Cultural Foods Tell a Story
By Yvette R. Blair
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For every favorite family food that you enjoy, there is a story behind it that forever links you with generations of family traditions. Every morsel of food – whether it has been measured by just “eyeing it” or using kitchen tools, is a narrator. Food is a storyteller. A griot. And every recipe is a roadmap that leads to an outpost, a front porch, or a kitchen table where memories are held in the aromas, the clanking of dishes and the carefully curated ways that the chefs in your family prepare food made from scratch and watching how the generation of elders before them made it.
Trekking through the North Texas area, I set out as a modern-day Zora Neal Hurston, to focus, catalog and document the Black, Latinx, and Indigenous cultures in our foodways systems. In particular, I explored how “hand patted foods” made with corn/cornmeal (hot water cornbread, tamales, salmon croquettes) is a form of communal storytelling and “passing down” family history through shared meals. Like Zora who was a cultural anthropologist, folklorist, and ethnographer, in addition to being a writer during the Harlem Renaissance, I was inspired to follow in that tradition and to reclaim the art of oral history, of passing down family stories through gathering at kitchen tables and cooking cultural food.
In my own tradition, it was in the kitchen where I learned about the rich history of my family. I still vividly remember watching my mother pull together the ingredients for salmon croquettes and hot water cornbread, two of my favorite foods. It was something about the way she used her instinct to measure out just the right amount of corn meal, whisking it with an egg before combining it with canned salmon and rolling the mixture in the palm of her hands, to form balls of croquettes before flattening the mixture and lowering them into that cast-iron skillet of hot oil. She always had a story to tell. Like the time she scaled, cleaned, and fried fish when she was just five, using a chair as a step ladder to reach the stove. Whenever my favorite aunt came to visit, our kitchen turned into a family history repository. As I watched these matriarchs in my family dole out flour, crack eggs, switch out smaller mixing bowls for larger ones, I learned about my great grandparents, great aunts and other family members still living and those who had transitioned.
As I dug into this Texas Folklife project, I knew that other families in the communities of West and South Dallas, or Tarrant and Denton Counties, areas that make up the triangle of the North Texas region, had similar experiences. And I wanted to hear their stories. Moreso, I wanted to sit at their kitchen table and watch them make hand-patted foods and learn something about their cultural traditions and meet their family members through memories and folklore.
This is the origin of my Texas Folklife project, “Food, Family and the Stories We Share.” Because I wanted to focus on “passing down” history, it was important to identify generations of families who would be willing to invite me to their kitchen table either virtually or in-person. One of the families that invited me to their virtual table is the Watkins Family. At the intersection of Aubrey (in Denton County) and Washington, DC (by way of Sunny South Dallas), Paula and her son, Christian, graciously welcomed me in and shared such beautiful memories of handmade biscuits, hot water cornbread and those delicious hand-patted salmon croquettes with salmon made from a can.
If you’ve never had to make meals stretch – that is, have enough to feed a family of three or more with some leftover for another meal, then you might not know that salmon croquettes are a stretch meal. Stretch meals stretch a limited budget, and the art of making salmon croquettes is to use salmon from a can. And, as I learned from Ms. Watkins, if a single mother is trying to make ends meet and feed her family of four or five, then the salmon croquettes are made with one can of salmon and one can of jack mackerel. “You couldn’t tell the difference,” Ms. Watkins recalls. “They were so good. The jack mackerel was a supplement to stretch the amount of croquettes we had. And the best part is that they were made with love.” Love, Ms. Watkins declares, is the most important ingredient in any food.
Food evokes memories. Watching Ms. Watkins mimic the motions of patting her hands, in the way that she watched her mother, Beatrice, I saw the joy on her face as she recalled those days. It prompted her to look for some of the recipes that her mom had. The most exciting moment is when she found a recipe for chicken tetrazzini written in her mom’s handwriting. Sharing these stories unearthed that treasure for her and it sparked an infectious joy for Christian and for me. Honestly, it brought tears to my eyes, seeing those ingredients and instructions penned in the handwriting of the matriarch of the Watkins’ family. That recipe is a remnant from the past that connects family traditions over generations. I don’t know that we would have had this moment were it not for this program and opportunity extended to me through the Texas Folklife Community Fellowship.
As a millennial, Christian loves to cook and he is proud to share that he learned from the best – the people in his family. “When we were younger, my cousins would be outside playing, but I’d be in the kitchen watching and learning from my aunts how to make handmade biscuits and tea cakes,” he shared. It turns out that teacakes are these small cookies made with a few ingredients – flour, butter, eggs, lemon extract, buttermilk, and sugar – what Christian calls “a poor man’s biscuit.” It, too, is a stretch meal, made from a limited budget by families who are just trying to make ends meet. Tea cakes are a culinary delight in many African American homes and are a cultural tradition.
