How I’ve Expanded and Redefined My Grandmother’s Soul Food Cooking for the Health of My Family

Photos: Priscilla Ward, W+G Creative
My earliest cooking memories begin by watching my grandma work wonders over the kitchen stove while singing “Amazing Grace.” Her musical notes seasoned her candy yams, collard greens, and every soulful dish that landed on the table during holidays or any given day of the week.

Originally from Alabama, she moved to Washington, D.C. with my grandpa, dad, and two aunts in the ‘60s and her cooking was a direct manifestation of her soulful Southern roots. Everything she made was peppered with love and grace. I remember the smell of her fried chicken from outside while helping my aunt or grandpa wash the car in the summer, powerful enough to arouse the neighbors.

I slowly got to graduate from observing to assisting my grandma in the kitchen, helping her snap string beans for Sunday dinners, mix up a pan of cornbread, or layer the cheese on a pan of baked mac 'n' cheese. She gave me an Easy-Bake Oven for Christmas when I was 7 or 8 to mimic her magic. It was a test kitchen of sorts; my family served as charitable taste testers of mini cakes. I savored the sweet satisfaction of baking things for my family to enjoy, a sentiment I inherited from my grandma along with her affinity for cooking. There was always something warm and delicious prepared at her house, and it lifted her spirits to see us enjoy her cooking.

But one day came when my grandma couldn’t stand over the stove cooking anymore. Her breast cancer went into recurrence in 2013 and gradually took over, weakening every bone in her body and causing bouts of pain. My grandma instead sat on the couch, attempting to direct as my aunts took the reigns of cooking Sunday dinners and holiday feasts. But soon her sweet voice was no longer there to provide guidance. She passed away days before Christmas—her favorite holiday—in 2017.

Even if I don’t have all of her recipes archived, [my grandma] taught me that love and grace should be the main ingredient in any dish.

Food, especially my grandma’s food, was always a means of communicating love and comfort in my family. But in the months and years after my grandmother passed, eating seemed to be my family’s only coping mechanism for the grief we felt. I watched family members experience unhealthy weight gain and numerous diet-related health issues as they attempted to weather her loss by recreating her recipes.

Upset about the overall health conditions of my family, I soon started to reconsider the food choices that seemed to take control and fill up space where our emotional language was void. I had to believe it was still possible to hold onto the traditions my grandma passed down while also helping to procure the health of our family. I wondered what it would look like to express the same love and grace my grandmother did through her cooking without relying so much on deep-frying or animal-based ingredients.

To start, I began to pay closer attention to my body and redefine my health in a more holistic way. I take vitamins, go for runs when I can, and have worked to identify language to express how I'm feeling on a physical as well emotional level. My own healthy eating choices are still a work in progress—right now I'm finding the balance of prioritizing fruits and vegetables while also saying yes to a chocolate chip cookie craving when it strikes—but I’m enjoying the process of expanding on my grandma’s Southern cooking style and sharing my creations with my family.

So far I’ve perfected my vegan collard greens. Like grandma, nothing is measured out, and it's seasoned with all of my love and grace. I start with a bushel of collard greens and cook it in vegetable broth, and add red wine vinegar, onion, garlic, smoked salt, cayenne pepper, rosemary, thyme, sage, and paprika for lots of flavor. Although meat—a big part of my grandma's recipe—is absent in my version, my immediate family enjoyed it when I prepared it for our Thanksgiving meal this year.

While I’m still experimenting with more health-conscious versions of soul food dishes for my family, I think my grandma would be proud of the cooking skills she passed down to me. Even if I don’t have all of her recipes archived, she taught me that love and grace should be the main ingredient in any dish. Regardless of how the methods of cooking have changed, I aim to create dishes with this in mind. I hope that I can continue to honor the legacy of her cooking while evolving her dishes—just as the Easy-Bake Oven has with time.

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