Diner: Black Like Her

How I managed the unbearable whiteness of being

May 4, 2005 at 2:06 pm

"Sugar, some peoples may see those blue eyes, blonde curls and lily-white skin of yours and think you is white through and through, But I see the appetite and sufferin' of a Negro."

She said this as she watched me eagerly inhale a plate of fried chicken, greens and mashed parsnips that she had set before me only minutes earlier. I was 8, and she was ageless. I was white and privileged, and she was "colored help," a confusing description I had heard only from inquiring neighbors. Confusing because she was no more or less help than most of the women in my family; confusing because the tone in which this phrase was whispered suggested inferiority, and confusing because I considered her anything but.

She was fascinated by me, and I revered her. That she considered me "a Negro" was a source of pride. To prove my devotion and live up to the standard she had decreed, I spent hours in the sun trying to darken my skin, but repeatedly failed to achieve the milk chocolate color I coveted. Instead, it was closer to café au lait and generally in some state of peeling with patches of bright pink showing through the molting skin — resulting in a sort of burned-in paisley design all over my body. The sun bleached my already white-blonde hair even whiter, and with my little round bottom rarely seeing the light, I looked more like the girl in the well-known Coppertone ad of the 1960s than the Negro girl of my dreams.

After a desperate attempt to tone down my bright curls involving black shoe polish and a spanking, I decided to direct all efforts to my more obvious attributes.

I wasn't exactly sure what "sufferin' " entailed, although dismembering my Barbie and Ken dolls and planting their various limbs in my father's garden might have raised some questions about the subject. (It seemed obvious to me that they would grow new ones.) But "appetite" I completely understood.

As the oldest of a large brood, food — and great quantities of it — was a central focus of our household. Trips to the market could only be done in our mammoth red Plymouth station wagon that sat nine passengers and held the 10-bag minimum of marbled steaks wrapped like presents, rashers of bacon, three or four whole chickens; several pounds of sliced meats and cold cuts, Swiss, American and cheddar cheeses; quarts of salad dressing, a half-dozen boxes of cereal, 20 pounds of potatoes, three gallons of juice, a garden of vegetables and fruits and dozens of eggs.

These were the basics. When you opened our refrigerator, food fell on your feet. In our family, you were starving instead of hungry, stuffed instead of full.

My mother's legs had been weakened by polio, producing a slow gait with a pronounced limp that restricted her movement in keeping up with the constant antics of curious children. Because of this, she wore only canvas loafers so she could easily slip one off and throw it to land squarely between the shoulder blades with a stunning blow that momentarily halted our shenanigans — a method she perfected with the precision and speed of a major league pitcher. To Mother, hiring out for help wasn't a luxury associated with the upper-middle class community we lived in, but a necessity so that she didn't accidentally kill one of us.

The Civil Rights Movement was just getting under way and hadn't reached our trimmed lawns and Zenith console televisions, so the only thing that differentiated Essie from us — in our minds — was the white uniform she wore. With a continuous stream of extended family in and out of our house, as kids we were unaware that Essie was any different from any of the many women that hovered around us — just a warmer, plumper, more exotic version. Except for her appreciative analogies of and references to my perceived Negro spirit, we never mentioned race in our household. Words such as "servant," "maid," "black" and "colored" were never uttered. Reflecting back, I suppose it was a distorted sensibility that we could somehow protect her from the surrounding prejudice by never acknowledging that there was any. But from my 8-year-old perspective, "Negro" meant you could cook meals better than anyone on our street, knew people with names like "Fat Mouth Dumplin' " and give answers that made perfect sense to my incessant line of questions.

"Essie, why are people on TV always smiling?"

"It's 'cause there's no rain, sugar. You cannot get the blues in any place that don't get rain." And after overhearing my mother proclaim, "Do not give me any argument!" to one of my crazy uncles who had been holding afternoon poker games in our family room, I asked Essie, "What is argument?"

"Well sugar, it's when you are right and nobody else has realized it yet."

Even though my paternal grandmother held the unofficial title of culinary queen in our family, I was quick to recognize the distinct smells and flavors of Essie's kitchen — sweet and tangy barbecue, buttery fried catfish, carmel-icious pralines and a mysterious concoction of whiskey, fresh mint, sugar and lemons called "Knock You Naked" reserved strictly for "grownup" parties. Our house was the only house in the neighborhood where you could find a sweet potato pie waiting for you after school, a pit in the back yard for smoking pork shoulder and bottles of vinegar and hot sauce routinely set on the dinner table alongside the ketchup, salt and pepper. For a skinny little white girl, my appetite for it all was bottomless.

While flawless manners, speaking the Queen's English and learning a daily word from the dictionary were the territorial lessons of my mother, Essie taught me how to shop for fruit with my nose, make a perfect pie crust and real butterscotch pudding, caramelize onions, brown a roux, deglaze a pan, wilt greens, roast root vegetables, sing Negro spirituals, remove a splinter, thread a needle, dance with swaying hips, blind a potential mugger with a swift jab to the eyes and intimidate playground bullies by making "crazy eyes" and growling like a "junkyard dog" — all by the time I was 10 years old and all from the precinct of our kitchen.

She left us after her oldest son died of leukemia; her heartache was so great she could no longer care for anyone else's children. Years later, after I became a chef, I found Essie's address and wrote to her to let her know that everyone loved the butterscotch pudding I regularly made. I still have the letter she wrote in a shaky cursive.

"Thank you for the lovely note. I am doing fine. My children is all grown so I don't cook like I used to. I lost my teeth too and I'm missin a good pork barbecue. You always was a girl with a big appetite and a lot of questions, so I supposed you would eat up the world. I'm glad you remember what I taught you, just don't forget the most important rule in the kitchen is patience. Please write again. Love, Essie."

Tucked in the note was a dog-eared, black-and-white photo. She never liked to have her picture taken, so I was surprised she had it in her possession and didn't remember its existence until I saw it. She's wearing the white uniform, I'm wearing the white curls and we're swaying our hips in the kitchen. ©