A Piece of Home by Danielle Buckingham
This beautiful and heartfelt creative non-fiction piece reminds us that sometimes it is the most everyday meals in our families that are the most significant and that recipes, often shared in ancestral oral tradition, can be the one thing to ground us to who we, and our people, are.
Danielle Buckingham (she/her), affectionately known as Dani Bee, is a Chicago-born, Mississippi-raised writer and creative based in Oxford, Mississippi. A 2021 Lambda Literary fellow, Dani’s work has been published in Midnight & Indigo Literary Magazine, New Orleans Review, Raising Mothers, and elsewhere. Additionally, she is an alum of the Voices of Our Nations Art (VONA) workshop and the Hurston-Wright Writers Week Workshop. When Dani isn’t writing or tending to her plants, you can find her talking Black spirituality, growing up in Mississippi, and pop culture on the Hoodoo Plant Mamas podcast. She is currently a Southern Studies graduate student at the University of Mississippi where she is working on an oral history centering the voices of Black and Queer Southerners.
Fried Eggs & Rice Writing Prompt: Danielle’s personal essay speaks to the ways that family recipes are often passed down orally. The essay transcribes Grandma’s recipe in the exact way she tells it to Danielle. Call an elder (if no elders available, call a friend) and record them telling you something about their life. This could be a recipe, yes, but it doesn’t have to be. Ask open-ended questions that leave room for storytelling: How did you get your name? What was your family like growing up? What are your favorite memories of your mother? Father? Etc. Then transcribe the recording down on paper being mindful to remove the “ums," "uhhs," and pauses. Remember to edit your work, removing things that don’t fit into the story and make sure to keep the transcription as true to the voice of the storyteller as you can.
A Piece of Home
by Danielle Buckingham
“For the candy yams all you need is one or two peeled sweet potatoes depending on how many you're feeding or how much leftovers you want. Dani, if you’re just cooking for you, all you need is one. Then you need your butter and sugar. You can use vanilla extract or nutmeg or both. You need enough sugar in your water to make a heavy syrup. Put it in the pot and bring it to a boil. Then, let it simmer until it’s ready. Like I told you before, for your cabbages, all you need is a small head of cabbage. Get you some turkey tails or smoked neck bones. I like to use turkey tails. You cut up one green pepper. Boil your meat with a few tablespoons of leftover cooking oil. I usually use my chicken oil. And add salt. While it’s boiling, put your cut up cabbages and green pepper in. It should take, maybe 30 or 45 minutes to an hour depending on how soft you like yours. You’ll know when it’s ready.”
When I moved to New Orleans at twenty-six for my first big-girl job as a teacher, a longing for a piece of home became a constant theme in my life. I grieved for it.
I was broke, having drained my savings due to the expense of relocating from Mississippi, and I was lonely. It was all new to me, and I desperately wanted to make things work. To make matters worse, I learned my first hard lesson about apartment hunting and leases. After falling in love with the “model” apartment unit that the way-too-smiley leasing manager gave me a tour of, I was sold. The result though was a roach motel where the bottoms of cabinets and other discreet corners of the unit were chewed raw by rats, complete with an unresponsive leasing office to my complaints.
For the first few weeks in this nightmare of an apartment, I barely slept. Cooking, and even eating, became a heavy lift. Besides the ritual of getting up and going to work, I couldn’t garner the strength to do much of anything. I cried on my walks to work and cried during my lunch breaks. I held my tears back in the car while my co-worker gave me rides home in the evening. I let the grief soak my computer keys as I typed out my lesson plans for the week. And then I cried myself to sleep thinking about home, only to wake up and do it all again the next day.
Home for me is down Sylvester Hudson Road, named after my great-grandfather, a Mississippi sharecropper and farmer. This long, curved road turns into dirt and gravel the further along you go and leads to a two-story house with Boston Ferns and their lush fringed leaves hanging on the porch. This is the home where my grandmother cooks all the meals that were passed down to her from her mother, and her mother’s mother, and so on.
In the midst of my yearning for that piece of Sylvester Hudson Road, my grandmother and main source of support, spent night after night on the phone with me. Our calls usually began with me complaining about how terrible everything was with my apartment, and ended with me weeping. I wanted to feel better. I wanted to feel home.
Eventually, out of concern, my grandmother came down to New Orleans to spend a week with me. Our first night together consisted of her cooking cabbages, candy yams, cornbread, and some kind of meat that wasn’t the heart of the meal. After waking up from one of those sleep-away-the-pain type naps, I fixed my plate with mounds of syrupy yams, squares of sweet, warm cornbread, and spoonfuls of savory, rich stewed cabbage. I took a few bites and my eyes grew warm with tears. It was like I tasted her cooking for the first time, and it was all I needed and wanted in the moment.
This spiritual and euphoric experience of my grandmother’s cooking that night was due, in part, to the severe bout of depression that had me surviving on a diet of ramen, peanut M&Ms, and anything else that was cheap, quick, and added more fat to my already plump waistline. We ate cabbages and candy yams about once every week or so when I was growing up in Mississippi. It was a familiar and regular part of our supper rituals, something that seemed everyday and routine, but that night in New Orleans I realized that maybe things taste better when you need it the most. Grandma’s plate of food became a small, but satiating, helping of home.
Grandma told me the recipe as she knew it. “You need this and that, a little of that,” with no measurements or numbers. To her, and I imagine to her mother and her mother’s mother, cooking was an act of love and the process was intuitive. You just feel what you need, how much you need, and when it’s ready to be presented to your family. When I call my grandmother now, asking “how much” and “how long” to prepare a particular meal, I am really asking, “How do I make it feel like home?”
Meal preparation, like in most Black families, is an ancestral practice, a matrilineal rite of passage. It was my great-grandmother Julia Mae’s final act of love, down Sylvester Hudson Road, the night of Christmas Eve 1989. She conjured all the workings of an abundant feast, cakes, pies, all the trimmings. A few hours later, she would pass on, leaving behind a wave of grief and the most tender offering of a full belly to the people she loved most. It is her recipes that my grandmother shares with me now.
Family traditions, no matter how trivial they seem, are preserved for a reason. In the cleaning and preparation of cabbages, in the rinsing and cutting of sweet potatoes, I am remembering. I am remembering the story of my great-grandmother, Julia Mae Hudson, and her final December hours. I am remembering my grandmother standing at the counter in her sunlit kitchen, cutting her greens with loving intention. When I returned back to Mississippi and Sylvester Hudson Road from New Orleans, the memories seemed to wrap around me like a heavy quilt. And I became so close once again to that final Christmas offering, so close to my grandmother’s attending hands, so close to feeling whole again.
Months after I return home, I’ve moved into a new apartment that I have decorated with photos of my favorite writers, bookshelves filled with books I love, and plants upon plants, from the swiss-cheese-leaf Monsteras to my Pothos to a flourishing Bonsai tree. I create a piece of home in this new space, absent of roaches and chewed up corners, with a spacious kitchen that allows me to cook with ease. As I chop up a head of cabbage I bought from Kroger, the knife crunching through its leaves, with chicken legs roasting in the oven, and candy yams simmering on the stove, a singing spirit, like always, comes over me. And I know I am no longer alone in my kitchen.
I am remembering, again, my grandmother’s hands, the ritual, the love, and the knowing—when it and I am ready to return home.