the new parts of me that where happening everywhere else.
And the ethos shaping these gatherings was one I brought back to campus. One time I made collard greens with turkey, as Kim, Daryle and I took a break from late night studying to exchange stories and watch “Showtime at the Apollo.” One time, through the graciousness of my dorm RA and family, I hosted a dinner in our rec room with classmates to celebrate Black History Month. It became a means to bridge my family with classmates of diverse backgrounds, a time I will cherish these almost twenty years later.
So food has become at times a tool and other times a bridge. It is a means for taking care of others, affirming love for others as well as preserving and forging new relationships. One Valentine’s Day, I was upset about not having a boyfriend, so Mom made a picnic in our living room. When I was in grad school, my dad came to visit me for the weekend, and we went to an Italian restaurant and ate a simple dish of spaghetti and marinara sauce. In that moment, I was both his little girl and his biggest dream. When mom and I hosted bus rides to Atlantic City, we wanted everyone to feel like family, and we used food to do so. It was important to my mom that our guests have something hot to eat for our long trip, a tradition I still practice in making breakfast for my family. During those trips, we gave a bagged breakfast of sausage, rolls, and juice during the departure, and slices of homemade cakes we made on the return trip. Those experiences even launched for us a small catering venture, where we would make fried turkeys and cakes for sale. After my father’s passing, and before her own, Mom and I created a new ritual of making food for the winter. We would spend several weekends visiting farms and supermarkets to stock up on produce. Then, undergo the laborious yet loving task of prepping and preserving food for the winter. I loved coming home from school to then return with pickles, spiced plums, beets, and stewed tomatoes. Just a few years ago, my childhood friend Carla came to visit me at a tapas bar where she shared her manuscript for her first book of poetry. Later, when we went to dinner in the city to celebrate its release, she was so touched by the server’s attentiveness and loving words that she gave her one of her newly pressed books for free. Generosity reciprocating generosity. At the annual Thanksgiving dinner where we all congregate at my in-laws’ home, my father-in-law has passed the torch of carving the turkey to me (I do a damn good job, I must say). But his humility and benevolence leave me feeling cherished and loved. I am a witness that the breaking of bread together heals, redeems and forges.
Growing a relationship plate by plate holds particular fondness for me with my husband. Morsel by morsel, we have unfolded fears, divulged personal trials, asked for and given advice, pondered the future, incessantly chortled, and healed from challenges. We have enjoyed cuisine throughout the east coast, from the fried seafood of City Island to nostalgic hotdogs with mustard at Nathan’s in Coney Island. From being blown away by the deeply developed flavors of fire and emotion conjured by the creole cooking at Marsha Brown’s in New Hope, PA (which we would later return after he proposed) to the down home savor captured by the cornbread at Warmdaddy’s in Philly. From the pitstops made while traveling to see family down south to the lovingly prepared succotash, ribs and rice at my Aunt Shirley’s dining room table in South Carolina. We’ve counted the restaurants and eateries we visited, and we have been to about two dozen (many repeatedly, some NEVER again) in our years together.
Yet a particular collection of restaurants mark significant events with my husband and I, those of his childhood friend Craig.
Craig is a man of great humility and few words. But the cuisine of his restaurants shouts and testifies. My initiation into the power of his food was at Smoke Joint. Having South Carolinian roots, I was primed for home cooking, and the food did not disappoint. BBQ ribs that fall off the bone, greens that summon you to hum from their deliciousness, and beans that tantalize with traces of sweet and smoky flirtations on your tongue. But the beautiful flavor of the food was a means to something greater. It was a conduit through which we grew to know one another. Hurling jokes, asking questions, humming, we hankered down into the succulence of food that would then begin the teaching of how we would come to feed one another in soul.
It would be at Peaches, another of Craig’s restaurants, that I would then meet the urban frontiersman of fine food, and his life partner, Laura. I knew this meeting, and the breaking of bread with them at their place, was pivotal. I was meeting people Kerwin holds sacred, as he and Craig grew up together, in neighborhood and in church, and Laura is a woman whom they both highly regard and respect. If allowed, I would be initiated into a sacred group. The restaurant felt welcoming, the exchange of greetings and smiles very promising, and the offerings of libation by Laura let me know that this initiation and assessment would be affectionately administered. Then, and now, I am fascinated and inspired by Craig and Laura being a couple who withstood the trials and challenges of growing a marriage, a family, a dream and a business simultaneously.
Returning back to the food, it did not disappoint. The chicken and Andouille gumbo always opens and breaks my heart. I taste home every time I have it. It harkens me back to when Mom and I made it together. I had the task of stirring the dangerous but delicious roux, harmonizing the flour and hot oil in the cast iron skillet, building the base that my mom would then complete, and we lovingly enjoy. In homage to that conjured memory, and the powerful gift of Craig’s restaurant to channel it, I continue to make it on my own at home.
