Another week, another feature story about Nubian Queen LoLa. What is it about this woman that keeps the media buzzing? Her humanitarian spirit as a newly-ordained minister of the Gospel? The sound of her voice emanating from the kitchen as she sings along with the blaring rhythms of Gospel Radio 1060 while fixing lunch? The tiny, crowded dining room, (you might as well call it a pulpit), where crisp hot chicken wings and seafood po’ boys come with a side of the Holy Scriptures? The backyard she has turned into a “solitary place” where the homeless find something fresh and warm to eat? Her one-time homeless status?
Curiosity and my desire to share the pies I had leftover following last week’s Dream Pie Social lured me to Nubian Queen LoLa’s Cajun, Soul Food Kitchen in Austin. I went back for the inspiration. And, the wings.
At LoLa’s kitchen table, a friend and I enjoyed a mixed menu of etouffee, collard greens, sweet tea, and life lessons that is seldom seen anymore — not in boisterous eateries, or at take-out counters, or in the rush of dinner served in front of American Idol. But there are two things to know if you decide to partake of LoLa’s: enjoy the wait, and expect to be encouraged toward greatness. LoLa is a one-woman show doing quadruple-duty as the restaurant’s greeter, cook, server, and dishwasher — a flour- and cornmeal-dusted representation of the cliche “labor of love”.
As a child in Lake Charles, Louisiana, LoLa Stephens-Bell “sat on the sacks [rice sacks]” observing her mother craft Louisiana-styled dishes as a cook for Kozy Kitchen, Captain’s Table and the Candelight Inn. Eventually, when she was old enough she says, “I told her to sit on the sacks and I’ll do it.” LoLa promised her mother that one day she would have her own place where appetites and souls are nurtured at the same time. She also planned to hire “a little old lady” like her mom as a way to give back to the community. She was on her way to that dream when a flood turned her life upside down. LoLa became homeless. “I lost everything: my husband, my house, my kids,” she said.
Since then LoLa has been cooking up a storm, drawing media raves as much for her community spirit as for her cooking. LoLa is closed on Sundays. That’s when she feeds the homeless and the poor from her shallow wellspring. Donors provide support offering everything from food, to transportation, and gift card printing. “Now, I’m coming back stronger than I have ever been in my life and I am teaching and preaching my word to the poor,” she boasted. “They are the hidden treasures of God.”
I think I understand what keeps everyone coming back to LoLa’s place. It is her generous spirit. LoLa reminded me of the ancestors who put dinner on the table in the 19th Century despite the harsh physical labor required, and who worked tirelessly for their neighbors, secretly feeding run away slaves to keep them safe for as long as they possibly could.
Back then, routine daily tasks included soap- and candle-making, clothing families, cooking over a hearth, lifting heavy pots, toting water and, of course, tending children. Without refrigeration, cooks spent a great deal of their time fetching milk from the springhouse and keeping crockery storage jars clean. Cooking took place over a raging fire, which required cooks to spend long hours every day sifting ashes, adjusting dampers, lighting fires, and carrying wood. She maneuvered elaborate utensils that were suspended on hooks of various lengths on a backbar. This contraption allowed pots, kettles and footed Dutch ovens, also known as “spiders,” to hang at various distances above the flame. Did I mention that she did this in a long skirt with children running around?
Some larger plantations had two cooks: a plantation cook and just for one for the children. Even so, the task of preparing a midday meal for up to 200 adults and more than 100 children reveals the Herculean strength required of a plantation cook. It is difficult for me today, with so many convenience foods, tools, and equipment, to imagine the physical demands of chopping wood for the kitchen fire, toting tremendous iron kettles weighing as much as 40 pounds, or to envision the enormity of turning spitted meat in a five-or-six-foot tall fireplace – by hand. And, it stretches my imagination to consider the skill it took to build that fire, measure its temperature, and calculate cooking time by the progression of the sun.
But our women did these things, in much the way LoLa does today, with minimal equipment and scarce resources, but with a lot of hard work and devotion that produces food for the belly as well as the soul. So, my friend and I sit back and take it all in. We can’t help but wonder: Where have all the faithful servants gone?
Do you know someone like LoLa who cooked and cared for her community as much as she did for her family? Please share her story by clicking on Comment below.
Our pie-baking excursion had barely begun, and already I was getting a little teary-eyed subconsciously drifting between wondering what life would be like for these kids when they returned to their homes, and teaching them a few basic cooking skills.
“Wash your hands and your produce. Gather your ingredients and read your recipe from beginning to end.”
