My Mother’s Fried Chicken Was a Link to My Past—and My Daughter’s Future

This is Everything on the table, a column with writers we love to share about food, conflict, and community.

The last meal I shared with my mother was in a spacious hospital room in Chesapeake, Virginia. It was breakfast time and the sun was a carefree soul galloping through the window like a wild horse. After not eating much in the 48 hours since she was admitted with sarcoid complications, she was quite hungry. So I fed her. Spooned applesauce. She put a few pieces of ice from the water glass in her mouth, which she couldn’t finish (she was always satisfied with crunching ice). That was 2017. The year my heart broke into a million jagged puzzle pieces.

None of us are ever prepared for death. When a large tree falls, the birds, on which no branch can perch, disperse. Looking for a new home. In the four years since my graceful mother’s death, I have searched. She leafed through old scrapbooks and scattered her ashes in places we lived and traveled – Brooklyn and St. Croix and Fayetteville, North Carolina – for solace. Find a new home.

When the American School in London invited me in 2018 to become their first innovator-in-residence, I welcomed the opportunity for that consolation along with a professional fresh start. I had gotten into a writing rhythm that, although successful, felt almost too comfortable. The process of finding a beginning, a middle, and an end was like riding a bicycle to me, and I could ride through a story with my arms on my sides and my head in the wind. I had to challenge my normal storytelling, find inspiration in new and exciting ways, and learn to pop a wheelie.

Part of the life-giving movement is to use the things of the past that you have shaped and shaped as an anchor for the future. My own vision of what lay ahead came during two farewell dinners hosted by friends in the summer of 2019. First, award-winning children’s book illustrator Melissa Sweet made homemade lobster rolls the size of my arms in her home in Maine. Then I went south for al fresco dining – grilled snapper, cheddar, summer in a bottle of rosé – to celebrate Jacqueline Woodson’s latest novel at her family’s estate. As well as being on fire in the kitchen, these two women laughed and told stories and answered calls and helped with homework and listened. Simultaneously. With the coolness and calm of a river flowing in a forest. Just like my mother used to do. Determined to do the same, the new kwame would find his way home by not only moving to London but also cooking.

In my first few weeks there, I figured out how to take a bus to Maida Vale, write in a sidewalk cafe, sip English breakfast tea, and take refuge at the foot of the London library when it rained. I also learned how to make some pretty tasty noodles – fettuccine alfredo, spinach lasagna – that my picky 11 year old daughter Samayah really enjoyed.

As the weeks turned into months, I discovered the best trail to Samayah’s new school. I learned to listen and recognize her cries for independence and smiles as she grabbed my hand and held it. Our fingers were braided like the cornrows her mother had designed. I learned how to answer their not-so-random questions about why we can’t get a car, or if you have to come with me all the way, or if we can take a break from pasta … and make grandma’s fried chicken for dinner?

“If you read good books, if you write, good books will come out of you,” wrote Natalie Goldberg in Write down the bones. This is how I imagined if you read good cookbooks, good food would come out of your kitchen. So I got into a variety of cooking primers, instructional videos, and blogs. I cooked daily while listening to music, helping samayah with homework and just being in the moment. My recipe file has been fattened. Some meals were delicious the first time: fish soup. Ghanaian red red. Lobster mac and cheese (which almost didn’t happen because lobster meat is more expensive than beluga caviar in London). Others had to be experimented with: Tuscan bread salad. Blueberry scones. Fish whipped with beer. Unfortunately, my buttermilk pancakes looked and tasted more like crepes. Fortunately, my daughter loves crepes. But she also loves chicken and kept asking me to do it.

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Jack

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