Opinion | Help Black Farmers, Who Know Hyperlocal Doesn’t Mean Fancy

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By Tressie McMillan Cottom

Opinion Columnist

This article is part of Times Opinion’s 2022 Giving Guide. Read more about the guide in a note from Opinion’s editor, Kathleen Kingsbury.

I have food on my mind. The few weeks between Thanksgiving and the end-of-year holidays are a time when eating becomes something more than a utilitarian need or even a personal pleasure. Now is the time of year when food’s cultural significance takes center stage in our overscheduled lives. We may eat standing at a desk most of the year, but during the holidays we are reconnected to food’s deeper meaning.

My grandmother died 10 years ago. The last Thanksgiving I had with her was also the last time I ate her sweet potato pudding. She made it just for me, once a year. I have no idea where the recipe came from or even if there was one. I have tried versions since she died. Online recipes have different names. Custard. Casserole. None of the recipes are quite right. Some add flour. I am sure that she did not. Others insist on coconut. She would never.

None of the recipes I have tried match the texture or depth of the dish my grandmother made: layers of buttery, grated sweet potato soaked in spices and baked until crispy on the outside and mushy in the center. I started thinking that maybe what didn’t work about these other dishes I tried was not the recipe, but the ingredients.

My grandmother usually bought small sweet potatoes from a local grower. She had her favorite sources. A distant cousin, Eugene, grew some of the best sweet potatoes by her standard. He put aside some for her over the holidays. If he was busy, there were other local suppliers: a roadside pickup truck and stand with fresh vegetables sold by the bucket, for example. In a pinch, she would go to a local “country food-store” that sold food not fancy enough to be sold at the local chain grocery stores.

Something about my normal store-bought sweet potatoes does not measure up. They’re too big, too tough, too sweet or not sweet enough. The last time I ate my grandmother’s sweet potato pudding was the last time I tasted the culture that made that pudding possible. I wish I had known it was the last time.

This is how food has roots in culture, place, family and history. I recently talked with Prof. Psyche Williams-Forson about food memories. Williams-Forson is the chair of American studies at the University of Maryland College Park and a food studies expert who has written several books about race, gender, class, culture and foodways. “Foodways” is a popular academic term for the complex ways that we produce, consume and give food meaning. When a custard is not a pudding and when a sweet potato connects a North Carolina roadside vegetable store to the African diaspora, that’s an example of a complex foodway.

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