…Is there someone there to whisper words of comfort in their ears when they are sad or terrified? Do they have anyone to tell their dreams to?
“First you grip the apple with your index finger and your thumb”
…Have they ever been given advice over a steamy hot cup of cocoa with marshmallows on top?
“Take hold of the knife in your other hand and apply gentle pressure to separate the skin from the flesh.”
…Where do they go for advice?
“Yes, we could use a vegetable peeler, but then you don’t learn the proper way to handle a knife. If you don’t hold the apple correctly, the task takes longer and is much more difficult.”
…Why are they so hurt and angry?
“Be patient; the pie will be out of the oven soon.”
…What can I do to help preserve their dignity?”
I try to settle my thoughts down and accept the reality that this little group of troubled high schoolers and I have come together at The Kitchen Space to celebrate Dr. Martin Luther King’s message of opportunity and equality, and to bake an apple pie — not bring about world peace. On second thought, maybe we could…
Tears well up in my eyes as we talk about slavery and civil rights, and the role education plays in the pursuit of freedom. They tell me about the role models in their community and I get them thinking about the ways food careers are linked with independence, notoriety, and prosperity. They giggle and chat incessantly as they eagerly wait for their pies to emerge from the oven — expressing a new-found confidence and pride in their work and showing respect for the commercial kitchen by cleaning their tools and their workspace, all while patiently anticipating the pleasure of the first bite of a simple, sweet treat that they made themselves.
They wrap their warm pies in foil. Head toward the Travis County van that gives them a second chance. Then one of the boys breaks through the tough-guy persona he had projected just 90 minutes earlier by expressing his appreciation for our time together.
And he gives me a hug.
This risky, tender-hearted gesture captures the very essence of the SANDE Youth Project, the nonprofit mentoring and training program I founded to inspire and empower underserved youngsters toward healthy, productive futures. It also personifies the vision of last week’s MLK Day Dream Pie Social for fellowship and unity:
“A pie is a warm hug wrapped in a crust.”
What’s your pie story? To share your favorite pie memory, click below on COMMENT.
If you would like to learn more about The SANDE Youth Project visit my website at:
To learn more about the MLK Day Dream Pie Social, visit:
The Austin Chronicle or
The Austin American Statesman
Pauline Brown wasn’t the kind of woman to let segregation bring her down. “I have my share of memories, some of them exciting, some of them scary, but I still love every moment and I will fight for Clarksville until the day I die. This is my area; our home.”
In a somber voice that mobilizes with gripping tales of growing up black in a segregated quarter of Austin, without street lights or indoor plumbing, she reflects on the importance of preserving community. In another interview, the topic turns light-hearted. “I made the richest lemon pie in Clarksville or anyplace else.” Virtually every story she told bewitched with a spirit of unity, and the hope for a brighter future.
I never met Pauline Brown; I got to know her because of the impression she left on a young high school student named Jordan Greenberg, and on the entire neighborhood of Clarksville, a town founded by the former slaves of Texas Govenor Elisha M. Pease.
Pauline Brown’s story-telling at the Austin Batcave, a nonprofit writing center for kids, captivated Jordan. “I was really struck by her words and felt that the stories and memories she told were beautiful. I thought a lot about her and what she said long after the interview was over, and even more so after I read about her passing (away) just a few weeks later.”
Jordan was so certain that Pauline’s “amazing accomplishments” would connect with children, that she decided to write and illustrate a scholarship-winning book about Pauline’s efforts to save historic Clarksville from urban sprawl. The little book is a tender-hearted reflection on the lives former slaves scraped together. It is also an ode to the wisdom that kept bitterness at bay.
The “ville” of Pauline’s youth is gone. Precious few of its tin-roofed, shot-gun styled homes still dot the wooded and hilly landscape. They have been replaced by a global village and modern, suburban architecture. But, her insights and ambitions linger like the sweet aroma of fresh-baked pie:
“Never forget where you come from.”
“These are great times, please use [them] wisely.”
“Thank your mother and father, or whoever is taking care of you.”
“Do your part; help wherever you can.”
“Please stay in school.”
“And, remember: this is Clarksville the first freedom town west of the Mississippi, founded in 1871.”
Pauline Brown’s memory will be honored this weekend in Austin at the Second Annual Dream Pie Social at Sweet Home Missionary Baptist Church in Clarksville, one of four old-fashioned community gatherings planned to uplift the community in celebration of the Martin Luther King Jr., Holiday. I joined the ServeaDream Organizing Committee, because a pie social encourages citizens of every stripe to come together, and savor food and memories while raising money to preserve the community — even though I admit that being so close to the disregarded family homes and accomplishments has made me a little weary.
