Kwame Alexander on the Legacies of Love Passed Down Through Food ‹ Literary Hub


For Fidellia Holley Alexander and Alice Johnson Smith

The people who give you their food give you their heart.
Cesar Chavez

Theres this scene in the film Like Water for Chocolate where Tita prepares quail in a rosepetal sauce from a rose given to her secretly by Pedro. In the first ten seconds of the scene, no one is talking. Theyre just eating and being overwhelmed by desire. The meal serves as an aphrodisiac for the whole family, especially Titas sister, who, get this, proceeds to undress at the table.

The edacious desire in this scene, and throughout the movie, is triggered by a plethora of elaborate dishes. Quite beautifully, cooking and eating are outofbody experiences in this story, as they can be in life. I know this firsthand.

From the second we are born, the experience with food is connected to being held, the warmth of our mothers skin, her soothing voice. Scientists say that all these experiences are encoded in our infant nervous system as a single event of idyllic tenderness. Later, as adults, the ritual of breaking bread around a table is how we share the things that matter most with the people who matter most to us. I fell hard in love with both of your mothers over a homemade meal. Since I was a child, Ive known, felt intrinsically, the relationship between love and happiness. Heres where that started.

On Saturdays during the summer, my mother would drop me off at her mothers house. Upon arrival, Id wave goodbye to my mom, hug Nana, grab whatever cold drink was at the top of her coolershe kept cans of ginger ale, grape soda, and root beer not in her alwayspacked fridge, but rather in a cooler on the floor in her petite dining room, and since we werent allowed to drink sodas at home, well, Id struck goldthen head to Barraud Park, which was originally land owned by the Barraud family, French Huguenots from England, until they sold it to the city of Norfolk, Virginia, to be used as the first recreational area for Blacks.

My walk was a winding halfmile journey past singlefamily homes, through housing project courtyards. Id spend most of the late morning and afternoon playing tennis at the park with other players, some youths, others mostly adults, in the American Tennis Associationknown as the ATA, a national organization of Black players founded nearly a hundred years ago that produced legends like Althea Gibson and Arthur Ashe.

The walk home was always joyous and exciting, whether I won or lost my matches, because I knew when I set foot in her driveway, a pitcher of lemonade and a glass of ice would be waiting on a table on the front porch. And so would my granddaddy.

After a few minutes of me recounting the number of aces I served, or forehand winners, he would notice a dangling gutter and proceed to curse at it, or a friend of his would stop by and hed greet them with loving profanity, or hed start cussing out the dog, Boomer, for barking too much. I found this random vulgarity unsettling and hilarious. Holding my laughter in until he was far away from the porch, this was my cue to come inside. To the kitchen.

Quite beautifully, cooking and eating are outofbody experiences in this story, as they can be in life. I know this firsthand.

Nana didnt cook on Saturdays, unless there was a spades or dominoes party at her house Saturday night, which when I think about it was every Saturday. But during my afternoon visits, shed warm up leftovers for me. And she didnt have a microwave, so my posttennis meal was always readied in a huge black castiron skillet. There were always options on what I could have, mostly seafood, but every now and then shed have leftover turkey legs with egg noodles.

Heres how it went down: Shed boil the noodles al dente, then place them in a glass baking dish with seasoned turkey legs and bake for nearly two hours, until the meat was falling off the bone as easily as autumn leaves from the yellow poplar tree in their front yard. To heat them up, she put a little butter in a pan, then when it sizzled, she dropped a heaping spoonful of turkey and noodles in the pan and let it fry. She placed a plate and a loaf of white bread (because she knew how I felt about bread) in front of me, then sat down at the opposite end of the table.

We chopped it up for the next hour or so while I feasted, first with a sterling silver fork, then my savory fingers. We talked about how I was doing in school, what books my father was making me read this week, which girl was breaking my heart. We would always conclude the meal with her sharing stories about my mother as a wellbehaved child, I guess to inspire me to stop acting up in church or stop picking on my sisters or whatever wrongheadedness her daughter had shared with her about me that week. It didnt work.

