When I was eight-years-old and still my grandmother’s only grandchild, I spent a lucky summer month in the Texas Hill Country where my grandmother kept a country home. The days were full and I was very happy doing everything I never got to do at home, I jumped off a rope swing into a river, collected tadpoles in jars, learned how to stretch taffy, milked a cow and gathered peaches from trees to hand crank into ice cream. I also learned a little bit about my people.
One evening, my grandmother and I sat side-by-side on the rusty bench swing next to her backyard shuffleboard court. We listened to the musical saw of the swing and the scuttle of crisp pecan leaves underfoot as we rocked back and forth in the balmy twilight. Cows lowed in the background and the air smelled like fresh rain. I could hear Willy Mae, our family cook, banging around in the kitchen as she readied the fry pot for chicken, stirred the bubbling black-eyed peas and slapped down biscuit dough to roll out and cut into circles.
My grandmother reached for my hand and squeezed. “I’m going to make you a very special gift,” she said with important conviction. “Some day you will have the sleigh bed.”
I knew with a sad premonition what “some day” meant. But, the sleigh bed! I was giddy the sense of grown-up responsibility that comes with caring for a legacy. Yet which one was the sleigh bed? It wasn’t the high throne-like double bed in her bedroom. My grandmother had been born in that bed and it she always referred to it as “Mother’s Bed”. You needed a footstool to climb up onto it. I loved falling asleep next to her there as she read aloud to me from her own childhood copy of Anne of Green Gables.
The next morning I walked throughout the house like Goldilocks, lying down on all the beds trying to imagine which one was to be mine. Sleepy and confused after a time, I approached her meekly, afraid that she would think I was hurrying the bestowal of the gift. “Exactly which one is the sleigh bed?”
“The sleigh bed?” It was my grandmother’s turn to be confused. “Oh, Darlin’!” she laughed after a minute. “It’s the slave bed!”
“The slave bed” she emphasized again. “Honey, it’s the pretty one with the spooled wood in the living room where you play with your dolls. The overseer used to rest on it for his nap.”
A queasy feeling overtook my body as I stood with my pigtailed head cocked to one side, contemplating the paradigm shift that had just occurred. The perception that at some point my family was actually evil has sat with me like a little stone ever since.
Imagine finding your great grandfather’s SS uniform in the attic, or your great grandmother’s Klu Klux Klan card. You know you come from good people, ministers and schoolteachers and farmers in Oklahoma, in my case. And yet, here was irrefutable evidence that they were not only quietly complicit in the misery of millions of people, they actively ruined their lives. I had written a report about Harriet Tubman for school. I understood who the heroes of the slave era were and who they were clearly not.
I’ll never know the hired man who lay on that bed 150 years ago, fanning himself on a hot day; or my great great grandparents whose cotton empire consisted of a few fields and the slaves who tended to them; nor will I ever know the men, women or children who were their sad chattel. I didn’t even inherit the bed. I was thirty-years-old when my grandmother died, and she had never dispersed her possessions in a written will.
“Mother promised a lot of things to a lot of people” my uncle said, turning away from me, when I reminded him of my grandmother’s gift. Just like that I was freed from the legacy of caring for the “sleigh bed”, if not the burdensome legacy of my connection to it.
What I did inherit from my grandmother was her box of recipes. Transcribed in her sure hand onto scraps of paper and envelope backs, they are for cakes and biscuits and dainties. They also spell out the wonderful dishes she grew up eating, and that the women she later employed, used to cook. Among them are some of my favorites: soupy greens and fatback, spoon bread, okra gumbo, fried grits, succotash, Hoppin’ John and pecan pie.
It was only upon reading High on the Hog, Jessica Harris’s tremendous investigation and celebration of the culinary traditions that date back to the African Diaspora, that I realized the inextricable connection between the recipes and the sorry history of the bed. Like most Southern fare, the inspiration for much of the food my grandmother served dates all the way back to the African villages where pots of similar ingredients were combined and stirred by future slaves.
As Americans, we love to refer to ourselves as the “Melting Pot”. Our ancestors come from all over, yet here we are in a synergistically happy stew. For me, does it really matter that my ancestors were slave owners? My mother-in-law, the family genealogist, says that I am also descended from the famous Civil War hero, Francis Barlow, who fought on the Union side. All I know is that I am lucky enough to be here now.
If I still feel a wince of shame when I think of my family’s dark chapter, I also have to remember that I am a steward of the only good to have come out of the slave trade, aside from generations of African Americans: its nourishing creativity.
I bought this tintype in an antique store. It is not a photograph of my family. Tintypes became popular during the Civil War and the black caregiver in this photo may very well have been a slave.
While we ate real oysters in a saltine cracker-based casserole on Christmas, these oyster biscuits are made with fresh corn and must get their name from their shape. Dropped onto a hot griddle to cook, they look sort of like cornmeal-fried oysters. They are seriously delicious and if you try any of these recipes, you should start here.
Corn and cornmeal were culinary staples for slaves, who turned them into everything from molasses flavored porridge to cornbread and johnnycakes. In fact, cornmeal was such an unrelenting ingredient in the slave diet, it earned the nickname “Johnny Constant”.
