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Cooking from Memory: Ma’s Recipe Book & Holiday Food Traditions

I love holiday cooking. Love it. What I love even more is holiday eating.

This year is so different with the necessity of social distancing during COVID-19. Not being able to go visit family and folks, break cornbread together, laugh, and cry, and enjoy each other is one of the hardest parts of this pandemic. Plus, I’m back to eating all matters of meat for the first holiday season after being a pescatarian for three years. I have lots of eating to do!

This makes me reflect on when I first learned how to cook and our family Christmas traditions, past, present, and future.

The Recipe Book

My brother Jermaine calls me sometimes and asks me about the recipes in the recipe book. Ma’s Recipe Book is what he calls it. It’s a collection of recipes I started collecting from her during the holidays of 2004 when I was 21 years old. I wanted to learn how to cook. And who else to teach me but the best cook of all time. (At that age, I could cook scrambled eggs, grits, and other basic items, but not a full meal.)

So much of what she knew as a cook was in her head. So much of what she knew as a cook she knew by heart. But I wanted to get those recipes nonetheless, to learn to cook for myself, to learn to cook for a future family perhaps.

The first items I learned to cook were for Christmas dinner, which at our home was always similar to Thanksgiving dinner. The very first entry in the book is how to roast a turkey, including the brine, which I’ve included below. As she would say, “Cooking a turkey in a bag is for people who can’t cook.”

Ingredients

Gallon of water

1 cup of kosher salt

1/4 cup of brown sugar

A pinch of cinnamon

(Honey optional)

Instructions

Let brine come to a boil. Wait ‘til it cools to put the turkey in or put ice in the brine to cool it down. Let set overnight.

Take the turkey out of the brine. Pat dry. Put a stock of celery, onion, and bay leaf into the cavity. Another combination to include in the cavity is oranges, lemons, and bay leaf.

Put foil cover over breast for an impression. Remove impression and rub ‘em down with (canola) Wesson oil.

Set oven to 500 degrees. Put turkey in for 15 minutes or less or until golden brown (keep checking)

Put the foil on ‘em and turn down to between 325 to 300 degrees.

Cook 3-4 hours. If the leg of the turkey moves easily, it’s done.


That day I also got the receipts for cornbread stuffing, macaroni and cheese, giblet broth and giblet gravy, candied yams, sweet potato pie, and of course turkey salad to make with the turkey leftovers.

So many of those recipes have “eyeball it” or “to taste” or “play it by ear” next to ingredients and recipe instructions. For me this solidifies cooking as an art form, something you do instinctively without the need for specificity. It makes the space for improvisation.

It was the Christmas Break of my senior year of college when she told me she had colon cancer, so the recipe book took on a different purpose. It was no longer just to get the recipes from Ma so I can learn how to cook. It became a rescue mission to get the recipes from her before she died.

Food is Love

Where I’m from, food is the highest expression of love.

One of my favorite pictures of my mother is when she was in the fellowship hall of Chavis AME Church serving up a meal. She is smiling, head thrown back, eyes closed, apron on, doing something we can’t see on a counter. On the stove in the background are several large pots of food. My guess is that pileau is in one of the pots, but it could have easily been a pot of string beans that were seasoned with bacon or maybe fatback.

I have kept the photo of my mom on the desk in my classroom for years.

She loved cooking. She loved watching people eat her cooking.

“If they have a healthy appetite, that means they are doing good,” was what she would say about babies and young children. Seconds and thirds were welcomed. “You had enough? Do you want some more?”

Where I’m from, when someone dies there’s a period of time called the setting up. It is customary to bring the family food. Some people bring the food already cooked, food they cooked in their home or the bucket of chicken they picked up from down the road. Others bring the raw ingredients and cook it right there on your stove, or on your grill, or on their own propane stoves they brought with them. I really didn’t like catfish stew until I had my cousin Barry’s stew at Da’s setting up.

They bring food and libations as a balm, to remind you that although your loved one is dead, you are still in the land of the living, and you have to get on with the business of living, so eat some of this good food.

In her last days Ma stopped eating all together. The tomatoes, fresh out of Da’s garden, and grits I made for her was the last meal I tried to feed her. She took one bite, just to please me, but did not eat much more. Her body was no longer in need of such an earthly things as eating or drinking.