Thank goodness for new friends and the precious lore of strong, affirming women like Pauline Brown.
Jordan sums it this way:
“Pauline’s story is proof of the adage that ‘one person can make a difference.’ She was a leader in her community who was truly effective and was also a warm and loving person. Pauline is everything a person can hope for in a role model or heroine; she was brave and determined and also compassionate and kind. She was a strong leader in the community but also a gentle and loving participant… I am very grateful that I have been able to directly give back to the community I was so inspired by.”
Who inspires you?
If you would like to know more about Austin’s Dream Pie Socials, please visit: www.serveadream.org
In Her Kitchen
Lemon Meringue Pie
- 1 1/2 cups water
- 1/3 cup cornstarch
- 1/4 teaspoon salt
- 1/2 cup cold water
- 1 3/4 cups granulated sugar
- 3 eggs, separated
- 2 tablespoons butter
- 1 tablespoon grated lemon zest
- 1/2 cup freshly-squeezed lemon juice
- 1 baked (9-inch) pie shell
- 1/4 teaspoon cream of tartar
- 1/4 teaspoon lemon extract
- Bring 1 1/2 cups water to a boil. Dissolve the cornstarch and salt in the cold water. Add to the boiling water, stirring with a wire whisk. Allow to cook until thickened, about 5 minutes. Add 1 1/4 cups of granulated sugar and bring to a boil, then remove from the heat. In a small bowl, beat the egg yolks. Beat a little of the hot liquid into the yolks, then add the yolk mixture to the hot mixture. Stir in the butter. Return to th heat and cook over low heat, stirring constantly, until the filliing boils. Cook 1 to 2 minutes, then remove from the heat. Add the lemon zest and juice and beat with a wire whisk to cool slightly. Set aside 30 minutes. Pour into the pie shell and let cool. Preheat the oven to 400 degrees. Beat the cream of tartar with the egg whites until frothy, then beat until soft peaks form. Gradually beat in the remaining 1/2 cup sugar and the lemon extract, and continue to beat until stiff peaks form, about 2 minutes. Spread the meringue onto the cooled lemon filling, spreading to the edge of the crust to seal. Bake until firm and golden, about 6 to 8 minutes. Allow to cool on a rack to room temperature, then refrigerate at least 3 to 4 hours before serving.
Note: Topping the cooled filling with the meringue will prevent weeping.
Number of servings: 8
In Her Kitchen
Scholars tell us that Aunt Jemima was the professional persona for household slave women generically identified in literature and history as the plantation Mammy. They say that this obsession with mythical mammies obscured the work of real southern domestic servants, making them little more than a figment of the romantic imaginations of southerners, concocted from a recipe based on “not one truth but a variety of truths and lies told by different people in different circumstances at different times for different reasons.”
In order to break the Jemima Code and find a place for African American women at the long table of American culinary history, I had to forget this kind of academic wrangling about whether mammy ever existed, and instead fill in the mammy outline with clues from multiple sources, including the writings of slaveholding families, because they are the ones who left written documentation of food experiences and practices — even though slaveholding families did not make up the majority in early America.
Interestingly, when these women registered their thoughts, emotions and opinions in their diaries, household journals and letters to family and friends the writings contained few references to meal preparation except as part of the daily routine of plantation living. They state that household slaves were assigned various domestic duties as cooks, laundresses, seamstresses, nurses, and housekeepers. They dressed in the clothes of the family. Ate better food than field slaves. Received medical treatment, and some learned to read and write, despite prohibitive slave codes that prohibited educating them.
When the mistress said, “I planted 60 acres of oats today,” she usually meant she supervised the day’s agricultural chores, not that she actually did the work herself. And, according to her texts, “Chloe,” “Aunt Rachel,” and “Mammy” all cooked. By the time the mistress’s ruminations appeared on the pages of southern ladies literature, Chloe and Rachel’s contributions, their character traits, and identity fuse into one larger-than-life, simplified woman named Mammy. And, in fiction, Mammy did everything.
Mammy affirmed the abolitionists’ stance that slavery was bad while she maintained the segregationists’ view of social hierarchy. Post-Reconstruction Mammy, reflected the new social order, too. She consoled desperate housewives, assured neophyte cooks with creative ingenuity, and at the same time was the source of America’s increasing servant problem. Mammy defended the homestead. Mammy saved the baby. Mammy trained the children, and on occasion, the Misses. Mammy cooked from memory. Mammy made the best pancakes. And, Mammy set a table that invited everyone to come.
