In the blue-and-white checkered kitchen of my grandmothers’ house in South Florida, a smorgasbord is being concocted. “Tennessee meets Cuba,” Aunt M will say, “No other way ’bout it.” My grandmother rests the heel of her hand on the smooth marble counter, methodically stirring a pot of green beans on the propane stovetop. She reaches into a cabinet above her and pulls down a bag of brown sugar, undoing the twist closure and heavily bounces a “dash or two” into to the pot. A cauldron of slightly undercooked fat-back, brown sugar, molasses, and freshly pinched green beans. My Aunt M tries to sneak in sideways to throw in a diced yellow onion into the vat of simmering vegetables but is blocked by my grandfather’s thick forearm, a product from years of working in a butcher’s shop. “Just ‘cause you can open a can, don’t mean you can cook.” Aunt M is three times as large as grandfather, a product from years of fast food gorging and lack of exercise. She pouts a familiar frown at him and huffs to her convenience store cup of Jack and coke, nursing it, glaring at her father.
Grandmother calls to me without turning from the pot on the stove, trilling that I am to come and fix the biscuits. Biscuits actually mean cornbread, and cornbread actually means a box of Jiffy meal and three tablespoons of butter. I run the sink tap and fill the mixing bowl with powder, water, butter and a dainty slosh of limejuice, a secret ingredient. I mix, pour and set a damp dishcloth over the loaf pan, leaving it out on the back patio, on a chipping royal blue coffee table so that the limejuice can “eat” away the bad kitchen spirits. Did I mention the spirits?
My grandmother had adopted a handful of superstitions from the Creole woman who raised my father and Aunt M. Attached to the vent hood in the kitchen, there is a tiny “witch” doll that is lovingly named “Lenore, the Kitchen Witch”. She keeps the bad cooking spirits away from ruining your meals. It is a staple in cooking that I have never abandoned. The limejuice, the damp dishcloth, the sticky Miami air, all essential in perfecting the biscuits. After five minutes, the loaf pan is allowed into the oven, a scorching 400 degrees Fahrenheit. Making the biscuits is my favorite task. Another portion of the myth of the cornbread pan is that whoever mixes it may be the only one to serve them at the table. I feel that I am a New Orleans voodoo woman, my fingertips transformed into electrically charged minions, single-handedly casting out demons so that I may serve the biscuits myself.
The antique, claw-footed table in the sunroom is covered in a thick starchy linen my mother lays out. The spread is assembled across its girth. Black eyed peas, peppered tomatoes arranged like slices of bread, pulled pork shoulder doused in cold-press espresso, brown sugar green beans and my biscuits, nestled in their loaf pan near the fluted crystal pitcher of sweetened iced tea. We grab plates and help ourselves while standing; it takes too long to pass dishes around to one another. “It’s not ’bout politeness, naw, it’s ’bout eatin’ whal’ it’s hot.” Grandmother has a way for explaining things.
Finally, everyone takes a seat on the hodge-podge dining room ensemble, mismatching chairs and color-coordinated glasses. Grandfather says a word or two with his eyes open, some sort of sped up version of a bounty prayer. As he nods to me, I reach for the loaf pan and finger out a glob of biscuit cornbread mash, standing to walk around and dish out a portion to everyone at the table. Everyone is busily eating; there is no patience in this family. Aunt M, with her big flabby arms, knocks over the salt. I look to my grandmother and she appears as if she’s about to cry. “Oh, Lenore,” she coos, “oh, Lenore.”