After three years of being pescatarian, I went back to eating all meat this year, partly because I craved chicken while I was pregnant. It’s been interesting to go back and revisit the recipe book and read the meaty recipes. To look at her recipe for beef stew and meatloaf, company chicken and roasted hen. I had already made her recipe for salmon cakes several times before. My husband is especially appreciative of the dish, and is always extremely thankful to the mother-in-law he has never met.

He looks forward to when I make sweet tea. The number one thing about sweet tea is that brand of tea makes the tea. Luizanne is the only sweet tea that matters. And there’s a special way to steep the tea that I won’t share here (Hint: Don’t follow the directions on the box). It’s not overly sweet, and strong enough.

It’s how Ma taught me how to make tea. It’s not in the recipe book, but it’s something she showed me real quick and was immediately committed to memory.

Christmas Magic

I saw something on someone’s wall on social media once that said as you get older, Christmas isn’t so much about what’s under the tree, but about who is around the tree, and by default who is not around the tree.

Growing up Christmas Eve was always our time to be together as a family. Ma would make some sausage balls for us to snack on throughout the night. We would be outside with Da popping fireworks for most of the night before we turned in for bed. Ma never let me put cookies out for Santa. “He knows to look for them in the oven,” she would say. And I trusted that as a kid. It’s hilarious as an adult. Those nights were pure and simple and magic. All five of us would be together on that night, and that was all that really mattered.

Now with a family of my own, I have my own traditions to work out. This will be my son’s first Christmas. And he won’t remember any of this. His only meal will be the liquid gold I provide to him, but my new role as a mother has me thinking about the new traditions we will eventually develop as a family. One thing I know for sure is that I want the sausage balls to be there. And fireworks. Add in some hot chocolate, maybe a fire with some toasted marshmallows…

Maybe one day my husband, son, and I will huddle in the backyard on a Christmas Eve, standing close together and looking up into the night sky at fireworks exploding around us. Maybe then we will feel that same magic I felt when I was a kid. Maybe the feeling will be even stronger because this new magic will be ours.

What are some of your holiday traditions or foods? Let me know in the comments!

#DaughterOf Barbara McCray Bartell

My name is Jennifer Bartell Boykin. I am the daughter of Barbara McCray Bartell, granddaughter of Irene Harvin McCray.

Memorial Day this year falls on what would have been my mother’s 72nd birthday. She was a veteran.

One of the first women to enlist in the military in our family, and quite possibly in Williamsburg County. She enlisted into the Women’s Army Corps (WAC) right after high school. She did her basic at Ft. McClellan in Anniston, Alabama.

She later served at Walter Reed and Ft. Sam Houston in San Antonio, Texas. She was a simple country girl. Skinny as a piece of sour grass in the dead of summer. She said her and her sisters all were skinny then because they were poor, there wasn’t enough food to eat at any given time. But in the military, she put on pounds. She was a dental hygienist. She would sometimes say, “I wish I had stayed in and gone to nursing school.” But instead, after a few years, she came back home.

Came back to Hemingway, eventually married my father and had my brothers and me. She worked as a cashier at Fast Fare, sewed panties and such at Hemingway Apparel, and her last job was as a housekeeper cleaning hotel rooms in Myrtle Beach. Well, that was her last job with a paycheck attached to it.

She didn’t speak often of her days as a WAC. She didn’t register as a veteran, and she didn’t take any veteran benefits while she was living.

She was well-loved by all who knew her. She was affectionally called Nanny, a nickname she gave herself. When she came home from the military, she told her nieces and nephews, who had lost their own mother: “I’m your Nanny. I’m going take care of you.” And that was what she did…she took care of people. She risked bouncing checks to help a neighbor in need. She treated nieces and nephews like they were her own children. She adopted some of her nieces’ children as her own grandchildren. She cooked food and baked Mississippi Mud Pie for family and those who paid her to do it. That was what she did best: Take care of people. And she loved it.

When colon cancer came to claim her body, she didn’t go gently into that good night. She fought the best she could. She was optimistic. She lost her hair, but gained weight as a chemo patient. She considered quitting chemo a time or two, but kept going. She held on for a few more months so that she could spend some time with her first grandchild. And when the doctors said her next round of chemo would leave blisters all over her body, she decided it was time to quit chemo for good. She was aware enough to not want to die at the house, and asked to go to the Hospice House to take her last breaths.

