more than a kitchen's gift

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Louisiana culture, like Ernest J. Gaines' novel, is interlaced with food. 

“And now I could smell fried chicken” Grant says when he walks into Miss Emma’s home. I stopped chewing. That fried, well-spiced batter, was stinging my mouth. I had not planned to be tasting the words as I read a novel. I sort of froze, and sat there on the cracked laundromat chair, and contemplated. They say the best way to learn is to immerse yourself, and that in essence has been the main aspect of this bookpacking journey. But to have it happen on accident, unknowingly, Ciannah’s “let’s go get food while we wait” to the laundromat manager’s “go to Tony’s” to stepping into a neighborhood favorite to my friends’ “I might wait for a big dinner” to my “well I’m just going to grab something” — all of this led up to the moment where flavors were sinking into my tastebuds, aromas drifting through my nostrils as the narrator of A Lesson Before Dying experienced the same.

We were sitting in a laundromat in Baton Rouge. We thought we should eat something since it was dinnertime, the manager of the laundromat with his Southern drawl and enthusiastic rolling of the tongue told us to go down to Tony’s, a big seafood warehouse. Women in aprons and white hats lined a buffet taking orders as they filled the styrofoam boxes. “What you want, baby?” one said to me. “Can I get a fried chicken? Is that good?” “Yes, baby, okay you want two?”

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Her assuming I’d want so much food, and her maternal tone reminded me of Miss Emma, Jefferson's godmother, in A Lesson Before Dying. In A Lesson Before Dying, Jefferson’s godmother Miss Emma sends food with Grant for Jefferson at every visit. It is the expression of her love, when words are not enough. On a night out, a saxophone player who said “I’m skinny because I drink a lot of whiskey and play a lot of music” had made me think of Miss Emma when he stopped his zydeco band, and, pointing to an open air party bus that squeezed by the tiny road, said, “Ahh, You all see those big beautiful curvy women? Want good food? Y’all can go to the restaurants, and they good. But you want real N’awlins food, its in the homes of those beautiful Southern women right there. I tell you, jus’ get invited into their homes and you will have the both meal you ever had.”

Miss Emma, when she cooks for her family and her loved ones, seeks to feed much more than their stomachs. With Jefferson, her expression of love and support is an effort to feed his human soul. Miss Emma’s food offerings become a symbol of the love he cannot accept, the care and affection in which he cannot bring himself to believe any longer.

“”Your nannan can sure cook,” Grant says to Jefferson bringing a bag of food from her kitchen.

“That’s for youmans” Jefferson replies. 

A young man who is sentenced to the electric chair for being in the wrong place at the wrong time albeit utterly innocent, has become obsessed with the idea that he is not a man, but a hog. He has difficulty accepting the food brought to him. 

Reading that line about biscuits made me remember these buttery, soft biscuits we all piled into our take-home bags in Grand Isle. It reminded me I needed to hand my friend a $5 dollar bill for the fried chicken and biscuit dinner she picked up for me when I decided to stay on the porch to watch the sun go down. I ate my fair share of sweet potatoes throughout my journey in Louisiana, sometimes without even noticing it would come as a side. 

On a sunny afternoon in Pointe Coupee, the hometown of Ernest J. Gaines, a charming pharmacist sent his son to take us out on the water in their boat. It felt like a perfect summer's day - skies blue, skin just slightly sticky with sweat, a bubbling warmth in every inch of my body. I wanted ice cream. 

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While Andrew was getting gas, I jumped out of the van and ran into the gas station store. A vanilla ice cream sandwich was just waiting. I pulled out two dollars, handed it to the employee, and skipped back to the car. In moments like those, food can make your feelings become tangible - the simplicity, the sweetness, "dog days," smoothness. 

I have always felt something for the aesthetic of ice cream. It evokes innocence, simple pleasures, easy summers, and favorite childhood memories. 

The moment in A Lesson Before Dying that stirred me - made my heart jump and my nerves simmer, was the first time Jefferson asked for food. "A whole gallona vanilla ice cream" he said, smiling for the first time during any of his visitations. But he explained to Grant that he did not want the vanilla ice cream in that moment, he wanted it for his very moment he could before his execution. I ended up writing my essay about his moment, Jefferson's enthusiastic request for a whole gallon of ice cream. The boy was cheerful in this moment. Grant noticed “He looked at me with an inner calmness now. Was it the ice cream?” I think it was the ice cream, and all the memories and lyrical easiness of innocence. 

I don't know how I could have written about New Orleans and Louisiana without talking about the food. Because reading about the food, you realize its importance in psychology and deeper meanings. And consuming the food, whether you understand its emotional meaning or not, you absorb the mash of cultures and heart that makes the South such a special, strange place. 

 

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