Black Eyed Peas for the Soulby Donna Marie Williams
To tell a story well, you have to live a story well -- with courage, persistence, and faith that everything's going to turn out all right. Black-Eyed Peas for the Soul is a collection of stories that reveals universal themes, as well as the unique perspectives of African Americans. The first collection of its kind, Black-Eyed Peas for the Soul boldly dispels the myth of a homogeneous Black culture. Diverse voices -- including those of Zora Neale Hurston, Dawn Turner Trice, and Frederick Douglass -- tell our stories of beginnings, wisdom, patience, hard work, excellence, joy, and miracles. Stories about love, healing, and atonement are told with insight, humor, and gritty honesty.
Arising from these distinct voices is the call for hope. Enjoy these stories and let them guide your soul to a place where you can find solace and draw nourishment, a place that can warm and soothe you, like a bowl of black-eyed peas.
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Read an Excerpt
From Step One
Buying the Peas
Daddy's kitchen is a modest space. Few of the amenities of a really well-stocked kitchen live here. This kitchen has only the essentials for cooking: a stove, a refrigerator, some pots and pans, a spatula. The kitchen is a lot like my father. He is a man of few needs and possessions. I bought the blender a couple of years ago, and my mother insisted on a microwave oven, but neither feels right in his kitchen. It's like High Tech meets Jurassic Park. My father tolerates their presence, but never uses them.
In the kitchen closet are all the canned goods and other sundries. There are also cookbooks by the dozens, Christmas presents for the man who has everything but never needs anything -- especially cookbooks. If he uses a cookbook at all, it's the old reliable Fannie Farmer. The pages are stained with the grease of dishes past. Some are torn. Favorite recipe pages are dog-eared, and a rubber band holds it all together.
Daddy's kitchen serves as both the cooking center and the "formal" dining area, so the kitchen's most always a mess. My mother fusses about it, but it's Daddy's kitchen, and since she wouldn't want to risk pissing him off into retiring from cooking forever, she keeps the fussing to a dull roar.
My father is one of those rare and wonderful men who not only loves to cook, and all the time, but creates the most delectable dishes in all of Creation. Not only that, he has never minded my sisters and me crowding him in his domain, never shooed us away. Over the years, his kitchen became the main place in the house for sharing and talking smack. With a glass of beer in one hand and a stirring spoon in the other, some jazz or blues playing on the old radio, Daddy would listen to hours and hours of his girls talking about men or jobs or children or whatever. He'd just sit there and listen, grooving to the music and the smells of his famous chili, barbecued chicken, garden-grown collards, macaroni and cheese. Intoxicating, hypnotic smells.
Except for one Saturday a few weeks ago. A strange and alien scent entered into Daddy's kitchen, and it was my fault. I brought the kids to visit their grandparents. Truth be told, I needed baby-sitting help. I was on deadline to finish a manuscript and the little darlings were driving me crazy.
I settled at the kitchen table, papers spread all around me, when, just as I was putting pen to paper, my daughter, Ayanna, walked up to me and said, "I'm hungry."
I hate those words "I'm hungry." When I'm hungry, I can just make a sandwich and be satisfied. But when a child is hungry, a good mother has to think about all the major food groups, and today, like most days, I just didn't have the time.
No, tell the truth, Daddy may be the chef of life, but I, his beloved daughter, can't cook worth a jambalaya damn. I wish I could take out a bag of beans and rice and magically produce a five-course meal, but I never got the hang of it. Ashamed, I threw some turkey hot dogs in a pot of boiling water (that much I can do). The scent of boiling meat wafted through the house and, like the cartoons, led my father by the nose to the kitchen.
"You fixing my granddaughter hot dogs?" Daddy said. It was an accusation, which immediately put me on the defensive.
"This is just to hold her." He looked at me suspiciously. "Until I get home and cook her a proper meal."
Daddy didn't buy that lie for one minute. "What you gonna fix her when you get home?" I blinked. "Girl, you know you should be ashamed." I cowered.
"I was going to do quiche. Yeah, quiche."
"Quiche!" He was disgusted. Most days, my father is easygoing, the strong, silent type, but the two things that could send him over the edge were restaurant food and food that didn't make sense. Egg pie didn't make sense to him.
"Mommy, I'm hungry!" Ayanna cried, playing the emerging kitchen drama for all it was worth. Casting me a sideways sneer, my father knelt before my four-year-old on one arthritic knee.
"You want some real food, princess? I got some leftover macaroni and cheese and string beans and chicken. You want that?" he asked, standing up, knees cracking and groaning under the strain. He went to the refrigerator and took out a few foil packages.
"I'm hungry too, Mommy." Michael, my ten-year-old, was always hungry.
"There's plenty enough for both of you. Gone and watch Rug Rats. I'll let you know when dinner's ready." My children skipped happily to the TV. Daddy started banging pots and lighting fires. At that moment I couldn't even deal with the issue of too much TV watching and my thus far unsuccessful attempts to eliminate chicken from our diet.
"Daddy, I know how to cook. For real. It's just that I've been so busy trying to make this deadline -- ."
"Donna, I've always told you, keep a pot of chili or soup on hand. When was the last time you cooked my grandchildren a decent meal?" I blinked. He held up his hand. "Never mind."
"I'm a single parent," I whined. "I've got no help. I've got to do everything myself. Time -- " I faltered.
