Race in America

White People Can’t Cook

and they can’t protest either

Image courtesy of Twitter

On holidays, I’m the one that cooks. Not because I want to, but because I’m good at cooking in large quantities and because I can be trusted not to fuck up the macaroni and cheese.

For Black family gatherings, there is a certain way to make things, and that way can (read WILL) differ based on the family’s regional and personal history. No matter how many times you do it, cooking for a new group of Black people, ones whose ‘good countertops’ you haven’t grown up cutting nicks into, whose spice cabinet you’ve never organized alphabetically, is stressful.

My mother was a gourmand, and she delighted in introducing my young palate to culinary delights that would one day make me a very, very expensive date.

I never worried that we would run out of food, because Mommy got more Monopoly money in the beginning of every month. Food scarcity was not a specter of my childhood.

Every weekend we would take the number six bus to the westside market. My mother would drag me, hand clutched firmly in her larger, rougher one, from stall to stall, judiciously selecting only the freshest corn, the ripest melons, and the best cuts of meat.

When I was younger, before I knew what those colorful strips of paper really were, before I was old enough to notice the way cashiers looked at my mother differently when she presented them, I thought she was paying for our food with Monopoly money. I never worried that we would run out of food, because Mommy got more Monopoly money in the beginning of every month. Food scarcity was not a specter of my childhood.

Looking back on it now, I see that my mother was always teaching me how to cook. Our trips to the market, the shiny, glossy Bon Apetit and Epicurious magazines she sometimes bought, sometimes borrowed from the library, her careful curation of spices, with the more expensive saffron, rich Indian cinnamon and real Madagascar vanilla safely tucked away on the top shelf, seemingly forever out of reach — all of it was a cooking class with a Black hermeneutic.

Black cooking is a holistic experience that is rooted in deep gratitude for and appreciation of our daily bread, an epigenetic longing perhaps, to savor the sweetness denied our ancestors.

It starts with an understanding of where food comes from. I harbored no delusions that the chicken wings I ate came from a dead animal. At school we all knew that chicken nuggets came from dead birds, burgers came from dead cows, and hot-dogs came from… somewhere.

Cooking required me to confront mortality. It taught me that the even tiniest things can destroy you eventually and that some things are worth waiting for, and all the sweeter because of it.

I knew that vegetables came from the ground because I spent summers tending them, spraying homemade pesticide on the soft, delicate underbellies of aphids, grown fat off of Miss Cathy’s tomatoes, picking pole beans when they finally grew as long as my hands, sneaking into the backyard of an abandoned house on Fay to shake loose baskets full of plump summer blackberries for pies, coming home with stained fingers and teeth and little bits of bush in my hair.

Cooking required me to confront mortality. It taught me that the even tiniest things can destroy you eventually and that some things are worth waiting for, and all the sweeter because of it.

When I was older and could be trusted not to burn myself on the stove, I was finally allowed in the kitchen. It would be years until I did any actual cooking.

Black people don’t use recipes. If you’re in the American south, white people probably don’t either, but this article isn’t about those white chocolate soul food savants, so don’t @ me.

In the kitchen, I could grate cheese, snap beans, and bring people various spices and utensils as they asked for them. Later I was allowed to peel potatoes, slice apples, and chop onions.

If more than one adult was in the kitchen, I would sit quietly in a corner and do the task assigned to me, hoping to hustle up on a tidbit of juicy gossip. If it was just me and my mom, she would quiz me on state capitals, or multiplication, or have me recite scriptures or poetry as we worked.

She would never say: “Now I’m going to add a dab of bacon grease to the water so the macaroni doesn’t stick to the pan,” or “Capons need about 25 minutes per pound” or even “put your simmer pot on the back eye.” She simply did these things, and allowed me the privilege of observing, listening, and learning.

I didn’t ask a lot of questions. In fact, if there was any question I did ask, it was usually “Like this?” and the answer was usually “no.” This didn’t discourage me. Sometimes you mess up. I knew if I kept paying attention and practicing, I would learn to do it right eventually.

Cooking for and with Black people is a humbling experience. Even if you think you know what you’re doing, you can’t just come in someone else’s kitchen and try to run the show. Allyship is a lot like cooking.

I didn’t ask a lot of questions. In fact, if there was any question I did ask, it was usually “Like this?” and the answer was usually “no.” This didn’t discourage me. Sometimes you mess up. I knew if I kept paying attention and practicing, I would learn to do it right eventually.

Cooking for and with Black people is a humbling experience. Even if you think you know what you’re doing, you can’t just come in someone else’s kitchen and try to run the show. Allyship is a lot like cooking.

Once we had a white church member volunteer to help the Black History Month Committee prepare for our annual Soul Food Potluck. “I want to learn how to cook soul food from the African-Americans!” she said brightly.

We took her at her word. We created a Black culinary experience by assigning her menial tasks that were hard to screw up — chopping vegetables, grating cheese, creaming butter and sugar, etc. After about two hours, she said: “This isn’t fun! I thought I was going to learn to make macaroni and cheese!” An hour after that, she left. She never did learn anything.

Learning to cook ‘soul food’ is an immersive experience. It’s not something you can pick up in a 45-minute class. No one Black is going to trust you in their kitchen until they can verify that you have basic competency at prep tasks. Cooking for and with Black people is a humbling experience. Even if you think you know what you’re doing, you can’t just come in someone else’s kitchen and try to run the show. Allyship is a lot like cooking.

The lady from my church

World Changer. Social Thinker. Business Owner.

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