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  • Writer's pictureAshley Gray

Hot Water Cornbread Chronicles

I tried to make hotwater cornbread tonight. I failed the first time. Remade my batter and went back from round two asking my Aunt to be with me and guide me. And I failed again. Feeling defeated, I sat at the dinner table and cried. I wanted to get it right. I still want to. I was missing her and hotter cornbread ain't the same.

My connection to food often astounds people, but I take it seriously. I mean will end a relationship over food. I love it. I study it. I envision it. It wasn’t until I was today years old that I realized my love for food was really rooted in my love for the women in my family. Kitchen tables and cabinets and spice racks and boisterous laughter and frustration and the sound of boiling and the slice of vegetables. Food is spiritual and the kitchen is a sanctuary. And I’m blessed that the women I grew up with did this food and kitchen thing very well. 

Aunt Kat wasn’t much of a cook, but baby she was willing to serve, make the corn and/or buy a dish. She was clutch. Always came through. She was a part of kitchen banter though. Often throwing the coldest of shoulders or shade to one, and giving the warmth of 1,000 suns to others. She was a master at reading for filth and she could give you a verbal letter of recommendation that would make Toni Morrison squeal with delight. She either was or she wasn’t.

Aunt Neicy. Sloppy Joes. I thought about making sloppy joes the other day and couldn’t. Aunt Neicy was a master of improvisation. I had never seen such kitchen genius until one night (probably early morning) she made tomato paste and a pound of ground beef into the finest cuisine my adolescent taste buds had ever had. The almost scientific way she went about it. A little bit of this, a dash of that and a whole lot of that. She was a mad scientist. She fed everyone. She was one of those mothers that had the Jesus gift. She could feed a multitude with a few fish and loaves. SHE FED EVERYONE. 

Aunt Linda and the kitchen solicits a different memory for me. Y’all remember the big wooden decoration spoons. Well, aunt Linda had a very quiet, almost regal way. She was feather light but could turn iron heavy if you overstepped. And I overstepped. Always. Well, she gave that wooden spoon a new position description as she used it to chastise a very loud, very out of order Ashley. I hate that damn spoon. I remember that she also respected food. She wasn't wasteful. Her spirit of gratefulness was apparent in her relationship with food.

Aunt Lydell… Maryland, specifically Bowie, Maryland, had changed her kitchen lineup. I’ll never forget the time she came home talking about oysters in the dressing and in sent everyone into instant uproar. “We don’t do that” or “She’s changed.” Or the time she made trashed wings and to the surprise of everyone- there were delicious. She had figured out the gift of luring you into the kitchen and figuring out how to weave any conversation into the importance of education. “I heard you been struggling in science”... Me: Can we just cook instead?

Great-Aunt Sarah… I have not met another human that cooked as well. I lived for Sunday visits with smoked jowl and hot buttered bread, butter beans, chicken and “dumplins”, slick leaf mustard greens with delicious portions of pork as seasoning, macaroni with pepper flakes on top and hot water cornbread. This woman knew the kitchen. It was also a place where she might sneak you a crumpled $5 bill that she would ensure was just “between you and her”. She would speak life “school teacha” , “preacha man”. When she looked at us, she saw greatness. She was all heart dipped in necessary toughness and pistol to match your energy if needed. She believed in family. She was the family. She made me want to cook. The way she loved on folks through her meals made us become territorial wanting others not to know this beautiful secret. Everyone loved her. And the way she loved was unmatched.

These beloved women, my aunties have transitioned into a different form of life. I miss them all for very different reasons, but a lot of it comes back to the kitchen. This year my family is hosting its first ever family thanksgiving dinner. I couldn’t be more thrilled to sit around the kitchen with my momma and sisters and do whatever food task necessary. This is where my womanhood was shaped. This is where I learned about love. And. I’m grateful to have learned with and from the best.

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