(by Dana M. Lewis)
In 2000, during a visit with my maternal grandmother, Sadie, I told her I wanted to leave politics and go to culinary school to become a chef.
Sadie’s laugh was as guttural as it was derisive.
“You don’t need to go to school, baby. You already come from good stock.”
And she was right.
(Sadie Stone Jackson)
Sadie was born in 1920 and raised in a three-room shanty on the outskirts of Lake Charles, Louisiana, in a conservative parish populated by freed slaves and sharecroppers. My great-grandmother, Matilda, was considered promiscuous because she was unmarried with multiple children fathered by different men. She was disheveled, did not “keep house,” and her midnight black skin excluded her from engaging in color-conscious black society.
Ironically, when Sadie and her younger sister Mary were born and it was obvious that their father was white, the sisters were mocked so mercilessly by other black children that Sadie and Mary left school altogether in 1932. With nowhere to go and no access to education, they were forced to stay at home, only twelve and ten years old.
Matilda transferred what little domestic chores she conducted to Sadie, including doing the wash for white families and assuming Matilda’s most detested maternal duty: cooking. Matilda’s absences from home went from days to weeks at a time and, although Sadie had three older siblings, she effectively became head of the household. Impoverished and with their family credit rescinded from the grocer, there was very little for Sadie to use for meals.
Most concerning was that Sadie did not know how to cook. While making Mary continue to learn how to read, write, and do math, Sadie set about learning how to handle the new responsibility foisted upon her because of her mother’s willful dereliction of duty. In short order, she instinctively understood the science behind combining various ingredients, how to improve the taste of otherwise bland foods, and the careful rationing of things like sugar, flour, and yeast..
Sadie needed more resources and economical access to food. Using money saved from laundry earnings and kept in a jar under a floorboard, she bought seeds and planted a garden in a small patch behind the family’s shack. She tended to it obsessively, protected it with wiring, and delighted as it flourished. Eventually, she built a chicken coop, secured two chickens and a pig.
Nosy neighbors delayed gossiping about the steady transformation of Matilda’s plot because they were focused on a more pressing matter: the arrival of the traveling preacher.
In those days, preachers traveled from town to town every six to twelve weeks to deliver The Word to rural congregants unable to erect a church and support its pastor. There was an established tradition that all parishioners knew: At the end of service, the preacher exercised his prerogative of selecting the home that would host him for his supper, setting the stage for the unspoken culinary Olympics between women vying for the ultimate recognition of their cooking and domestic dominance. The knives were, literally, out for weeks before his arrival. Whether he was aware of it or not, the preacher wielded more power over upending the pecking order among dueling domestic doyennes than he did bringing lost souls to Christ.
On the eve of Sunday service, Great Grandma Matilda reappeared and uncharacteristically involved herself in her children’s welfare, including fiddling around Sadie’s carefully organized kitchen, knocking over cultivated yeast, and insisting on making dinner. Sadie took umbrage. As a result of their kerfuffle, Matilda handed down the ultimate, most soul-crushing punishment possible: Sadie could not go to church.
As she watched her family disappear down the dirt path, Sadie dried her bitter tears and decided to exact revenge upon her mother the only way she knew how: She cooked. In her young mind, Matilda’s interloping actions in the kitchen were a declaration of war.
On a tear-fueled rage, she uprooted collards, tomatoes, yams, and peas from her precious garden, throttled and plucked both chickens, collected the eggs, and raided the makeshift ice house used to store milk, freshly caught trout or flounder, lard, and pork fat. Her nerves calmed as she executed her plan.
At church service, the preacher held his congregants’ rapt attention as his sermon drew to a close. Matilda knew it was “best in show” time, so she readied her clan for their swift departure until she heard her name spoken by the preacher’s sonorous, baritone voice:
“Ms. Matilda, I would be delighted to join you and your family for Sunday dinner.”
Cacophonous mayhem ensued. Incredulous women erupted with protests, tears, and unabashed begging for his reconsideration. Husbands stayed quiet, and children sat stock-still as the melee unfolded among the apoplectic women.
“That woman don’t even have a kettle!”
“But pastor, she doesn’t even cook for her children!”
“Don’t you know she’s a floozy?!”
The preacher, Matilda, and seven of her eight children silently walked away from the cries of spiteful Christians.
(Sadie’s children. My mother, Birt, is the girl holding the doll, 1954.)