She taught me how to be strong even when you are weak. She taught me how to do my own eyebrows. She taught me how to put God first. She taught me that you receive by giving. She taught me how to cook a Thanksgiving turkey. She taught me so much. She is teaching me so much. She is teaching me how to be a good mother, even as her spirit guides and teaches the child I now carry.

I am a proud daughter who will be a proud mother in a few months. I can’t wait to tell my son about her.

10-11-11

On October 11, 2011, my father walked into his barn. The day started like any other day. He likely made his cup of Sanka coffee and maybe he ate a bowl of Frosted Flakes. He got in his 1987 dark blue, king cab, Ford Ranger, and went about his day.

Some how during the morning Neta, a neighbor, needed her sink fixed. And my father, the handy man that he was, went about the business of fixing it.

On October 11, 2011, my father walked into his barn to get some tools to fix Neta’s sink. He did not walk back out.

In many ways his death was a double whammy: I lost my father and my last surviving parent. The two people most responsible for me being on earth had left.

That was 8 years ago today.

The month of October doesn’t hit me like a flood like August does. (Go read Dear August for more on that.) It’s more of a slow trickle. Maybe it was the suddenness of the heart attack.

I was a student at the University of South Carolina, in my first year of an MFA in Creative Writing. I was taking notes that morning in my American Romanticism class. I always dated my notes: 10-11-11. I loved how that date looked, how the ones lined up.

After the funeral, I took care of his affairs and returned to USC. I could hear him say, “Don’t use me as an excuse to quit!” and used that as my motivation to return. The alternative was to drop out, and become an expert pity party planner, and that did not seem useful or practical.

It was hard. I was angry. I was depressed. I ate a lot of donuts. I didn’t want to be around people. I hated burying my father at twenty-eight years old, which reminded me of burying my mother at twenty-three years old. It felt so unfair that they wouldn’t see me reach thirty. Or that my father would never walk me down the aisle.

I went to grief counseling, and that helped me heal. I started going back to church, and that helped me heal. The anger subsided. The depression began melting away.

And I began writing about my father more, about how the collard greens he planted kept growing. My father’s father kept a garden, too. So when I honor my father, I am honoring the grandfather I never met. And when my brother keeps a garden, he is honoring them both.

On this October 11, 2019, I am full of hope, joy, and love. I am proud to be L.J. Bartell’s daughter. I remember the lessons he gave me through his quiet strength and endurance. I laugh when I think of his trickster ways. And though I miss him everyday, I know he isn’t really that far away since love has no known address for death and doesn’t know how to fail.

This morning I will walk into my classroom. I will drink a cup of coffee. I will go about the business of teaching. I will cry when I need to, and I will laugh when I need to. I will tote with me the love and memories my daddy left.

CHAPTER 1. Loomings

Call me Ishmael. Some years ago—never mind how long precisely—having little or no money in my purse, and nothing particular to interest me on shore, I thought I would sail about a little and see the watery part of the world. It is a way I have of driving off the spleen and regulating the circulation.

Whenever I find myself growing grim about the mouth; whenever it is a damp, drizzly November in my soul; whenever I find myself involuntarily pausing before coffin warehouses, and bringing up the rear of every funeral I meet; and especially whenever my hypos get such an upper hand of me, that it requires a strong moral principle to prevent me from deliberately stepping into the street, and methodically knocking people’s hats off—then, I account it high time to get to sea as soon as I can.

Tsundoku’s Little Cousin

I can’t control myself around books.

It can be a library or a bookstore. Doesn’t matter. I’m absolutely giddy over and about them. I buy them obsessively. I buy them when I don’t need them. I buy them even when I have ones at home I haven’t read. I buy them when I am literally in eye and ear shot of the author and can wait in line to get my copy signed. If I didn’t love books and food so much, I’d be a wealthy woman.

The term Tsundoku is Japanese for “leaving a book unread after buying it, typically piled up together with other unread books.” Tsundoku is my life story.

As an English teacher, I am an avid reader. As an English teacher, I have historically not had enough time to work on my own reading and writing. Enter Reclaiming my Time (Thanks, Auntie Maxine!), my theme for this school year. This school year I am being intentional about writing my own poetry and writing pieces for a nonfiction book about Bluefield, and reading books I want to read, some of which will help me hone my craft as a poet/writer, and others that will expand my knowledge base.