Speaking of cultural tradition, I would be remiss if I did not make mention of hot water cornbread. At the end of our conversation, Ms. Watkins candidly said, “hot water cornbread does it for me. Growing up in Louisiana, collard greens and hot water cornbread was always on the table. My mother could make hot water cornbread that made your mouth drool. She made it for kings and queens. Always with that crispy edge on the outside and that gooey goodness on the inside. You had all the textures going on.”
Textures. Like the ridges in corn husks before they are softened in hot water to make way for the cooked meat filling they will hold, as they become the “wrappers” for tamales. Driving on I-30 and crossing over to Highway 183 to Euless and entering the home of the Summerlins felt like Christmas. What I learned from an afternoon of tamale-making is that this is traditionally a holiday meal, and it takes days to prepare. Making this hand-patted Mexican food is a family affair with all hands on deck.
When I reached out to Suzanna Summerlin, who over the years has used the power of social media to tell the story of her family through pictures and posts, she graciously said yes. Because this is a family meal, often with the entire family participating in the preparation, her big sister, Judy took a train ride from San Antonio to join us, and her brother, Pete, drove up from Brenham (yes, home of that little creamery that makes some of the best ice cream). They brought with them memories, family history and rich stories to tell, including that time when their mother, Carmen Ybarra, met Hollywood actor, John Wayne, during her days of residing in Old Tucson where the actor filmed many of his westerns. It was not by chance that she met him; she was a skilled seamstress who sewed, created, and altered many of the cowboy duds that he donned. That was one of the kitchen table stories and there is a picture to prove it.
She also made good tamales and she taught her children how to make them, too – a tradition that the siblings have passed down to their children. In fact, Suzanna’s oldest daughter, Hannah Grace, drove up from “the other side of the Metroplex” to join us at the table.
At the table is where I learned that the masa for the tamale filling has to be the consistency of peanut butter, smooth and free of any lumps. I also learned that the beef, pork, or chicken filling is prepared in a slow cooker over days. Good food takes time to prepare. In the Summerlin kitchen, I watched as the memory muscle kicked in of what it takes to prepare tamales. When Judy had a question about the way she remembered the recipe, she called her aunt Dorothy, who wanted to know, “Why are you making tamales now? It’s not Christmas.” Well, this year, the holiday meal came early. In my curiosity, I asked how this tradition started.
Hannah Grace said that for as long as she can remember, “we always had these at Christmas time. I didn’t know if it was just our family or that other families only had them at Christmas time, too.” An educator who teaches Spanish to middle school students, Hannah talked about tamales in her class, and that’s when she discovered that it is a cultural tradition that other Hispanic families make tamales only at Christmas time. “We don’t have a story about why. It’s just always been that way.”
That is the wonder of family traditions. Sometimes there is no rhyme or reason for doing things a certain way other than it is the way that the generation before you did it. Other times, your siblings start a new tradition, like drinking chocolate milk while making the tamales.
There is a skillset to making tamales. It can be acquired, taught, or picked up through repetition, watching, and helping. The same way that Abuela Carmen’s hands rolled the tamales, is the same way that Hannah Grace’s hands roll the tamales. The same way that Suzanna and Judy made tamales as young adults, is the same way that these sisters make them today – each doing a specific task, like adding in the lard (the traditional way), churning the masa or mixing it in the food processor, and getting their hands in the details of the preparation.
Assembling the filling, carefully wrapping the tamales, and tying a small bow around some of the husks is a long-standing cultural tradition. Yes, these are a gift, but that bow is there to let you know which tamales have pork filling versus beef filling in case you have a diet-specific need that you need to maintain. Once the tamales are rolled, they are placed in a steam basket on the stove and cooked.
Being at the table and part of this family’s tradition was a gift to me. As much as I liked tamales, I think I now like them even more knowing that there’s so much detail and work into making them. Oh, and for anyone who wants to make tamales but is a vegan, don’t worry. I learned there is such a thing as soy chorizo that you can substitute for the meat filling. It’s not the traditional way, but you can start your own tradition and tell your own story.
There are some things that are ephemeral, that are short-lived and only here for a season. Cultural foods are not one of them. They are here to stay. And the stories will be passed down through each generation.
I will continue to post, catalog, and share pictures of cultural foods and share the stories that are shared with me.
Follow me on Instagram at @preachergirl716 and learn more about my foodways work on my website: yvetteblair.com.
About the Author
Yvette R. Blair is a food justice strategist, ethnographer, author and ordained elder in The Methodist Church. Her work and earned Doctor of Ministry is at the intersection of faith and food insecurity. She lives in Dallas and is a griot for her community.
About Texas Folklife's Community Folklife Fellowship
The Texas Folklife Community Folklife Fellowship program is a statewide, NEA-supported pilot program that provides training in oral history, interviewing, audio storytelling, archives, and podcast production for adults. Participants learn to document community traditions in their own cities and towns throughout the state, through workshops and community partnerships. The program supports applicants from diverse regions and communities of the state of Texas.
Learn More About Community Folklife Fellowship