By L. Kasimu Harris / New Orleans
I had the fried green tomatoes — even though I’ve been a lifelong tomato hater. It was April 1, 2017, my father’s 74th birthday, and almost the whole family was at Upperline Restaurant in New Orleans. Everyone was there — save for my mother, Eartha. She transitioned about two years ago; she was 75. I ordered the dish, with its shrimp remoulade slathered atop the fried delight, on a bed of lettuce, because it was among my mother’s favorite treats. Folk passed their turtle soups with sherry and the Spicy Shrimp with Jalapeño Cornbread & Aïoli.
However, I shared the fried green tomatoes with no one. That day, the dish meant something different to me.
Like most people, my food preferences derive from my parents. I vote along their party lines for almost all of the traditional New Orleans fare and beyond that I grew up eating — save for their indulgences in hog’s head cheese, sardines, chitterlings, and liver. I will not have relationships with those foods.
I don’t recall the taste of my mother’s foods, and I know none of her recipes — just how great they were. She had a stroke in 1998, while I was away in college, and my father has been the primary cook since. He said her deteriorated vision and her penchant for high flames made for a bad combination. But she still made fried green tomatoes. My father, LeRoy Harris, was about 7 when he started learning how to cook, by observing his mother — his father didn’t cook. She instilled in their 11 children that they never knew the kind of situations they might find themselves in, and thus had to learn as much as they could, about everything they could.
“She used to say that there is no such thing as a female job around the house,” my father recalled about my grandmother.
I didn’t grow up in the kitchen, but right next to it at the table talking or in front of the television playing college football on Playstation or watching movies. I tried to get out of peeling shrimp for the gumbo and stuffed bell peppers. I didn’t help light the fire on the grill or chop seasoning for the roux — I feel like I always had to get out of preparation duties. Then, after Hurricane Katrina, it became a time issue. I became dedicated to preserving and documenting the culture of this city and its people and folk from around the world. And I started spending Sundays at second-lines and not enough time in the kitchen.
My dad reminisced on my mother’s “excellent cooking.”
“She had a twist, where she learned creole cooking and mixed it with different cultures,” he said. I do have my own food memories of my mother. My parents owned a flower shop, Le Earth Florist, since before I was born in 1978 until it was flooded in 2005. “The Shop” was in a shotgun double, and for a time, before repurposing it, she maintained a full kitchen. She cooked dishes that were low and slow, so she could continue working: pot roast with mustard greens and red beans and rice were always in the rotation.
“She also used to cook spaghetti and meatballs,” my dad quipped.
My sister had to be about 14, so my nephew and I were about 7 or 8. We were all highly competitive. One day in the 1990s, my mother took the gray pot off the stove, shut down the shop and ferried us home. My mother, with the still steaming pot, was first up the stairs, onto the porch and stood in the threshold as the door was opened. Then, it was a race through the doorway. “I’m first.” “No, “I’m first,” we yelled as we sprinted past my mom to an undetermined finish line. Then, we heard a louder voice.
“Oh lawd, oh lawd,” my mother yelled as she jumped and spun.
We looked back toward the doorway and stood still.
“Oh lawd.” She jumped and spun again. On the third revolution, she collapsed to the floor. It was dusk in summertime, and we resided across the street from Stalling Park, in Gentilly, with its basketball courts, Olympic-sized pool, fields, and playground. But it was silent. Eartha laid there. We remained still.
In a prone position, she seemed at peace. Then, she jumped up and shouted. “Pick that shit up, pick that shit up.” We dove to our knees and scooped up the spaghetti sauce and picked up the meatballs. We ate pizza for dinner.
I wish I could pick up other things I’ve lost so easily. I’ve failed my parents, my son, and family for generations to come. I didn’t learn my mother’s spaghetti and meatballs, stuffed crabs, crawfish bisque, my father’s favorite dish, gumbo, or her mirliton casserole. I allowed a history, an institution and some damn good foods to die with her.
I met Lolis Eric Elie in 1994. I was 16, and it was after a Wynton Marsalis concert at Christian Unity Baptist Church, my church. To me, he has always looked important. I called Elie, a former newspaper columnist, author of several books on food, and a television writer, for sage advice. Recently, his father, Lolis Edward Elie, a civil rights attorney, and judge, passed. I wonder if the son had missed out on any recipes from his father. But Lolis Eric Elie attributes his culinary skills to his mother and grandmother.
“If you think about the occasion in which we gather as families, they all involve food,” Elie said. “So, food is essential to our memory. We know that food is essential for physical sustenance, but of course it’s important for a spiritual sustenance as well. Like any other marker of nationality, ethnicity, or class, food helps tell you who you are. And it helps tell you who you have commonality with and who you have difference with.”
Elie added that piece of the same lesson our parents had taught from the beginning. He explained he didn’t mean in a negative way, but said that if the tenets are “we’re Baptist or Methodist and not Catholic; we’re Sunni, not Shia; we’re orthodox and not reformed,” then food helps explain all of those things. He reflected on the first country he visited in Africa, Senegal, where the food culture is rice-based, and those were his people. He also talked about going to Vietnam, another rice-based food culture that has a variety of connections with New Orleans.
“While I’ll say that it can be a point of separation, it can be an interesting commonality,” Elie said about food.
Ariel Wilson, my partner, cooks often and spent plenty of time cooking with her mother. Sometimes, we cook together — although she says I don’t cook enough. She loves to entertain and wants me to learn how to boil seafood. But, she still misses her late father’s oxtails — her mother has made them once or twice since 2007, when he passed, and were good — but not the same.
“They were so tender, where you could suck the meat off the bone, and he had glaze on it,” she said. Ariel reminisced on her father not writing down his recipes. At the time, she was in her early 20s. She was partying and not interested in cooking.
“But now I wish that I would’ve learned how to cook it,” she said.
Nowadays, I am my father’s official taster. Perhaps it’s his way of a quick lesson in how to make the red beans creamy or to get the slime off the okra or how much crab boil to add. He seems to know how to do everything and didn’t grow up with an internet search engine on his phone. As I learn from him, I also teach my son. He is almost 5. His mother is a chef, in Charlotte, and I disagree with her on a plethora of issues from ethnicity to education to the validity of Santa Claus.
But I always tell him, “Son, get in the kitchen with your mom.”