We could write another book about “My Mother’s Hand” after your 400 plus pages on “Cooked.” I feel the love you have to give. After 416 pages, I knew instantly what you referred to as “hand taste” because I could taste my mother’s hand after I read your words.
As a young girl I would often hear people in rural Jamaica say, “Mek mi taste yuh hand” or “mi wah taste yuh hand.” At the time I understood the statement to be a request; that they wanted to taste my home cooked meals. They heard that I was cooking and probably wanted to experience my food. However, looking back now I remember that the people, who would ask, were people I was somehow related to or connected to. They were also the older folks in the community, especially those from Georgia Road. They wanted to taste my hand.
As I closed your book tonight (which I purchased on Mother’s Day, May 12, 2013) unable to see the June 22 super moon from my room, I laughed with appreciation remembering the taste of my mother’s hand – it was distinctly Jamaican hot pepper spicy with braised (scallion, thyme, salt, garlic in coconut oil) pork flavor on everything she prepared. Mama’s meals were strong with thick portions of seasonal yam and fat slices of roasted breadfruit to absorb the “sweet” pork gravy.
I first saw my mother cooking on wood fire (firewood) and then hot coals in the outdoor wooden kitchen. Eventually she started cooking on kerosene oil stoves about the same time I left elementary school. Regardless of the fuel she used, my mother’s meals all had that same flavor. There were many days when the kerosene stove malfunctioned, flooding the burners and filling the entire inside-kitchen she built with toxic black smoke. As powerful as the scent of kerosene, it was not enough to spoil the taste of her hand; the meals kept the same taste. Even after she bought a two-burner gas stove and there was no more smoke, her “hand taste” remained, like a signature on her meals.
The taste of her hand that forced a troublesome rooster under a bamboo basket until she was ready to cut the head off; the same “hand taste” that dipped the bird into boiling water and patiently plucked out every feather before she gutted it, washed it in lime juice and seasoned it for hours with her spices, her time and her sweat in the old makeshift kitchen. This she did at least half a dozen times when I was a child so that dinner was always served.
Michael, you are so right. My mother cooked slowly, very, very slowly. I often wondered how she accomplished so much and yet cooked so much and so slowly. She opened her shop soon after daybreak and closed after midnight; easily eighteen hours daily and still had time to cook three full course meals everyday while she worked in her shop. Her menu favorites were boiled yam and dasheen, fried dumplings, beef soup, stew pork, curried chicken, steam callaloo…Regular drinks were lemonade and soursop sweetened with condensed milk and a shot of white rum.
There were days when she would bake a large cornmeal or sweet potato pudding intending to sell it but always giving most of it away. She gave the warm pudding to the men who helped her unload the sacks of flour and sugar from the trucks to the shop and to the women who helped her with her washing and ironing. Even the young boys, who climbed the breadfruit trees as a pastime, enjoyed the “flushy top” puddings on their descent.
At her funeral ten years ago, there were many testimonies to her cooking. Grown men and women with their children spoke about the hot lunches she prepared for them. She kept the extended community of Brownsville schoolchildren nourished for at least ten years, peaking in the early 1970s before I went off to high school. They never left her shop unsatisfied or embarrassed because she knew how to “season” and slow-cook everything including the cheapest cuts so that the children would chew and swallow the bones. They all tasted her hand.
Michael Pollan, you have allowed me to taste my mother’s hand once again. I suspect it has been over eighteen years since she prepared her last meal because she was disabled for a few years before she died. Still, her hand tastes the same tonight.
I pray now and know that with God’s Hand, thousands more will also taste her hand.
PS: On my way over to the Kinko’s at 8:45, I noticed the same black woman in the middle of the Diamond on Ashford Dunwoody Road. She was heading north again and still talking to herself fitting the profile of a homeless woman.