The story of how my family acquired Old World recipes for Ashkenazi cuisine is a rape story – but it takes a bit of digging to figure that out. They don’t talk about it. The ones who are left alive to tell it, anyway, the old ones. And we, the young ones, learned long ago to stop asking. The pursing and hardening of lips that were wide open with laughter only moments before, the sudden pain flashing across beloved countenances like lightning, illuminating their faces in that way that only deep ache can.
“Hush, now!” my mother commanded the first time I asked about it. Like so much of our history, the story of my mother’s family’s flight from southern Georgia to the Florida panhandle and finally to southern Florida was shrouded in secrecy for most of my childhood.
My relatives, the old ones, hide things well. If beating around the bush to avoid unpleasantness were an art, they would be masters. Any questions I asked as a curious child that could only be answered honestly with a painful truth were circumvented into a story about Something Else Altogether. Thus, my family’s collective history since slavery – drenched in blood, scored with rage and raked throughout with unimaginable suffering – was repainted for me, my brother and our young cousins in a manner that highlighted our family’s strength, wit, resourcefulness, cunning and beauty.
My grandmother’s favorite sister, the second-oldest and prettiest, twice-widowed, had lost her final husband to old age before I was even born. The husband no one talked about, the one she loved in the full bloom of her youth, she’d lost to a lynching whose details were so horrific that when she learned of them all those years ago, the shock wrenched the doomed fatherless child in her womb free too soon, and the grief rendered her barren ever after. My grandmother’s sister headed south, leaving the red clay and pecan trees of her ancestral home for the Spanish moss-draped banyans and sea-grape-covered white beaches of this odd new place. The town where she settled – a former Black township founded by a band of Black families (some free, some escaped, and with one of my ancestors among them) and Seminole Indians – would be my home.
Years later, when I asked my mom why my grand-aunt didn’t have kids, I was told that…well, that’s just how it happened. It was the Lord’s will. And then, presto change-o! The narrative gear-switch. Because I didn’t want to hear that boring old story anyway. (Even as a kid, I knew when somebody was trying to make me fall for the okey-doke, but talking back or over grown folks could easily result in a quick pop in the mouth, so I kept quiet.)
And this was how I came to know of our old family recipe for latkes. You read that right. My family, a hodgepodge of Baptists, Primitive Baptists, Pentecostals and A.M.E.’s (and most clandestine root-workers, amateur and professional) counts among its generationally-transmitted culinary treasures gefilte fish, chicken soup (mit schmaltz), and latkes.
Not just any latkes, either. The best latkes south of the Mason-Dixon Line; latkes that straightened your tongue out so that you said “latkes” RIGHT; latkes that made you want to hop on a plane and personally visit the ruins of the shtetl that had made their existence possible. Now, they’re not exactly a go-to, like macaroni and cheese, or my grandma’s mustards. In fact, you could probably only get them on request, and the request will earn you a strange look and a chuckle. But when you can get them, they are perfect and unquestionably authentic, because my grandmother’s Jewish employer taught her to make them.
A bit of background: in the Jim Crow South during the 1930s, employment options for Black women were plentiful, but not exactly diverse. You could wash clothes, fix hair (and work roots, but that was a highly competitive field that was also necessarily secretive), teach if you had gone to school and finished, tend bar or sing or work ‘round the back (prostitution) at a jook joint, and keep house for White folks. Most Black people endured under some form of sharecropping. Growing up, my grandmother, her parents and her six siblings lived largely off of subsistence farming and piecemeal work. The maternal branch of my mother’s family – my grandmother’s people – owned a few acres of fertile land with good soil that had been passed down for several generations from the Irish slave ship captain who had loved one of my enslaved foremothers and freed her and their children while still in the prime of his life. (The children he had had with his deceased wife, in scandalized outrage, gathered their tattered dignity and fortunes and moved north to the Carolinas. I’m told they changed their names. I don’t know if my family’s claim on the land was ever challenged, and I suspect no one would tell me if I asked anyway.)
Working in the homes of White people – or “working out” – was the least desirable option. White employers often overworked and underpaid their employees, and sometimes didn’t pay for work at all, and there was no way to force them to give you recompense. Also, in addition to suffering the daily slings and arrows of contact with White Southerners in the Jim Crow South, unless you were too old to consider (there being no such thing as “too young” in these instances), being in a home with a White man in it guaranteed sexual assault. And if you were attractive – as my voluptuous grandmother was – the question was never “if,” only “when.”
There wasn’t a lot of sympathy for you if you went and got yourself raped. Black women who were violated by the White men who employed them could expect to be ignored by the White arm of the law and shunned within their own communities, especially if the rape resulted in a pregnancy. I’d like to tell you that this didn’t happen too often, but it wouldn’t be true. The concept of consent as we know it today simply did not exist then. The differential power dynamic between a White man of any class and a poor Black woman, while tragically obvious, didn’t protect a Black woman from intra-communal slut shaming.
