(by Starla Heinz)
My mother was born and raised in Mississippi in the 1930s. Not a good place for a Black woman who didn’t pass the paper bag test: Someone held a brown paper bag to your face. If your skin was lighter than the bag, you passed, and society was kinder to you. If your skin was darker than the bag, you were considered less desirable, even within your own family, and given scraps on the farm. My mother was high yellow with freckles, but she still failed the test.
Her father was a deacon in the church. She says he had a reputation for a smile. He had 13 kids in total, three out of wedlock. My mother was one of those children. When she was 13, her mother died, and that's how she met her siblings. Her mother's sister did not keep her promise to take my mother in because she did not pass the paper bag test, and her father had no choice but to bring her to his 100-acre farm—land that my mom believes was allotted by the government based on the number of children (and possibly cows) he had, but no one knows for sure.
My mom learned to cook her tail off to feed her 12 sisters and brothers. She could take any part of a pig and make a gourmet meal out of it. When she was 18, she married my dad, who was in the Air Force, and she seemed to stay pregnant. Each of us kids were born on a different base; I was the last, born at Beale Air Force Base in Marysville, California. With every move, my mother would make the chitlins and hog head cheese that were favorites on the farm and let the neighbors know: The country folks are here. Chitlins are the lining of a pig’s intestines, cleaned extremely well, then boiled, seasoned, and served in a bowl with hot sauce. Hog head cheese is made of scraps of meat from the head and the feet, molded and served cold. These things were considered trash and given to slaves before the Civil War; that's how Black families learned to cook what is now considered "soul food." My mom loved to eat her hog head cheese on crackers or in a sandwich. When either of these dishes was being prepared, you could smell it ten miles away. It stank to high heaven and back.
When I was six weeks old, my dad left military service and moved us to San Francisco where he became a bus driver on the “Muni” that took you all over the city. But I was four years old when he left my mother with six kids to raise by herself. The only way I could see my father was to catch his bus route and stay on his line from start to finish. I would do that from time to time, until I lost track of him.
(Sister, daughter, Mom, and me)
Two summers of my childhood, we visited the farm in Mississippi. I would get in the mud and chase down the pig. My mom knew I was the quickest. “In the mud you go,” she’d say with a smile. I would crawl to the top post of the fence around the pig pen, stand tall and proud, then jump with all my might and the loudest roar. I usually let the pig get away on the first try, just to put on a show, but then I would close in on the rascal and wrestle it in all its glory in the mud, holding him down for my mom.
For 15 years, we lived at 1466 Waller, one block north of the infamous intersection of Haight and Ashbury, which was the center of the hippie movement. In this unique neighborhood, my identity was shaped through food. My mother worked two jobs to support us, so my older sister and I cooked for the family, just as my mom had done for her siblings. The hippies loved our food, or maybe they were just too high to notice they were eating pig guts and brains.
My mom called me “flower child” as she danced around the stove and whipped up some cornbread while the Black Panthers were having a meeting on the corner. The hippies would walk by the house and say, “Peace, child. You and Mamma making chitlins again? I can smell ‘em a mile away.” I’d nod and wave back. The smell I used to hide from was now welcome because it brought strangers together in laughter and conversation. Food does that to people.
San Francisco in the ‘60s was powerful. There was a house near us where many cool cats hung out, and great music would caress its way up through the balcony from the neighbors. At any time of the day or night, you might run into a member of the Grateful Dead or Jefferson Airplane. Janis Joplin and her hair could be sitting on the stoop singing on one side of the street, and someone else could be playing jazz on the opposite corner. The city was a kaleidoscope of different music genres, and everyone got along. The guys were just as pretty as the girls. Everyone passed out flowers and danced. Parents would tell the kids, “Don’t take no Mickey Mouse or Donald Duck shapes from anybody, you hear?” We all knew what that meant: People were passing out tabs of acid.
On Saturdays, Black parents would make their children go to school to learn Swahili because the Black Panthers were always preparing for a revolution. We eventually moved to the Fillmore district, and in 1978 I lost classmates in the Jonestown massacre; they had joined the cult of Jim Jones who orchestrated a mass murder-suicide at his remote jungle commune in Guyana. And the scourge of AIDS shook everyone.
But to have been raised in San Francisco at that time was an honor because the city taught you tolerance. And although there are not many occasions for hog head cheese these days, I still think that food unites people. Like my mother always knew, when you break bread together, you feel you are among friends.
Starla Heinz is an actress and comedian whose stage name is "Auntie." She recently started her own clothing line called Yum Yum Collection. She can be found at www.auntieofficial.com, on Instagram, TikTok, and Backstage. She lives in Southern California.
1 c. yellow cornmeal 2/3 c. granulated sugar 1 t. salt 3 1/2 t. baking powder 1/3 c. neutral oil or melted butter, plus additional for greasing pan 1 large egg, beaten 1 c. milk Preheat oven to 400 F. In a medium mixing bowl, combine cornmeal, flour, sugar, salt, and baking powder.
Whisk to mix well. Add oil or butter, egg, and milk. Stir just until mixture comes together and there are only a few lumps remaining. (Note: I like to mix until batter is smooth, but it’s your choice.) Pour into a well-greased 9-in. round cake pan or cast-iron skillet.
Bake for 20 - 25 minutes or until the top is a deep golden brown and a toothpick can be poked in the center comes out clean.