Fri February 25, 2005
Lessons From The Kitchen
This year, the annual observance of "Black History Month" has WFAE commentator Amy Rogers remembering her childhood and one woman who played a very important role in it.
Some people, when they smell biscuits baking, start to reminisce. For others, it's the aroma of a holiday turkey that takes them back. But for me, it's the smell of fried salmon patties that always makes me long for a time and place it took me many years to understand.
That time was the early 1960s and the place was Detroit. I was a young child and Mellie was the most important person in the world. She was an ageless African-American woman of confident bearing and immeasurable wisdom. She looked after my sister, my brother and me, yes; but oh, how she could cook!
At a time when it was popular for canasta-club ladies to eat dainty, bland food, Mellie cooked with a heavy, cast-iron skillet. In would go scraps of fish, or bits of leftovers. They were transformed into savory meals I'd devour from my kitchen-counter perch nearby. It was like watching magic from a front-row seat.
"Honey, when you grow up, you fix your husband some of Mellie's salmon patties," she said while she stood at the stove. "And if he doesn't like them, you hit him in the head with a rolling pin!" She brandished one for emphasis.
And so one "color-blind" child learned to love fish cakes, oxtails, fried chicken feet - and the formidable woman who prepared them. Mellie's room at our house was a secret place I was allowed to visit only on special occasions. I had to be extra-good to earn the privilege, and I learned early on that cleaning my plate was one way to demonstrate my virtue. Mellie sat with us and shared meals at our family's dining room table. I never thought it strange; banishing her to the kitchen to eat alone would have been as preposterous as exiling my grandmother there.
As I got older, I learned about the struggles and hardships black Americans endured during that time - and since. But back then, if Mellie felt any bitterness or oppression, she kept it well hidden from the three of us, who would have been terrified to think of her in distress or in danger. And so Mellie and I braved the world together, as we routinely rode public buses into downtown Detroit to do our shopping.
I don't know if Mellie ever made a documented mark on history. I never heard of her marching or picketing; she rarely even raised her voice in anger. When I tried to find out recently what became of her, I could find no record of her death, or even of her life. But something of her fortitude, her dignity and her ferocious protectiveness lives on.
Her legacy may have been limited, but its impact has lasted for decades. Mellie taught my family lessons that were both elemental and radical in their simplicity: that courage should be practiced every day, and that good food can fill empty hearts - not just empty stomachs.
Amy Rogers is a founding editor of Novello Festival Press, and the author of Hungry for Home: Stories of Food from Across the Carolinas.