"Thirty-odd years old -- how old are you? -- and still can't make a decent pot of peas. Hot dogs!"
"I can cook," I said with no conviction. "I do quiche and other dishes the children love. Really."
"Got all them degrees, but you can't cook a decent pot of peas." Then my father looked to the ceiling and asked God, "Where did I go wrong?"
"Brother," I muttered, but I knew I had been caught. I'd been wanting to be a better cook, a better mother, but I bad never found the time to figure my way around all the herbs and spices.
"Be here tomorrow, seven o'clock sharp," Daddy said suddenly. "I'ma teach you how to make a decent pot of black-eyed peas."
I looked up at that old man like he had lost his mind. Seven o'clock on a Sunday morning? My one and only day of the week to sleep in late?
"Okay," I sighed,
Fearing my father's wrath and razor tongue, I was at my parents' home, sleep still in my eyes, at 6:59 A.M. My children were excited, though. This felt like an adventure to them -- getting up early on a Sunday morning, dressing up for church. Little did they know what they were in for. My mother had agreed to take them to Morning Glory Baptist Church, and they'd probably be there for most of the day. That left me alone to face the Tyrant of the Kitchen.
When the door closed after Grandma and the children, my father and I eyed each other warily. "So what torture do you have in store for me today?" I asked brightly. He grumbled, then abruptly told me to "c'mon."
"Where are we going?" I asked, following his limping form out of the house and to his raggedy car, make and model unknown. He didn't answer me. "Do we have to ride in that thing?" Still no answer. "Come on, Daddy, let's take my car. See how nice and shiny it is?" He barely glanced my way. Just opened my door, waited for me to climb in (I managed to avoid the rust -- good thing I wore my jeans), closed my door, got in, and drove off. Oh, that car coughed and wheezed like an old man with phlegm, but somehow we made it to the market.
"There are four basic ways to buy black-eyed peas," said Daddy as we walked toward the vegetable bins. I guess Yoda had begun the lesson. "In the stalk, out of the stalk, canned, and frozen." He walked me over to a big, free-standing bin of stalks. He took one in hands that trembled and shelled it smoothly. He picked up one and handed it to to me, "Now you try," he said. I was amazed at how difficult it was.
"Our ancestors used to do this all day?" I grunted.
"This and more. Remind me one day to tell you about my cotton-picking days."
"You picked cotton?" I asked, impressed. The things you learn about a man while shelling black-eyed peas.
"Yeah, I picked cotton and had to stand at the back of the bus. Now pay attention to what you're doing," he ordered.
I managed to get out a pea, but in the process broke a nail. "Damn." I said, putting my finger in my mouth. I paid thirty bucks for that nail.
"C'mon," he said. "I just wanted you to get a feel for the way the peas come in nature. Since we ain't got all day for all that's involved in the preparation of fresh peas, we're going to buy the kind that's already shelled. We'll get a pound of them."
"What about canned or frozen?" You would have, thought I had just called him out of his name. He looked up at the ceiling, then over to an elderly woman who had been watching us closely.
"Where did I go wrong?" he asked her. She squinted, then laughed at his distress. I just stood there looking like an idiot.
"Don't feel bad," she told him. "Mine don't know nothing neither."
My father led me to the packaged-goods section. He told me this was a major compromise, buying black-eyed peas packaged up instead of fresh, but there wasn't enough time to do it to perfection. Sacrifices would have to be made. That was life.
Hell, canned peas would have been fine with me.
We also bought onions, carrots, celery, and tomato sauce. I put my foot down when he put a slab of salt pork in the cart. "Daddy, that's a heart attack waiting to happen! I can't believe you're still eating that mess!" The meat looked fatty, white, and crystalline. It scared me. I could feel the evil energy just pouring out of it. I recoiled in horror.
"It ain't real black-eyed peas without the salt pork, girl." Standoff in the meat section.
"I would prefer if we didn't use any meat at all, but let's compromise and use smoked turkey, okay?" Bravely, I replaced the hog with some good-sized smoked-turkey wings. Daddy glared at me as if to say how dare you, but I stood my ground. "Didn't the doctor tell you to lay off the salt and the meat?" He didn't reply, just glared. "Daddy, your high blood pressure, remember? Who's going to fuss at us if you get sick? Who's going to take care of us?" I wanted to say the word "love" but I didn't want him to have a stroke. Besides, he knew I was telling him how much I loved him. He relaxed and said, "C'mon, let's pay for this stuff." He already had a good supply of spices in his kitchen, so we headed for home. As we put up the groceries, Daddy said with an awkward gentleness, "Donna, I know you're wondering why I made such a big fuss out of buying those black-eyed peas, but you need to know how important the beginning is to how the dish turns out in the end. If you don't take care in the beginning to choose your ingredients well, you're going to end up with a mess on your hands. Always take your time. Use the freshest produce, if you can. Shoot, grow your own. A good beginning will guarantee a good dish."
As our heroine putters around the kitchen, she reflects on the importance of beginning a project well. The principle applies to everything -- business start-ups, social movements, baby making. God took his time in the Beginning, and look at how the universe turned out. Not bad!
Copyright © 1997 by Donna Marie Williams
Meet the Author
Donna Marie Williams, author of Sister Feelgood, is a freelance writer and editor. She lectures throughout the country and lives with her two children in Chicago.
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