Panic-stricken, Matilda grabbed Mary by the arm and whispered urgently, “Run ahead and tell Sadie to do something!” Mary did as she was told, but when she reached the clearing of the shanty, she stopped dead in her tracks: What was that smell?
She regarded the white puffs escaping the chimney in consistent bursts. With each emission, Mary advanced closer to the shanty and hungrily inhaled the mouth-watering scents of food permeating the air. There were so many distinct and flavorful elements that she was undecided about which aroma was her favorite.
Reminded of her mission, she burst through the rickety door and saw a smorgasbord of plated dishes placed about the modest front room. She momentarily wondered if white people were coming over.
Steam was still rising from the bowl of deep green collards and the platter of caramelized yams. Another bowl was filled to the brim with black-eyed peas, a large ham hock, and fresh tomatoes. Next was cornbread baked in a cast-iron skillet and glazed with butter. Prominently placed in the middle of the lopsided kitchen table were the golden-fried remains of the two missing chickens, several pieces of flounder, and all of the plates, utensils, and four cloth napkins the family owned. Finally, a modest, golden pound cake was partially covered by a scrap of rag.
Mary’s trance was only broken when she heard Sadie’s sobs from another part of the room. She was crouched in a corner and hugged her knees as she rocked back and forth. Mary’s wide eyes met with Sadie’s doleful ones.
“Sadie, what did you do?!”
“I did a bad thing, Mary. She gone put me out. Mama’s gone put me out,” she cried.
“No, sister. Not today she ain’t,” said Mary.
When the party finally arrived, everyone but the preacher was stunned into silence, stealing glances of curiosity towards each other. Matilda tried, and failed, to act as though it was a normal Sunday meal. After the preacher’s departure, Matilda embraced Sadie for the first time in her life.
Many years later, when recalling this memorable snapshot in his personal history, the preacher revealed that he was aware of Matilda’s challenges, which was why he upbraided the arrogant congregants by selecting her home. He further admitted that his palate was prepared for a bowl of meal and a piece of bread.
“It was the best meal I’ve ever had in my life,” he said.
In under a month, the parish experienced an uptick in traveling preachers and in status, all due to the fast-spreading reputation of Matilda’s phenomenal daughter, Sadie, now considered the best cook in Lake Charles. Shortly thereafter, mother and daughter became close, a bond born from a meal only interrupted by Matilda’s unexpected passing after suffering an aneurysm. I researched and eventually discovered that Matilda was a paranoid-schizophrenic, a diagnosis that would never have been identified or treated in 1920s Louisiana, but may have silenced the garden fence gossips.
My mother, Birteal, is as gifted a cook as Sadie, who instilled the importance of cooking well as the key to keeping a happy husband and home. I am the one to whom the torch was passed from my mother, sans husband. My grandmother’s story lives within me. She shared her recipes with me through dictation, which I recorded by hand in a red spiral notebook. I am the keeper of the heart of our family, charged with passing it along to the next generation of cooks.
“Food is what brings people together,” she said at the end of our visit. “You’ll see.”
P.S.: The entire neighborhood knew when Sadie was cooking (after she moved to the Bay Area). One time, when she was barbecuing ribs, two young men snuck into her backyard. They each took a handle and ran down the street with the grill and the ribs. Due to severe burns suffered after their ill-conceived plan, the thieves were quickly identified. Sadie knew that the family was experiencing hard times, so she went ahead and brought them potato salad, greens and—yes—hot water cornbread. She would eventually make them meals whenever they were struggling and hungry.
Dana M. Lewis is a former political advisor and classically trained chef, now operating her boutique writing firm, In Other Words, LLC, in Dennis, Massachusetts.
Sadie’s Hot Water Cornbread
1 c. yellow cornmeal
1 t. salt
1 t. sugar
1 1/2 c. boiling water
1/2 c. flour
1 c. vegetable oil
In a bowl, mix cornmeal, salt, and sugar.
Add boiling water in measured doses until you achieve a paste consistency (it may not be necessary to use the whole amount).
Sprinkle flour over the pasty mixture, then pour the remaining boiling water into the bowl, and stir until all ingredients are blended.
Bring vegetable oil to modest heat in a skillet (preferably cast iron).
Form palm-sized patties out of the mixture and spoon them separately into the skillet.
Turn heat to low, cover, and cook 2 – 3 minutes.
Flip patties and cook until both sides are golden brown.
Place on a plate lined with paper towel, and cover until serving.