United States

Forks and Spoons

May 6, 2019

It’s warm. Not like a soup, but like a bubble bath. Smooth stock runs down my throat and
the fragrance of a fisherman’s blazing afternoon in a shrimp boat on the bayou envelops my
nose. If you tried gumbo from a Black grandmother, you would know what I mean.
With a kitchen cabinet overflowing with Cajun seasonings and spices growing up, I never
realized how good I had it until a white friend told me casserole wasn’t a myth and that it was
indeed served at Caucasian functions. The omnipresence of gumbo, boudin, and crawfish in my
childhood went for long without questioning. 

A kind southern lady with the mouth of a sailor, my grandma
always packed an unaddressed addiction to margaritas (a habit which my mother would later contract from her). When she first moved to Houston from Louisiana at the age of 4, her family grew fruitful and migrated far and wide-across the neighborhood, that is. Most of whom moved away kept to 4th or 5th ward, two of the three wards that made up what I call Houston’s Black Palestine. That was back when Freedman’s town, the community freed slaves etched into the map of the South in 1865, wasn’t under the childlike molding of a fistful of play-doh that is gentrification. The freedman laid bricks, opened businesses and built homes that 4th ward has fought tooth and nail to keep from being renovated until it was officially declared a historic site.

She learned to cook in Houston, and everyone she cooked for, be it her family, church, or friends, became quite literally addicted to what she made. I was never told why our church had a tradition of mixing a solution of Canada dry, sugar and god-knows-what-else at all the events until I was 17. Apparently, my grandma made it once more than a decade ago and everyone got so hooked, they called it “crack punch” and tried to replicate it ever since. She had a catering business called Forks and Spoons where I occasionally helped with heavy lifting. I learned the secret to her drink was to over-sweeten it so the ratio was perfect when the ice melted. Although it was a small business, the Houstonians who knew about it probably threw events just to have an excuse to host her. Houston’s Black Restaurant Week might’ve put her front-and-center if it was established in her time. Even though the community thought of it as a special little business for themselves, I had dibs on holidays. I don’t remember first finding the definition of Creole, but I do remember a period where I fervently awaited the day I could scrape the money together to purchase a DNA test. This possibly came from my longstanding distaste for the pomp of the French language and culture.

“Creole” usually means someone from Louisiana that’s part Black and part White, and most likely French, but if you pointed out this “inherently partially white” definition to my grandma, she’d assume you’re racist. I took it as a sign of at least a little French in us that everyone the age of my grandmother and older in the family could easily pass as fully white. White settlers, along with African slaves and Native Americans, crowded into the mosquito-infested swamp of a territory and made the most of it. They built cathedrals, outposts, towns, and slapped the fleur-de-lis on all of them. They built Natchitoches, the oldest French settlement in the territory, coincidentally where my family is from. They built ports, where I assume my family was shipped in and thrown onto the marshes to work. After some thought, I decided that it was pointless to not see white in you if there was. Since most Blacks in the US have at least some white in their background, (a fact we all pretend not to know for reasons some consider too disheartening to discuss). I came to terms with it. I ended up attributing my fascination with cinema to that part of us. And besides, the French helped give us gumbo…sorta.

Although the exact origin of gumbo isn’t known, the general consensus is as follows: the
first slaves in Louisiana toiled under men they didn’t know to produce rice, which was carried
with them on the ships. Rice, originating from the Pearl River Valley in China, adapted well to
the damp conditions and became a part of the everyday diet. They also brought okra, peppers,
and onions. Spanish settlers brought spices and ways to catch the plentiful shrimp, oysters, and
fish. German immigrants brought sausage to the region and Native Americans taught the French
how to cook…that’s what I mean when I say “sorta”.

I think it fitting for this elixir created from a number of cultures to find its way to
Houston. The precious pot of carefully blended ingredients sorted through alchemy and magic
can only be described as Anthony Bourdain’s wet dream. Christmas especially comes to mind
for me, when we go back to Louisiana. I remember the sounds of those happy men hitting,
banging, and strumming accordions and drums and bass guitars. Those men who looked like me
and, for all anyone knew, or could try to find from whatever documents of slave auctions there
were, could be related to me. My grandma watched over a rambunctious clan of drunk elders,
rowdy children and moody teenagers and smiled. She smiled because her grandmother wore
chains where she now wears gold bracelets, and she decided as she watches the gumbo pot
slowly drain into our bellies that we’ve come a long way since then.
As she got older, she decided to hang up her apron and let the younger people of the
family cook for family events. I took one taste of my great uncle’s gumbo and began to dearly miss
my grandma’s. Now, at 17, I’m glad I reached an age where I can appreciate her cooking as
much as I do before she retired her jersey. 


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1 Comment
  • TeabagWritings

    I love your creativity, however, I believe it has to be in the form of an essay to be in the contest. I could be wrong, but in the contest rules, it does say essay. Not short story fiction. I really like your story though!

    about 3 years ago