GROWING UP WHITE WITH A BLACK COOK IN THE KITCHEN
I haven’t yet seen the Netflix series: “High on the Hog” that recounts generations of black cooking in the United States. But I’ve eaten enough of black cooking to know how good it really is. And to know what an amazing gift black cooks brought to American kitchens.
It’s patronizing or worse for a white person to ecstatically praise the fried chicken, chess pie and biscuits she ate while growing up in the South. Because, in many cases, the phenomenal cook who created these dishes was a black woman. That was certainly true for our middle-class, Nashville family. Our maid/cook came to our house 3 days a week to do the housecleaning and cooking. She was paid, my mother told me years later, $10 a day plus bus fare. This was the 1950’s and that was the standard wage.
Her name was Stella McKissack and she was a superb cook. Everything that came out of the kitchen was delicious: fried chicken, biscuits, apple pies, chess pies, pound cake, squash casserole, creamed spinach, meatloaf, cornbread. Our family dined like kings. And Stella lived like a pauper.
I know this from the few times when she missed the bus and my father gave her a ride home. She lived in North Nashville in a small shabby house. I never went in but I could see from the street it was nearly bare. As we returned home, I once asked my father why so many black people sat in the dark. He said they may not have been able to afford electricity. The significance of this — the full horror of it — didn’t hit me until many years later. Electricity in Middle Tennessee was cheap at that time due to TVA. The black folks sitting in the dark must have been almost penniless.
Stella, my mother told me, had attended Fisk College. But, Mom claimed, learning to swim was a requirement for graduation and Stella had refused to even get in the pool. I don’t know if that story is accurate or not. It may just have been the sort of myth that white people told one another about the “colored people” who worked for them. A sort of lame excuse for why black people hadn’t risen up the ladder of success to better jobs than that of housecleaner, gardener, handyman, cook. Yet even if Stella had graduated from college, her job choice would have been extremely limited. Possibly she could have taught in a segregated school. That was about it. In my youth I never saw a black secretary, a black sales clerk, even a black waitress or nurse. The black women, I saw, worked cleaning and cooking. Every morning they arrived on the bus and in the afternoon they took it home.
Unlike the maids portrayed in the film, The Help, Stella didn’t use a separate bathroom. She used the upstairs bathroom where we kids had our bedrooms. And she smoked there, according to my observant little brother. I never saw the sort of cruelty and indignities that that movie portrays. But just because it didn’t happen in our household doesn’t mean it didn’t occur in other homes. We didn’t live in the fashionable part of town ourselves and my mother wasn’t raised in the South. My father who was Southern by birth was no Atticus Finch but he also wasn’t the sort to denigrate anyone. In fact, in later years, when my parents had a different cleaning woman and cook named Johnella — she and Dad would sit down together for breakfast every morning after my mother had gone to work.
For anyone in our parents wide social circle having an excellent cook was a coveted addition to the home. Food and entertainment were an essential ingredient of Southern hospitality. Look at all the Junior League cookbooks — the recipes list the name of the woman who provided the recipe but the dishes were almost always prepared by black cooks.
Recalling how well we ate, I have attempted to fry chicken and to bake biscuits and pies myself — I’ve tried numerous times with numerous recipes and I’ve also eaten these dishes in numerous restaurants. But none of them comes close to what Stella achieved, week after week, year after year. She was simply a master chef. I don’t know what she ate at home or with friends and family. I just know she poured her energy, time, creativity, and talent into preparing meals for us — and they were always a feast. Stella’s cooking triumphed over the deprivation of her life.
I know she had poor health — she was over-weight and probably had diabetes and high blood pressure. I know she died at a fairly young age. My life was elsewhere at that point in time. Yet how I wish today I could tell Stella of the great pleasure she gave my brothers and I during our youth. How I wish she could experience some of the well-deserved adulation that many black cooks are now receiving. And will continue to receive through the series like “High on the Hog”. Thank goodness the recognition is finally on its way.