Lessons from the Kitchen
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
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.