(by Latonya Black Gilliard)
“A little salt brings out the sugar.” That was one of my mom’s favorite sayings, reflecting her lifelong love of baking sweets, but also perhaps a way of life.
She was one of 14 children, growing up in 1940s North Carolina. Chickens had the run of the yard, and her mother fixed hair in the kitchen, straightening and curling to perfection. I never met my grandmother, but she must have been one heck of a cook because she taught my mother how to make a meal stretch for that huge family. My aunts and uncles created a sense of family closeness and protection that we still honor today.
Growing up, our neighborhood was distinctly "Southern,” in a way that combined urban and rural—lots of kids and energy, with a feeling of safe harbor. (I could leave my bike out all night, and sleep with the front door open.) We didn’t have much, but Mom always made home feel like a sanctuary of love. She was thrifty with everything from food to clothes, but insisted on good quality furniture—big heavy beds, sofas, and dressers. We didn't have a formal dining room, but the eat-in kitchen had a long wooden table that always had place mats on it. Mom had more formal tablecloths but seldom used them. Our guests were always familiar—the pastor, cousins, family friends. No need to impress.
She worked long days as an x-ray technician and came home tired, but dinner was a must—even if she had to call home and ruin my plans to play outside, commanding me to wash some collard greens. Sunday mornings meant a buffet of grits, eggs, bacon, homemade biscuits and fried apples. The kitchen always smelled like well-seasoned, spicy food—she didn't do bland—and she preferred organic produce before it became a big deal to the wider world. We picked fresh strawberries, and she had a favorite farmer who let her pick her own collards. She’d smell the vegetables to see if they had been sprayed with pesticides, and we washed everything profusely. I hated this tedious chore; now I read the ingredients on everything I buy, and I mean everything.
In high school, I had a small circle of friends that formed a singing group, and we were always getting scolded for being too loud. Except at my house. Mom would make me fix food for my friends—guests must never go hungry—and listen to our rehearsals for a while, then disappear into her bedroom and sleep through the singing and laughing. She always claimed that the noise helped her sleep. I believe she had dreams of her own that she never pursued and wanted to support my dreams in every way possible, through countless talent shows and performances.
Mom and I were both kind of unlucky at love, not making the best choices, but she insisted that we embrace life with kindness, even if it hurt like hell. When I want comfort, I cook like her. But it never tastes like hers.
Latonya Black Gilliard is a professional vocalist and motivational speaker in Los Angeles, California. She can be found at www.gilliardmedia.tv.
1 c. self-rising yellow cornmeal
1 c. self-rising flour
1/2 c. sugar
1 c. milk
Preheat oven to 375 F.
Grease a glass or stainless steel pan with virgin, cold-pressed, unrefined coconut oil (or any oil except vegetable or canola).
Place the pan in the oven to heat while you prepare the batter.
Beat all ingredients together. If the batter is slightly loose, that’s good. If it’s a little thick, thin it out with water. It should be loose but not runny.
Pour the oil that has been heating in the pan into the batter and stir it quickly.
Pour the batter into the pan and bake for about 25 minutes or until a toothpick comes out clean.
When done, rub a stick of butter across the top of the cornbread.