By Lillian Holden
“Now, don’t forget to pour out the smoked turkey juice from the pot, and don’t use the turkey broth for your green. It messes up the flavor,” exclaimed my well-wishing mother over the cell phone.
It had been two years since moving from underneath my parents’ roof, and after longing for a bowl of my mother’s homemade greens, I decided to champion my way through the art of crafting my own perfect pot. Of course, I forgot (or rather neglected) to replace the turkey juice with chicken stock while rushing to add bundles of kale, collard, mustard, and swiss chard plants to my turquoise blue stockpot. Two hours later, I sat salivating over my own homemade greens. As the mixed greens, smoked turkey chunks, and okra tangoed inside the broth, I thought “Bon Appetit,” as if I were Julia Childs. The heat from a fork full of deliciousness brought warmth to my face as I took my first bite. Quickly, my taste buds met an unexpected reality. Just as my mother had predicted, something was off. My version of the dish lacked grace. The greens tasted far from how my mother had prepared them. Let us just keep this disaster a secret between you and me! However, in my defense, after being accustomed to the ease of consuming a meal made by my mother, I wanted to escape the heat of the kitchen as fast as possible. As my mother’s penalizing “I told you so” echoed within my subconscious, I was reminded that a pot of greens should never be rushed, and sometimes (although I hate to admit it) mother knows best.
This was just one of many conversations I have had with my mother, probing for insight on how to cook meals that were bestowed upon the palates of my siblings and me. We have had the hot water cornbread talk, the smoked turkey cabbage talk, the beef short ribs talk, the fried whiting fish talk, the candied yams, and sweet potato pie talk—and one could never forget the greens talk. These lessons grew beyond the concept of mastering a recipe that would intrigue my taste buds. Understanding the cooking techniques of each dish brought me a few steps closer to home—to those nights where my mother would call me out of my room to retrieve my plate and to the evenings where we would have family meals while watching American classics like MacGyver, Citizen Kane, Interview with a Vampire, A Bronx Tale, and American Gangster. With time and precision, my nose began to experience the unique aromas that filled my mother’s kitchen right within the dimensions of my apartment’s cookery.
French Social Scientist Claude Fischler once said, “Food is central to [everyone’s] sense of identity. The way any given human group eats helps to assert its diversity and hierarchy…and at the same time, both its oneness and the otherness of whoever eats differently.” African American food (except for chitterlings, in my opinion) has a tantalizing savor. The soothing and satisfying nature of the cuisine was created by slaves to sustain themselves during times of deprivation. African American cuisine stems from slavery, but it is wise for one to identify that the starch, proteins, and fats coalesce due to ingredients that originate in the African, European, and American diasporas. As a brown-skinned African American woman with indigenous, English, and Irish ancestral connections, feeling closer to home also conjures up hideous segments of history: the genocide of indigenous American people and the transatlantic slave trade. With thoughts of cornbread, it is the amalgamation of corn from the Americas, okra from the African diaspora, buttermilk from cows brought by the Spanish conquistadors, and the millions of my ancestors who bled for the sake of “the home of the free and land of the brave.”
During one of the coldest months in the year, Black History Month is celebrated, and this time around, I challenge you to think about the African proverb Sankofa—a word in the Akan Twi and Fante languages of Ghana that translates to “Go back and get it.” When it comes to food, Sankofa tells us to think about your cultural dishes, but to take a moment to climb beyond its ingredients, and to listen to its story.
African American or not, I welcome you to grab a piece of paper and answer the following questions:
- What is a traditional dish of yours?
- How is it relevant to you and your culture? How does this dish connect to the history of your ancestors?
- What dishes did your parents grow up on that are vastly different from what you grew up eating? Your grandparents? Your great grandparents?
- Have the ingredients evolved? If so, how and why?
And now, here are my mothers recipes, only for the brave-hearted:
Mrs. Holden’s Special Collard Green
- 1 bunch of collard greens
- 1 bunch of mustard greens
- 1bunch of kale
- 1bunch of turnip
- 1 beet, cut up in chunks
- 5 ½ cups of organic chicken stock
- Smoked turkey wings or legs
- 3 cups of okra, sliced in smaller pieces
- 3 garlic cloves
- Vinegar to taste
- A secret ingredient 😉
Mrs. Holden’s Hot Water Cornbread
- 1 cup of flour
- 1 cup of cornmeal (yellow)
- 2 tbsp of baking powder
- A pinch of salt
- Granulated sugar for taste
- ¼ cup of oil
- 1 quart of buttermilk
- ½ cup of okra, sliced in smaller pieces
This piece by alum Lillian Holden (Chicago ’19) is part of Public Allies’ campaign to highlight voices of Black members, Alumni, staff, and partners throughout Black History Month.
Lillian Holden is the Education and Community Outreach Coordinator at Openlands, supporting Birds in my Neighborhood, Space to Grow, and the Building School Gardens community conservation programs. She does community outreach and coordinates for Openlands’ Calumet region workshops. Hired after completing her Public Allies AmeriCorps service year as the Education Apprentice in 2018, Lillian loves that she is an agent in galvanizing succeeding generations to be advocates for nature through a hands-on approach to outdoor education Openlands provides through its community conservation programs. She is a proud Chicago native who is passionate about tackling the global climate crisis through youth mentorship and nature exploration. She hopes to inspire our growing generation of business owners, doctors, CEOs, coders, engineers, lawyers, and more to keep sustainability at the forefront of their mind when pursuing their aspirations. Lillian holds an Associates in the Arts from Harold Washington College.