A warm, gentle breeze blew across the front porch at 2515 Holman causing the screenprint of the Turbanned Mistress to sway forward and back the way your grandmother might rock her chair to and fro after worship service on Sunday afternoon. It was as if she was there, watching and listening to our every word, waiting for the just-right moment to interject a remark. Which, of course, she never did.
Although her presence was felt as the inspiration for the intergenerational, gathering of women of varying cultures and backgrounds who came together on Easter weekend to share pie and kitchen memories at Hearth House, she did just what generations of black cooks always did: She simply faded into the background.
If you’ve been reading this blog, or have ever received my business card, then you know that the Turbanned Mistress is no longer living, but I keep her image alive through words, exhibits and whatever means necessary so that women like her who worked in America’s kitchens are not forgotten. She is one of five images of African-American cooks, who will be on exhibit at Project Row Houses in Houston’s historic Third Ward for PRH’s Round 34: Matter of Food from now through June 19, Emancipation Day.
I couldn’t help but notice the irony.
There we were. On Resurrection weekend. A group of strangers, getting acquainted through the simple and common act of sharing food and remembrance. Some of those present were passionate cooks. Others were just developing their culinary courage. At least one, admitted she was not a cook at all, but she did really love to eat. Whatever the motivation, we all had at least one thing in common — our hope that this, the first in a series of Apron Strings Community Conversations, would restore cooking to its rightful place as the center of family and home, while taking down barriers and building up community one person at a time. And, simultaneously, black cooks would be re-born.
Renatta is an artist and a self-proclaimed “preserver of tradition” determined to keep memories of gardening, crabbing and cooking with family alive. She took a seat at our long table of sisterhood alongside Tahila, Luanne, Razz, Linda, and three generations of women from Lily Grove Missionary Baptist Church, who not only came to join the conversation, but agreed to be part of our oral history project with the University of Houston and Foodways Texas, which will collect stories and recipes of Texas women.
Crystal Granger, the center of the generations and an architect, described how she learned to appreciate the precision and science of cooking from her grandmother who practiced a particular kind of mise en place. The artsy side of her culinary skill, she explained, comes from her mother, Shirley. Shirley, a former teacher, now spends her days motivating seniors toward active living, employing some of the same strategies that once helped her inspire youngsters to learn. As she regaled us with her special way of coaxing reluctant seniors out of the withdrawl that can come with aging, her mastery of culinary art as an educational tool that can nurture became evident. With Crystal, Shirley, and Aunt Marva Smith as role models, it’s no wonder grand-daughter Chimere has such incredible passion for baking and a joy for living.
This coming weekend, the Granger family will be interviewed by students from the University of Houston’s Department of History. They will talk about their tea cake chronicles and the important life-skills they developed while cooking and baking together. The goal of the project is to break the Jemima Code by creating a permanent record that documents and preserves African-American culinary truth for future generations of individuals and researchers, too.
Paradoxically, if someone had bothered to interview the Turbanned Mistress and capture her testimony she would certainly have communicated a few simple anecdotes about life during slavery, but like parables, her experiential yarns would likely have revealed her secrets of emotional and physical survival under barbaric circumstances, too. And that translates into useful lessons about perseverance and discipline, tolerance and self-worth.
Linda Shearer, director of PRH put the whole process in perspective — comparing our Easter gift with the narrative artistry of John Biggers and the way he used cultural heritage and everyday experiences to change the perception of African Americans.
“Your life can be your art,” Shearer said, as the afternoon drew to a close and we all basked in the glow of new relationships defined by a shared intimacy. “We all have a creative side, but it can take a wide variety of shapes and form. What goes on here is you learn from each other.”
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If you would like to join our conversation and give new life to the subject of African-American foodways, the next Apron Strings kitchen table conversation will take place at Hearth House, at Project Row Houses (projectrowhouses.org) in Houston on May 21.