My grandmother, unlike her mother before her, could read, but had never finished high school, so she couldn’t teach. During lean times, she would work as a washerwoman for White households. Clothes were washed next to a fresh water source, away from the house, and usually by women in groups. It was hard work, but it offered decent wages and minimal contact with White people. She also picked cotton and tobacco for a quarter a case (ask your own old ones about that sometime), and after she had kids she sang at the local jook in the evenings. Her Leo predilection for fancy clothes and fine things were generally nourished by a smitten boyfriend or two; any money she made herself went to the care and keeping of her family.
Times were especially lean in the midst of what would later be called the Great Depression. Throughout the South, Black sharecroppers hardly noticed the economic decline, as their circumstances remained much the same as they had been prior to all the crashing and burning. There was a noticeable increase in Klan-led violence…including the lynching of my great-uncle, the successful proprietor of a general store for colored people that Whites would occasionally patronize. My grandmother had become something of a local sensation at her jook, singing the hell out of ribald ditty after ribald ditty, and collecting tips and admirers as she went. According to my older relatives, at one point, she had a record, but no one living has a copy of it. I have always been quietly haunted by the longing for my grandmother’s voice. I knew my mother’s voice in the twilight of its prime, classically trained and stirringly elegant, before decades of cigarette smoking and lack of daily practice had taken their ugly toll. There was a gorgeous piano in my squat, poor, sad childhood home, completely out of place, but a beacon for my burgeoning artistic soul, and balm for my mother’s aching one. My grandma passed away before my mom had even met my dad, so I never knew her, but I always imagined that, in song, she sounded like my mommy.
After a particularly bad crop year, my grandmother was faced with the prospect of working for White people directly. Fortunately, there was a Jewish family in town in search of a housekeeper. For my grandmother, this was an excellent opportunity: while supposedly exacting taskmasters, Jewish employers were renowned for their fairness. Wages were paid in full and on time. Children who could lend a helping hand with duties were often allowed to work alongside their mothers – and for compensation. On one auspicious morning, my grandmother arrived at the home of her future employer’s wife in prim and perfectly ironed and starched cotton. Mrs. _______, impressed by her presentation and maybe a bit intimidated by her exceptional presence, hired her on the spot. Mrs. _________ and her husband were the second generation of families from Eastern Europe who had fled the pogroms of the 19th century, landing first in Louisiana, and spreading throughout the Southeast.
My grandmother worked for Mrs._________ and her husband as a maid, cleaning house, doing some of the shopping and presenting the requisite receipts, and preparing all meals, Monday through Saturday. The Sabbath was observed in the home of her employers, who allowed my grandmother to work around her Saturday evening jook schedule and Christmas, and later, her children’s birthdays. They were Good White Folks, the kind one could only hope to encounter, who only required her hard work and a simultaneously unobtrusive and non-ubiquitous presence.
My grandmother’s employer was absolutely rigid in her preparation of food from her home. Things were picked Just-So, sorted Just-So, diced Just-So, pickled Just-So, stuffed Just-So, rolled Just-So, blanched Just-So, and served Just-So. As much as Mrs.____________’s hovering annoyed her, my grandmother was acutely aware of the fact that a positive reference from her to her guests could mean additional security for her family. My grandmother was a talented chef and a quick study. The traditional Ashkenazi meals she put together under the direction of her employer earned her raves. If there were leftovers, she brought them home to her family, so that they could eat as well as experience new cuisines.
My grandmother developed her own flair for the recipes imparted to her. Latkes were served instead of hush puppies at fish fries. Chicken fat was skimmed, preserved, and set with reverence in the cooler in the honored place next to the bacon grease in the kitchen pantry. Relatives were quietly awed at my grandma’s extraordinary ease of incorporation. To this day, our conch fritter recipe – also acquired from a foreign cuisine – is based on Mrs. _____________’s Old World latkes. Years after first instructing my grandmother in food preparation, her employers would lose almost all of their extended family during the Holocaust. The recipes she passed on not from familial duty, but necessity, live in us. I like to think that, however inadvertently, my family helped preserve a tiny piece of Mrs._________ ‘s heritage.
Tonight, I made latkes. Well, no. Tonight, I fried latkes from the frozen food case at Trader Joe’s. And with the exception of the requisite dash of horseradish and beet juice, they tasted like my “real” ones. As they sizzled in the non-stick skillet this world has decided is the cookware of choice, I thought of my ancestors, and their brilliance, and cunning, and overcoming of impossible circumstances through their talent, and beauty and luck. How only in this ethnocultural patchwork place we call a country could people worlds away from one another help save each other. How quintessentially American that is. How quintessentially American they were, and I am.
Shafiqah Hudson is a non-profit fundraising professional by trade, a writer by design, and a Pottermore addict by accident. When she isn't devouring a book, preparing ridiculously elegant food, you can find her at the beck and call of her temperamental cat. She lives in Philly.