When I was a little girl, I hated dinnertime. I was the proverbial finicky eater.
I was the only child in our family in Mount Vernon, New York, just outside of the Bronx. We'd left Harlem when the heroin trade was taking hold. Our building there was part of a cluster that faced a courtyard in back, with apartments that had old-style toilet tanks—my biggest thrill was getting to pull the chain near the ceiling. Drug dealers would throw people off the roofs of the apartments. I started imitating them by throwing my stuffed animals out the window.
In an era of white flight from suburbia, Mount Vernon quickly became a black neighborhood. Denzel Washington’s family lived right around the corner; so did Sidney Poitier’s family, and Ossie Davis and Ruby Dee with their children. There was a little candy store across the street from my school, run by Mannie and his wife, who both had tattooed numbers on their arms. My father, who was born dirt-poor in the Bahamas, had served in the British army during World War II and taught me the meaning of those tattoos. We were the only biracial family of Bahamian descent. The story goes that when my father went to visit his brother in New York City, he saw a photo of my mother on the mantel (she was related by marriage) and fell in love.
My mother worked full time as one of the first black telephone operators at AT&T and went to night school to become a teacher. My father worked nights at the post office, and my grandmother Muriel lived with us, making dinner most of the week; my mother would join us on weekends. Assimilation was key in my family, but the Bahamian culture was present through the cuisine: red rice, pigs’ feet, and chitterlings. I did like the Friday night fish dinners that were dictated by our Anglican culture (one step below Catholicism; church every Sunday). Porgy was my favorite, even though we had to be careful of the bones—flavor with danger. Every Friday after school, my grandmother and I would walk the few blocks to the Third Street Fish Market, where something that passed the Muriel E. Sands freshness test would be bundled into wax paper. Our cat Peanut always made an appearance in the kitchen as we prepared our catch, and the aroma of freshly fried fish still makes me nostalgic for those family Fridays of childhood.
But this was the 1960s, when a lot of food was cooked beyond recognition. I would stare at the grayish meat I was served, long after the others had finished their meal. Exasperated with me, my mother decided that I must remain at the table until I had cleaned my plate.
She did not realize that she had spawned a dramatic and devious child (although she might have had a clue when she heard me pretending to be Diana Ross). I was the proverbial free spirit. If I’d been old enough, I would have run away to be a hippie. I was always getting into trouble, saying the wrong thing at the wrong time. My mother and I had difficulty bonding because she missed a lot of my school events while she was working, and had established a strict path in life that I was expected to follow: piano virtuoso, A-student, high school to college to becoming a teacher, marriage, kids, career, and home ownership with a husband. Much to her disappointment, she got a kid with no musical talent, no straight A’s after elementary school, a “gap” break after high school before it was a popular thing to do, college for only three semesters, trade school, a succession of boyfriends who did not turn into husband material, no kids, but ultimately a lucrative marketing career that took me more than halfway across the country.
When I was confined to the table until I finished my meal, my beagle Emperor Ming kept me company until my mother caught on and he was banished, leaving me to do my penance alone. She thought she had me.
Our dining room resembled that of many working class households in the neighborhood: There was a table that could accommodate ten with the sleeves inserted, like for holiday dinners with the good china (if my mother were alive today, she would have a fit knowing that I use the good stuff every day). There was a mirror on one wall over a hutch and an upright piano on the wall without windows. And it turned out that the wall behind the piano was a great dumping ground for the food I would not eat.
For years, my mother wondered why Emperor Ming was always sniffing behind the piano. Fortunately for me, her curiosity did not extend to furniture rearrangement.
A few years later, when we moved to another house, the movers discovered a huge pile of petrified meat behind the piano. My subterfuge was revealed. By that time, my eating habits had expanded, but my earlier deception became a family joke, with relatives asking: “Why is Emperor Ming sniffing behind the [fill in the blank]? Did you put some of your dinner there?"
Cordelia Sands, originally from New York City, currently resides in Abiquiu, New Mexico, and aspires to be a stage, film, and commercial actor.
Muriel Sands’s Bahamian Red Rice
optional: 1 c. pigeon peas
optional: 1/3 lb. bacon
1 – 2 T. extra virgin olive oil
1 large yellow onion, coarsely chopped
2 1/4 c. water
8 oz. can tomato sauce
salt and pepper to taste
1 1/2 t. dried thyme
1 c. long grain rice
If using the optional pigeon peas, rinse and put in a pot covered with 2 c. water.
Cook over medium heat for 1 1/2 hours or until tender, checking every 15 minutes to add more water as necessary. Set aside.
If using the optional bacon, chop into small pieces and sauté until crisp.
Set bacon aside, reserving bacon fat.
Heat either bacon fat or olive oil over medium-low heat, and sauté onion until golden.
Add water, tomato sauce, salt, pepper, and thyme.
Cover pot and bring to a boil.
Add rice and optional pigeon peas.
Reduce heat to medium-low, cover and cook for 10 - 12 minutes, stirring once, until rice has absorbed the liquid.
Squeeze fresh lemon juice over dish.
Add the crisp bacon to the pot when stirring the rice.
Squeeze fresh lemon juice into the pot.