But our time together was special, in that she listened to me when other adults didnt seem to. She sang to me. Let me roam and rummage through her antiquefilled attic when I asked. Was just a kind and sweet woman who happened to be my grandmother. We laughed a lot together, mostly at my grandfather, who would march in the house asking her Why you letting that boy eat up all my good food?

Shed rub his head and tell him Sit down, so I can make you a plate. I loved how he recognized her food as good. And I loved how she rubbed his head. There was a fiftyyear love affair that I never took for granted, never understood, and always, always appreciated.

My fathers mother, Granny, made dinner, for thirtyplus folkschildren, grandchildren, neighbors, siblings every Sunday. How she cooked so much food and still made it to church early to take her seat as head of the usher board, I will never comprehend. But she climbed that mountain every week, and when wed come by around nine in the morning to pick her up, Id always volunteer to go in and get her.

Her house, which she and my grandfather builtduring which process shed lost a thumbwas a cornerstone of the community. The twostory Colonial featured a large green “A” on the front shingle. When Id open the door, shed be sitting on her screenedin porch, rocking back and forth and drinking a bottle of Pepsi. Once, when I was alone in her kitchen, Id snuck a swig of the remains of her opened soda bottle and inadvertently downed what I recall being snuff. To this day, I cant drink Pepsi.

When I think back on it, it feels like Granny was ten feet tall in that rocking chair. I cant recall how tall she was, but her son was six foot three, and Im an inch taller, so she must have been tall, or had a tall presence. Id give her a kiss on the cheek and not dare tell her that it was time to go, because you dont rush a seventyyearold woman whos ten feet tall, especially one who makes the best homemade rolls this side of heaven.

In greeting me, shed say my name like it was a question, like she was challenging me to remember who I was, and whose I was. Then shed ask me about my grades, and scream at her husband Come on, Tilt! His middle name was Tilton. Finally, when he continued to ignore her after her third summons, which I was certain people a mile away could hear, shed send me in to get him.

On my way upstairs to his bedroomthey slept in separate quarters for as long as I knew them, which never seemed an abnormal thing to meId detour to the kitchen with one single, precious purpose in mind. To see the yeast dinner rolls rising, to smell the sweet paradise living in nearly a dozen tin and aluminum pans.

After church, every family member and friendmost invited, some notraced to her house for fried chicken, collard greens, potato salad, candied yams, and hot rolls with butter cuddling inside and out. There was always a battle for her rolls, the perfect blend of soft and sweet. Most people were happy to get one, lucky to get two, and very rarely got to three.

But I did. Always. You see, every Sunday, your greatgrandmother, the woman who always smiled at me even when I was acting up, the woman who loved singing gospel songs while she cooked (and she couldnt sing a lick), the woman who made food for a whole community and didnt eat until everyone was served, would make a special pan of four, sometimes five rolls. For me.

I never had to fight for paradise, because I had my own. This woman loved me, and no matter how many times shed spanked me with a bristly switch from her pine tree, and it was a lot, I loved her. And her rolls.

Nandi, your mother and I went to Pizza Inn on our first date. We were broke college students at Virginia Tech, and their lunch buffet was $4.99. I knew she was worthy of at least a sandwich and fries from the deli, Macados, but I couldnt afford that. So, in between slices of cheese and pineapple and pepperoni, I recited to her love poems….

Lips like yours
ought to be worshipped.
See, I aint never been too religious but you can baptize me

For our second date, I invited her over for dinner. I prepared baked fish, rice with vegetables, and hot buttered rolls. Now, I couldnt cook, at all, but I put a lot of love into the effort, and I think she recognized that. A day before, Id used half of my workstudy paycheck to make a longdistance call to my aunt Barbara to ask her for Grannys recipe. She laughed and said, She didnt write it down. It was just a little bit of this and a little bit of that.

I know the rolls were a little hard, and not as sweet as Grannys, but your mother never said a word. She just kissed me. And we listened to jazz records Id “borrowed” from my father, and…this is the part that you probably want to skip over, maybe, my dear…we made love. We made you (Okay, not that day, but not too soon after).

