Last Word

Taste, Memory

My kitchen is my time machine, my looking glass. Where my history drips into soups and breads and spices and pies. It’s my hallowed ground, my meditation space. It’s where I transcend. She fed us there, nourished us in that great Southern tradition of providing love through sustenance, my mother’s mother.

I blame it on my Mamaw, my love of food and of making it. Her Sunday suppers, set under the lazy sun of Sunday afternoons. Coming in after church, shucking the nice clothes for the shelling-peas clothes. The steady air of pot roasts, potatoes, pork chops when I asked for them, black-eyed peas frozen over from the summer, corn from the roadside stand down the road. Cornbread. Massive sunshine wheels of cornbread, flipped over from the skillet to the plate, buttered until runny with a butter that, in my memory, I can’t believe was anything more than Can’t Believe. Near her table was the churn, grey and blue and ancient, the plunger so grooved that, when you looked close and knew what to look for, you could see the parts worn smooth under her grip. Her hands, her mother’s hands, my mother’s. Generations of women into butter onto bread into me.

It occurs to me now, 20 years on and now five after her death, that I have no idea how she did it. I don’t even know where the food came from. There were no grocery stores for miles around. From friends, from gardens, from neighbors, I guess. Her magic in the kitchen, the weekly manifestation of a feast, so small to me then, is gargantuan today.

When I moved away and for the first time the miles between us numbered more than the years, I asked her to share her wisdom, to make her memories physical. She wrote out for me, line by line, two recipes: Chicken & Dumplins. Corn Bread. Her hands had begun to crumple, the lush loops and curls of her letters growing geometric with age. I’ve put her in a frame now, the last yellowing page of her existence. It sits on my desk. Every word I write passes under hers.

The recipes are simple, unspecial in every way, unworthy of note in today’s culinary landscape. But for me, they are both totem and jumping-off point, a connection to the past and a window into her. At that point, 70 years into her own life, recipes had become rote, little more than a backing track to her muscle memory.

I wish I had asked her for more. Not just recipes, but for stories. For the woman who inspired my own love of food, I know so little about hers. Why was there always Jello? Why never fish? Never tomatoes? How did she learn to make the best milkshakes I’ve ever had?

When she died, I got her skillet. Ancient and beginning to crack, rusting and prone to smoke, it’s mine and it makes me feel at home to know it’s sitting there in my cupboard. My hands on the handle where hers used to be, I know not to hope that a still-warm handle is from her touch. But yet, I will never not reach for it wanting to find her hand.

I rarely use it anymore. Rather leave it as a monument than a machine. But, on those few times a year, her birthday or mine, or on the rare weekend when I have nothing but time, I, knowing that the fissures at its bottom will surely cleave open, fish it out to sing a song from my history and make the only dish that has ever made me hurt from wanting: caramel pie.

By the time I’d asked her for the recipe, it had already lost itself in her memory. We tried in vain, as a team, to bake it again, changing, each time, the recipe. There is a subtle wonder to caramelization, the slow but sudden liquefaction of sugar into gold. She taught me to keep the heat low, to never stop stirring. But the pie remains elusive, its final chemistry just out of my grasp. I do get closer each time I make it, each bake a half-step closer to my memory, a half-step closer to her.

As much as I love the memories, though, I know her cooking was good and rarely great. There were often things that burned or things that ached for seasoning. More than the flavor, I miss the love. Because when she cooked, we were a family and I was loved. And now I cook for the people I love because that’s what she taught me to do. In the language of her kitchen, setting Sunday supper meant I love you, and in the language of mine it still does. It also means I miss you.

Seth Eli Barlow is a native of Cleveland County who now writes and cooks in Little Rock.