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March 2018

Making Breakfast and a Story involving Grits


One of the great joys in our family is making breakfast together, usually on a Saturday morning.  Of course this is not unique to us.  As I continue this series on foodways, inspired by reading The Cooking Gene, this morning as Michael and Sebastian work on pancakes, I'm reflecting on the role of breakfast.  Some highlights from my past:

Mammoo, my grandma Nixon, would get up early to fix breakfast and the smell of bacon wafting up from the kitchen is what would awaken you.

My parents making pancakes in fun shapes for us to eat as kids.  Something Michael and I do now for Sebastian.

My Dad frying eggs.  He'd use the cast iron skillet and fill it with bacon grease and fry the eggs in the fat with lots of salt and pepper.

In grad school, fixing breakfast with friends who had stayed over after a late night of partying.

What about any rich cultural influences on breakfast?  Let's talk about grits.

I grew up in an area where we enjoyed grits both as a breakfast food and as a side at suppertime.  Generally they were served with a little butter, salt, and pepper, though occasionally someone would make cheese grits.

Michael Twitty, in The Cooking Gene, writes about the role of grits in Southern cooking.  This reminds me of the best grits I ever had.  I was in Helena, Arkansas, a town in the Mississippi Delta that Mark Twain said was the loveliest spot on the river.  I was there scouting for our church's mission trip and I arrived about an hour before my meeting, so I stopped in at Bunny's Cafe where I had grits and coffee prepared by Bunny, who was African-American.  They were the best grits and the best coffee I'd ever had. 

While eating alone, I was joined at my table by a man who worked for a local youth services organization.  When he found out who I was and why I was there, he shared with me about the racial history of the city and the impact upon it of integration.  He spoke of how integration, a good thing, had the unintended consequence of devastating the black commercial district, as African-Americans began shopping in the white stores but no whites began shopping in the black stores.  The area had also experienced two drains--white people fled to the suburbs of nearby cities like Memphis and Little Rock and middle class African-Americans went off to college and didn't return. 

This conversation was one episode in a day full of revelations about poverty and racial inequality.  Though I had intellectually understood them before that day, this was the day my eyes were open and I gained insight.  That day was an epiphany which led to social justice action becoming central to my ministry.

Another word on grits.  In 2014 when Michael and I visited friends in Denver over Labor Day weekend, we were surprised to discover shrimp and grits being served almost everywhere we went to eat.  Somehow this food of the coastal southeast was prominent at the gateway to the mountain west.  Now whenever we fix shrimp and grits, we joke that we are going to have Colorado food.

I think the next post will be about rice, which in my childhood was also a breakfast staple, but rice deserves its own post.

The previous post in this series was about Texas Caviar.


Rock City

Fortunately one trait Michael and I share in common is pulling off the highway to visit small town and roadside attractions.  Last week when I was alone en route to Oklahoma City, I decided to finally see what that "Rock City" sign at the Minneapolis, Kansas exit was all about.

First you have to drive through Minneapolis itself, which is filled with beautiful Victorian homes that are well-maintained.  This one was my favourite.


The downtown looked like many very small towns in the region, with this building being an interesting exception.


The town also had a fun looking city park across from the fairgrounds.  Not every day do you see a Ferris wheel in front of grain elevators.


You have to drive a few miles on the other side of town before you reach Rock City.  According to the brochure, ""There is no other place in the world where there are so many concretions of such giant size."


Also, according to the brochure, they are remnants of the sea floor. Everything around them eroded away.  Wikipedia has more information.


In the midst of a long day of driving, I enjoyed stretching my legs around these massive rocks.  


This one they call the "Donut Hole."  Sebastian could crawl through it.


Texas Caviar


Recently I read The Cooking Gene by Michael W. Twitty, and it has inspired me to write a blog series on the role of food in my life.  Tonight was our book club, which I couldn't make.  But I went ahead and prepared the Texas Caviar I was going to take, using the opportunity to discuss foodways with our son Sebastian as he helped me to prepare the dish.

Texas Caviar is a black-eyed pea based dip often encountered at parties in Texas and surrounding areas.  I'm sure I was first acquainted with it in Oklahoma.

Now, growing up, I did not like black-eyed peas.  I thought they tasted like dirt in little packages.  Black-eyed peas were primarily fixed on New Year's Day when eating them was supposed to bring you good luck for the year.  My Mom generally cooked the dried peas in a pot of water with a hamhock.  I made this dish this year for New Year's when Mom and my sister Kelli were here visiting.  It made the house smell great.


Michael Twitty writes about black-eyed peas.  They came from Africa.  In the Yoruba culture they "represent fertility, the eye of God."  He writes, "They were spiritually potent food long before our arrival in America."  He adds that because the Yoruba word for black-eyed pea is close to the word for beauty, "To ingest black-eyed peas is to become filled with beauty, and ancestral tradition."

When I read his description, I was surprised and excited to learn the African roots of a tradition my very white Oklahoma family practiced.

But, as I said, I did not like black-eyed peas as a kid or young adult.  I came to enjoy them later.  Probably my first decent encounter with them was as part of Texas Caviar, this dip.  But I only began preparing black-eyed peas myself when Michael and I, in the late Aughts, began hosting an annual New Year's Day Open House.

The tradition of the New Year's Open House, I got from Dallas, Texas, where I would be invited to a handful every year.  So, in Oklahoma City, Michael and I started that tradition.  And we chose to make foods from our family's ancestral cultures that were associated with the new year.  So, from his Filipino side we had rice and leafy greens.  I wanted to make a black-eyed pea dish, so I learned to make Texas Caviar.  In later years I also started making Hoppin' John, a traditional dish that definitely originates in the experienced of enslaved African-Americans, though I didn't know that history.  I had not grown up with that dish, but enjoy making it some years on the holiday.


Since reading Twitty's book, I have tried to explain foodways and cultural connections to Sebastian while we are working in the kitchen.  I have always used this as time to teach him about food and good kitchen skills, but I have now added this element of culture and also a time to tell stories of my life and our family.


Tonight, as we prepared the Texas Caviar together, I talked about the fusion of sources in this recipe: black-eyed peas from African roots, peppers from indigenous American cultures, the garlic which is more European, along with the olive oil.  The rice vinegar might come from many traditions that cooked with rice, but the rice vinegar in our house is because of the Asian influences.  Then the tortilla chip with which to eat it coming from Hispano-Indian culture.  

What I enjoyed about Twitty's book was opening up meal preparation to this sense of rich story and history and cultural mixing.  This dip I had first experienced from middle class white people is a rich blend of global cultures.