I cup corn kernels
1 beaten egg
¼ teaspoon salt
A little pepper
2 tablespoons flour
1 tablespoon milk
¼ teaspoon baking powder
• Mix ingredients together
• Drop by spoonfuls onto a hot greased griddle
• Brown on both sides
• Sprinkle with a little salt and serve.
Okra gets a bad rap from a lot of folks. When cooked in stews it can be very slimy. “Mucilaginous” is the word most often used to describe its viscosity. Maybe it’s because I grew up eating it, but I love not only the way it tastes, but the texture and body it gives to a dish like gumbo.
Okra originated in Abyssinia, an area that includes present-day Ethiopia, Eritrea and the highlands of Sudan. It is native to Egypt and grows wild by the Upper Nile. The word “okra” comes from “okuru” in the Igbo language of Nigeria. The word "gumbo” is from the Bantu words “ochingombo” or “guingombo”. Gumbo was most likely introduced to Americans via the Caribbean and became quickly popular in Louisiana and throughout the South.
If you are using fresh okra, be sure to buy small ones. Larger okra can be woody and tough. If you can’t find any fresh okra in the market, the frozen variety is fine. Likewise, unless it is August and the tomatoes are perfectly ripe, go ahead and use canned ones, which can be just as rich in flavor as their fresh counterparts when put in a stew.
Note that Texas okra gumbo is a much simpler affair than its Louisiana cousin. There are all kinds of recipes that include everything from chicken, seafood, sausage, corn and gumbo file spice, but the okra gumbo I grew up eating in Texas was extremely simple and highlighted the taste of the okra itself.
1 lb. okra sliced in ½ -inch pieces
2 Tablespoons olive oil
1 medium onion diced
1 clove garlic minced
2 cups chopped tomatoes
Cayenne pepper to taste or ½ serrano pepper diced
Salt and Pepper
• Saute onion in olive oil until translucent and beginning to brown
• Add okra, tomatoes and garlic
• Add a dash of cayenne pepper or serrano pepper
• Add ½ teaspoon salt
• Cover and simmer for 25-30 minutes
• Adjust seasoning with more salt and black pepper to taste
Note: Okra is a natural thickener. Go ahead and add water to the gumbo while it is cooking if it is getting too dry.
Southern Fried Chicken
There was no recipe for this in my grandmother’s recipe box. Frying chicken, it seems, is something one just learns at the stove. My mother taught me how to do it when I was a little girl, old enough to know when to jump from the spattering grease of a hot stove. The recipe couldn’t be simpler, but there is some finesse in the frying. Use a cast iron skillet, if you have one, and get the frying oil very hot—just until it smokes—before you put the chicken in. Don’t crowd the pan, but fry the chicken in batches. My mother always uses Crisco vegetable oil, but my son insists that coconut oil is fine too.
1 fryer cut into pieces.
1 cup flour
1 teaspoon paprika
A shake of cayenne pepper
Salt and pepper
1 cup Crisco or other frying oil
Brown paper bag
• Take a clean paper bag from the grocery store
• Toss flour and spices inside
• Place a few pieces of chicken in the bag. Scrunch up the top and shake.
• Heat oil in skillet
• Add just enough chicken to the pan so that there is space around each piece
• Fry until golden on all sides
• Place cooked chicken on paper towels or another brown bag to drain
• Cook the rest of the chicken in batches
• Sprinkle with a little salt before serving
Pecan trees grow beautifully in Texas and my family used to collect whole shoeboxes full of them. While pecans are native to the Americas, African cooks were familiar with peanuts and quickly took to the nuts they found in America. A former slave, known only as “Antoine”, is credited with the first successful grafting of a wild pecan with seedlings to initiate the commercial propagation of pecans.
I wish my grandmother had been here with me in my Brooklyn kitchen to help me make these candies. For one, she seemed to make them effortlessly. I, on the other hand, made such a big mess that I will be scraping hardened sugar off of the coffee maker and every other counter appliance for the next week.
The original recipe written faintly in the picture above was a little hard to interpret, so I turned to the internet. A candy thermometer is essential. My grandmother may have been able to cook the sugar until it reaches the hard crack stage, but unpracticed confectioners like myself will want a surer measurement. I’m still not sure I made it right.
2 egg whites
3 cups sugar
½ cup corn syrup
½ cup boiling water
1 teaspoon vanilla
1 cup coarsely chopped pecans
Whole pecan halves for decoration
• Beat egg whites until stiff
• Cook sugar, corn syrup and water until it forms the “soft ball stage” . ie. 250 degrees.
• Slowly pour half of the sugar mixture into egg whites while beating
• Cook rest of the sugar until in reaches the “hard crack stage”, ie. 350 degrees
• Slowly add the rest of the sugar to egg white mixture
• Beat until shiny
• Quickly add vanilla and nuts
• Drop by spoonfuls onto wax paper
• Decorate each candy with a pecan half
• Remove from paper when candy has hardened.
Photos and text ©Lisa Barlow 2011
Jessica Harris, 2011 High on the Hog, Bloomsbury
Crescent Dragonwagon, 2007, The Cornbread Gospels, , Workman Publishing
Aggie Horticulture webpage
Our Immigrant and Native Ancestors, University of West Florida webpage