My grandmother was raised in Louisiana in the late 1920s. She and my grandfather migrated to Texas in the early 60s chasing economic opportunity. Their transition went well and they successfully acclimated to life in Texas. Despite the move, her beliefs and food customs showed that she was a Louisianan at heart and would always carry that with her. When my grandmother passed away in 2015, a piece of us died with her. The loss of my grandmother shook the core structure of my family.
During our first holiday without her, my aunt made the decision to preserve her legacy by making her famous sweet potato pie. Since then, we have honored several relatives, including another late aunt with food preparation. Southern Black culture is filled with unique food customs and Black matriarchs often start the traditions. These beliefs are not limited to Black Southern culture but they are staples within our community. In honor of the many who have passed on, here is a list of six common food customs and phrases from Southern Black matriarchs.
There are certain things that a Black matriarch ain’t gonna go for, and cooking in a dirty kitchen is one of them. When I asked my mother “why” cooking in a dirty kitchen is so bad, she wasn’t quite sure. But she told me it was a matter of upbringing and something you just didn’t do.
Is one side of the sink glistening but there are dishes on the counter? Clean ‘em up! Are there streaks or marks in the sink? Rinse it! Scrub it! And Rinse it again! You do not cook in a dirty kitchen. It is important to note that one pot on the sink or a single cluster of crumbs on the floor also count as “dry.” And don’t you dare try to clean just the “dirty” area. Be prepared to do the whole kitchen over!
For Black matriarchs, “pre-washed” means nothing. They assume, like all other workers in the world, that the person hired to do that job half-assed it. And they’re probably right. In the case of collard greens and pinto beans you might be expected to wash them two or three more times before cooking.
My grandmother bought some “pre-washed” greens that had a big caterpillar on them when I was a child. And of course she never let that memory rest. I don’t know if that was the “beginning” of that custom or not but it sure was the “end” of having an excuse not to.
As a Black parent, you have a responsibility to speak in as many metaphors as possible. But when you are a Black grandparent, you’re expected to be on a completely different level of language mastery. That being said, it would be too easy to say, “Hey, you’re eating too much!” This phrase goes hand-in-hand with the infamous, “eat everything on your plate.”
I heard this one a lot growing up. After asking around, many of my friends got the same lecture. Truthfully, if I ever saw someone with eyes bigger than their stomach I would be pretty freaked out. No one’s eyes are that big. Well, maybe in anime.
The expectation to wash your hands is present in most food culture, but in Black Southern culture it is heavily enforced. For other groups, you may see someone serving your food without washing their hands and choose not to eat their food. In Black culture you will be called out. “I didn’t see you wash your hands,” “Child, if you don’t get outta this kitchen without having washed your hands,” and “I know you ain’t in this kitchen without washing your hands” are all possible responses.
Don’t have a sink? You better find a bottle of water. If you don’t have water get wet wipes, sanitizer or something! But don’t dare get caught without washing your hand around a Southern Black matriarch. You will lose her respect and your serving privileges.
Above all else, you must thank the Lord above for any and all food you eat. Lift that fork to your mouth without say grace and watch what happens. At best, you’ll get a stank eye. At worst, you might lose a tooth.
By now you can probably tell Southern Black Matriarchs have many food rules. We don’t always know the source of our customs but we know they are a key part of our culture. Within the Black community many of our traditions are passed down with food. But out of all our customs, the most important is love. Through my family and history itself, this has been proven time and time again. Black Matriarchs cook despite stress and tired feet. Cooking is a labor of love that is used for everything from a tasty snack to healing illness. The world just wouldn’t be the same without Southern Black matriarchs.
Photo by Photo by Amy C. Evans via Southern Foodways Alliance, CC BY 2.0
Ambreia is a science, health, and sociology writer. She is passionate about breastfeeding, social justice, and her family. To read more from Ambreia, see her writer’s page on Facebook, and check out her website.