Samayah, your mother and I were best friends for years, long before the lighting of any romantic flame. We regularly went to the movies with a group of friends, we talked about our relationships, we may even have doubledated with our significant others. We were platonic in our love for each other until 1994 when the Knicks lost to the Houston Rockets in the NBA playoffs.

We were talking on the phone like we always did, laughing about something that happened in a Frasier episode, discussing my latest poem, or maybe planning a skiing trip with our friends, when I invited her over for dinner. Not as a date, but as a way to help save her wallet. You see, when you opened her refrigerator an avalanche of Styrofoam containers occurred. She ate out all the time. She agreed to come over for a meal, and I went out shopping for the goods.

I cooked jasmine rice and mock duck, which was this fake duck, not real duck, Id bought from the SeventhDay Adventist Store in Takoma Park. I didnt know whether shed like it, so I also made something I knew she would like. Baked turkey and noodles. My mother had given me her mothers recipe, and when I saw the juicy meat falling off the bones, I knew Id followed it right. The game started at eight oclock, the same time Id set dinner.

Food is something that we pass down from one generation to the next. The cooking of it, the sharing, the conversations over it, our hopes and plans.

By halftime, she hadnt shown up. This was maybe a few years before cell phones became available. At the end of the game, I was pissed off that Patrick Ewing and the Knicks had lost, and I was concerned that my best friend hadnt shown up. Was she okay? When she finally called, at close to eleven oclock, and told me shed forgotten about the invitation, I was livid. She said shed been getting her hair done, and I blurted out Hair today, gone tomorrow.

Later, hours after we hung up and Id styrofoamed the leftovers and placed them in my fridge, I lay in my bed sad, and happy, and no longer confused as to why. I was in love. With my best friend.

Sometimes I wish we werent friends then i could look into your bold eyes
and find answers to questions im afraid to ask but for now, ill stick to quick glances
and other friendly gestures…

Food is something that we pass down from one generation to the next. The cooking of it, the sharing, the conversations over it, our hopes and plans. We put these things on a plate, serve them to the people who carry our hearts in theirs, and it makes us happy. Because it makes them happy. This is why I love to cook.

Its the legacy of love that Ive been gifted, that has shaped the lover in me, that has created the greatest loves of my life. You. What my grandmothers gave me, I now offer to you. A recipe for love. Wont you come on in my kitchen.


7 Up Pound Cake

7 Up pound cake is an oldfashioned southern dessert thats just about perfect after a great meal or at a cookout (or on Sunday morning, after a long Saturday night, with a cup of English Breakfast tea). This smooth, buttery pound cake is made from scratch with just the perfect hint of that lemonlime. You can eat this cake without any icing, it is just so incredibly flavorful, sweet, and moist (most of the time).

On top of being delicious, this 7 Up pound cake represents family tradition, connection, and love. (Now, for the best results, dont go substituting Sprite, or any other soda for that matter.) I make this for dinner parties with my writers group, or Sunday dinners. (It usually lasts a little under a week.) What Im listening to while I bake: “Moodys Mood” by George Benson.

Total Time: 1 hours
Makes: 16 servings (or 8 big ones)
Calories Per Serving: 470
Course: dessert


1 cup (2 sticks) unsalted butter, softened
2 cups sugar
5 large eggs (room temperature)
3 cups allpurpose flour
2 teaspoons baking powder Pinch salt
cup milk
cup 7 Up
2 teaspoons vanilla extract


Preheat the oven to 350 degrees.

Grease and flour a 12cup Bundt cake pan, shaking out excess flour.

In a large mixing bowl, blend the butter and sugar until fluffy, whipping in the sugar a little at a time. Add the eggs one at a time. Sift the flour and baking powder together with a pinch of salt. Starting and ending with the flour mixture, alternately add the flour mixture and the milk to the butter and sugar mixture, then add the 7 Up. Add the vanilla. Spoon the batter evenly into the pan. Bake for 55 minutes to an hour, until a cake tester comes out clean or with a few crumbs adhering to it.


Why Fathers Cry at Night: A Memoir in Love Poems, Recipes, Letters, and Remembrancesby Kwame Alexander is available via Little Brown.

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