Like the role of food when growing up, Peaches has also come for us to be a meeting place for old friends and new family. Periodically, another childhood friend, Chris, visits Brooklyn. When in town we converge at Peaches to banter and make new bliss. Like me, Chris orders the same thing, the Shrimp Po Boy, as it has come for him to be the signature dish that holds his memories, heart and stomach captive. Sometimes Kerwin and I have gone as a family, bringing at the time our oldest son, as we make a new memory savoring deep-rooted food. In similar fashion, Chris’ wife Deshae also created a special moment when meeting for the first time by having us all go out together at the local Outback Steakhouse after visiting their church. Meeting her, and spending time with them and their family, has made an indelible impression on my heart ever since.
And then there is Hothouse. The trinity of brothers met there when it newly opened, celebrating Craig’s new accomplishment and their time-tested bond. Kerwin was so taken by the fried chicken that he raved and raved and raved when he returned home. I was intrigued. Pregnant and enlarged with our first child, we went. A tight wooden space, it resonates with the décor of a speakeasy. But plates of that fried chicken swelled nostalgic within me, so much so that I think it is in part why our firstborn LOVES chicken. Hothouse now comes to be a place in our hearts that marks our celebration of an old friend’s accomplishments, and our celebration of growing a family.
And just this past Thanksgiving weekend, we were able to celebrate again a milestone in our dear friend’s career. The opening of Marietta. As an annual ritual, Craig and his wife Laura host several friends and family at one of their restaurants for Thanksgiving. Regrettably we missed it because of heavy traffic, and needed to get to my in-laws on time. But that following Saturday Craig, Chris and our family met there to break bread and make new memories.
Over the years I have come to regard Craig and Chris as my “big brothers,” feeling comfortable with asking questions, cracking jokes, and now, making sure that Keith and Maceo get to know their “uncles.” A cornucopia of fried foods—chicken, whiting, and green tomatoes—overflowed our beige wood table. Craig ordered on Kerwin’s behalf a variety of plates given Kerwin’s indecisiveness in what delectables to finally select. The butternut squash and mushroom risotto Craig ordered was decadent and quickly devoured. My second born, Maceo, a very finicky eater, grabbed for every plate that graced the table.
Even under watchful eyes, he somehow caught hold of a chicken bone which he gnawed and gnawed until by his growling in enjoyment we realized what he was doing. After its removal, he settled for sneaking some watercress. But he loved the sautéed greens I fed him by hand. Eventually I had to battle him in getting some for myself. Good food will make you selfish.
What was enjoyable about sitting with my family and brothers was the mutuality. We peppered one another with questions. For Craig, I inquired what it was like to maintain several restaurants, his inspiration for the cuisine selected, reasons for the décor selected, and next ventures. Chris reciprocated in asking thoughtful questions for me to consider around Keith’s social readiness for school. For me personally, what was wonderful to behold was this band of brothers, these fathers, these spiritual kinsmen, spending time once again with one another.
Marietta and the men made me feel at home. I could be mom, and also kick up my feet. Keith and I took advantage of the empty space (due to the holiday), giving my at times restless son carte blanche to explore. Up and down the corridor we walked and giggled, touching plants and holiday décor, investigating textures and shapes. Ever the teacher, I built in mini-lessons about opposites, such as cold (when touching the window) and warm, outside (looking out the window), and inside. I also indulged the enjoyment of some delicious cocktails. Craig “reminded” me to indulge my quiet time. Sage and gin make a splendid mix. In my taking care of others, I was taken care of too.
There is something about good food and good times that summons me to find the tools and means to recreate them and share them again. Craig’s food so inspired me that again, in homage, I made renditions of them at home. Kerwin delighted in the risotto at the restaurant, so I made a butternut squash risotto with parmesan cheese this past week. I was so seduced by the bite and heat of the sautéed mixed greens that I made some too. Keith was an ever-faithful tester, who volunteered sampling several forkfuls in various stages of preparation (though they did not turn out as good as at the restaurant . . .will keep trying). Knowing Kerwin is a fan of mushrooms, I was inspired to make something we never had. Grilled cheese sandwiches made with challah, Portobello mushrooms, fresh sage, and fontina cheese. Kerwin inhaled the sandwich in just a few bites. I felt affirmed.
I see in my firstborn a growing fascination with food too. When in the kitchen, he breaks from his own play asking for seasoning. Sprinkling small amounts in his little hands, he stares in study at the different grains and colored powders, devours, assesses, and then asks for more. He can make distinctions between nutmeg, cloves, kosher salt, adobo, ground onions, garlic powder, and coarse black pepper (his favorite). At just two years old he asks for them by name. This exchange can delay meals at times, but as my Mom did with me, and Craig for his customers, I am learning how to create foods as a portal into new relationships, and bridges into new ways to create love for others.
Forkful by forkful, something old unfolds and something new begins to take its first breath.
For more information about these restaurants, and menus, please visit http://www.bcrestaurantgroup.com/.