I thought it would be fun to compile all of the books I have started but haven’t finished yet. What you see in the picture (and list below) are those books (Ghost Of by Diana Khoi Nguyen is not pictured because I am reading that one at school with my students during independent reading time.) These books do not include the books I have bought and haven’t read yet. I’ll save those for when I make it through these books; hopefully by the end of the year?

This version is Tsundoku’s little cousin who is slightly more responsible. But only slightly.

Yes, most of these are books of poetry, but truly savoring and dissecting poetry takes time, which could contribute to why I’ve started so many without finishing.

I’m interested in the books you have that you have started and haven’t finished yet. Snap a picture of those books and attach it to the comments below, or just send me the titles of these books. You can also Tweet them to me: @bartelliyo.

I’m trying to build my what I want to read next list…

My Tsundoku’s Little Cousin List

  • Selected Poetry by Nazim Hikmet
  • Collected Poems 1948-1984 of Derek Walcott
  • The Collected Poems of Sterling Brown
  • The Collected Poems of Lucille Clifton, 1965-2010
  • Neon Vernacular: New & Selected Poems by Yusef Komunyakaa
  • The Practice of Poetry, Edited by Robin Behn & Chase Twichell
  • Thief in the Interior by Phillip Williams
  • A Bound Woman is a Dangerous Thing by DaMaris Hill
  • Albanza by Martin Espada
  • Mindset by Carol S. Dweck
  • Everyday Millionaires by Chris Hogan
  • Ghost Of by Diana Khoi Nguyen (not pictured)
  • Omits work related books (Yikes!)

Dear August,

When you come around, I get a tightness in my chest. And it’s not entirely because I’m a teacher about to start school.

August 2006 was the last month of her life. Barbara McCray Bartell.

Her oncologist had put her on oxygen that January when the cancer spread from her colon to her liver to her lungs. She had an oxygen pack that went with her into the Dollar General and the Piggly Wiggly, and there was an oxygen machine bubbling like an aquarium at night at her bedside.

August 16, 2006 she quit chemo. A little over two weeks later she died on August 31.

A combination of grief and dread settles in my bones in August. My body always remembers, even when my mind isn’t actively thinking about it. It always comes in August.

This August writers Toni Morrison and Paule Marshall died. August 9 would have been 45 years of marriage for my parents. The second week of August teachers went back to school, and the first day of school was the following week.

Stress, grief, sadness, anxiety, excitement.

On August 11 Aunt Christine dies. I go to the funeral and feel as if I am standing on behalf of my father, representing for him. My cousins are doing the same for their parents who have already joined their siblings in that Great Peace up yonder. We hug each other. It’s been months and for some years since we’ve been in each other’s presence. I hug many people I do not know. I introduce myself as L.J.’s daughter and they say, “Oh, I know!”

At the funeral, Aunt Christine’s grandsons played the piano and sang Shirley Cesar’s “I Remember Mama.” I cried like I did last month when I was playing the song one Sunday morning. I cried too because Aunt Christine was a quiet, humble woman who was full of love. Although she couldn’t talk, walk, or eat by herself when she died, what I remember most about her is her smile and quiet strength, the way her eyes lit up when I would refer to myself as her favorite niece.

When my mother died and I survived, I thought I could endure any death and be fine.

Then my father died five years after. L.J. Bartell.

And that grief too was a survival, and I thought that any death after this one would be easier to endure.

But each time someone I love dies, the grief becomes new again. The impact of it is compounded and expanded. It’s as if I’m grieving all of their deaths at once.

And that’s how I felt, August: constantly tired, angry at times, crying others, and mostly in need of a nap.

But among that I welcomed a new school year with new teachers and students. My best friend celebrated another birthday. Today I am going to my cousin’s Renewal of Vows. I’m excited for him. He has a beautiful family filled to the brim with love. I’m looking forward to seeing more of my family.

Yesterday, I went to my school’s first football game of the season. I sat with one of my co-workers and her family. She told me how she doesn’t really know the game. I told her about my brothers, how they played in high school and I learned the game by sitting in the bleachers with my mom, how she explained the game to me in those moments sitting on the cold benches in the crisp night.

In that moment, she’s not that far away from me. She’s gone and she’s here.