She inspired a “Mammy craze,” which swept the nation, between the 1890s and the 1920s, says Cheryl Thurber. In 1923, the United Daughters of the Confederacy demanded that a monument to Mammy be erected in her memory at he nation’s capital. And, in 1924, a New York shop window advertised a fascinating new style for women: an audaciously colored scarf, ‘the Paris version of mammy’s old Southern bandana.”
If we only think about an African American cook’s lowly station of life, the minimal culinary contributions credited to her by historians and cookbook writers, and the exaggerated and distorted pictures used to misrepresent her intelligence, then it is, of course, impossible to believe that she could have been anything more than a simple laborer.
Fortunately, there is an alternative view.
In 1938, Eleanor Ott published a fanciful collection of New Orleans-styled recipes, entitled Plantation Cookery of Old Louisiana, which illustrates the degree of specialization and expertise known among black cooks. In it, Ott details her grandmother’s vast “culinary plant” with its numerous adjunct buildings and “mammies” assigned to each house. At Fair Oaks Plantation, Kitty Mammy managed the vegetables and herb garden and Becky Mammy was the “high priestess of the milk-house,” while “some colored sub-cook was only too pleased to sit for eight hours…to keep an eye on a kettle of simmering pot-au-feu.”
The Culinary Institute of America’s programs catalog might define these “Mammy” tasks in a more professional way, with Kitty, Becky, and the no-named Mammy each as technicians of Vegetarian Cooking: Strategies for Building Flavor; Baking and Pastry; and Soups, Stocks and Sauces.
And, then there is, The Jonny-Cake Letters, Dedicated to the Memory of Phillis My Grandfather’s Colored Cook, a journal written in 1882 by Thomas R. Hazard of Rhode Island. Phillis is Hazard’s muse. She is “universally admired.” Is the “remote cause of the French Revolution and the death of Louis 16th and Marie Antoinette.” And, she reportedly bakes the most seductive jonny cake Hazard has ever tasted. Within Hazard’s exaggerated family tales are more than a few observations of Phillis’ culinary proficiency, which are so deeply enmeshed with his food recollections it is difficult to tell which comes first: his love of food or his passion for the skill of Phillis.
And, it really does not matter.
Phillis’ jonny cake “made one’s mouth water to look at it,” her assorted rye breads were “prized above rubies,” and this woman known only as his grandfather’s old kitchen cook from Senegambia or Guinea, was as an “artist” capable of inspiring others while tending the pot.
Like the assorted mammies of Fair Oaks plantation, Phillis’ culinary talents give the black cook’s shadows some substance, and there is evidence associating Mammy characteristics with real black cooks found in black sources, as well.
In slave culture, Mammy was a common name for mothers, and elders were addressed as “Aunty,” “Mauma and “Maum,” or “Mammy” as a mark of respect, not kinship. In the 1880 census the mythical Aunt Jemima is linked to at least one real, living African American woman, a black female servant who lists “cook” as her occupation and Mother Jemima as her name. The name Jemimah implied blessings and a message of hope, not subservience, according to Old Testament Scripture found in Job 42:12-14, and slaves, evidently knew it.
So, I am not at all surprised that legendary cooks and ex-slaves with a worthy name were brought to life in a marketing campaign created by a couple of guys trying to sell more pancake flour.
In Her Kitchen
Whole Wheat Pancakes
- 2 cups whole wheat flour
- 1 teaspoon baking powder
- 1/2 teaspoon baking soda
- 1 teaspoon salt
- 2 tablespoons sugar
- 2 eggs
- 2 cups buttermilk
- 6 tablespoons unsalted butter
- Whisk together the flour, baking powder, soda, salt and sugar. In a separate bowl, combine the eggs, buttermilk and 4 tablespoons butter. Make a well in the center of the dry ingredients and pour in the liquid ingredients. Stir together until just mixed. Batter will be lumpy. Heat a nonstick griddle over medium-high heat. Brush lightly with remaining 2 tablespoons butter, and using a 1/4 cup measure, ladle batter onto griddle for each pancake. Reduce heat to medium and bake pancakes until the top is bubbly and the edges begin to crisp, about 2 minutes. Using a wide spatula, turn pancakes over and cook on other side 1 minute longer. Do not flatten pancakes. Remove to serving platter and keep warm. Wipe griddle with paper towels, then repeat process with remaining butter and batter.
Number of servings: 4
In Her Kitchen