Navigating our isolated rafts through the swollen river of 2020/21, we were forced to get creative, orgo crazy. Morale sank. Anxiety soared. Fear and confusion sloshed into our boats. But creativity, and creative cooking-- came to our rescue again and again.
Some folks made music; some made art. Some made gardens, some made babies. Some built things, some made clothes, and some made money doing things they’d never imagined doing. And most of us made food that got us through. Sourdough bread became the new soul food-- and soul food became another way of saying survivalfood.
Soul Food is often considered grits and greens, fried chicken and gravy, but in my view,soul foodis whatever fills us up, whatever gets us through, when times are hard, and spirits are ragged.
Soul food is different for everyone, but I’m pretty sure it’s not salad. It couldbe, for some, but unless it had lots of croutons, bleu cheese, bacon and avocado, it wouldn’t be saving my sinking boat. Plus, soul food might need to be made for you, by someone who loves you, to be most effective. You could make it for yourself, with the right attitude.
My Grandma madebuttermilk doughnuts for afternoon coffee several times a week. If you stopped by around 3:00, you’d be greeted with a cup of coffee and a tin of warm donuts, still warm, smelling of nutmeg, and sparkling with sugar.
Sitting around the old wooden table, my Grand-folks would ask all about life, and listen with such careful attention. Hot coffee. Fresh doughnuts. Careful attention. You can buydonuts and coffee, but when they’re homemade, served with love, that’s soul food.
Pizza with extra garlic, still hot, eaten in a pickup truck with a friend, is also soul food. A dear friend once drove hours through the rain, on dark, lonely roads to revive me from a college heartbreak.
I was coaxed back to life by her friendship and extra garlic. Even now, 40 years later, her voice on the phone reminds me that life is (mostly) survivable, with the right friends, and the right pizza.
Then, there’s that specialty that your parents made, whatever it is that haunts your memories, that also qualifies as soul food. As newlyweds, my husband and I often made the long commute to visit my childhood home on weekends, exhausted from adulating all week long in the big, bad world.
My Dad’s spaghetti sauce simmered on the stove. Mom’s sourdough French bread cooled on the counter. Dad would pour us a glass of red wine, while he tended his sauce. Nothing ever seemed more reassuring than those spaghetti dinners with my parents.
Until I met Juddi, a sassy, beautiful Texas writer, I was innocent of Pimento Cheese.I was a busy mom of three, wildly active little boys. I thought I had things more or less under control, until Juddi kindly observed, “You look like a woman who needs a retreat. A silentretreat.” I’d never heard of such a thing, and besides, who has time to retreatwhen you’re house is overflowing with Wild Things?
After three years(!) of persuasion, I finally agreed to a silent retreat. I felt such guilt peeling off the three imps twined around my legs, like ivy, leaving them with my also-tired- and-bewildered husband.
Juddi, tanned, serene, and wreathed in silver, turquoise, and coral, drove us to Santa Barbara. She told stories in her sultry Texas drawl, and played in Zen Buddhist tapes, while I worried about what I’d gotten myself into.
Finally, we arrived at the monastery high in the Santa Barbara hills. We set our bags in our spare, monastic rooms. Our doors opened to a communal garden. Outside, monks chanted on their way to vespers. The only other sound was birds. Zero talking allowed.
Juddi unpacked her basket: baguettes, grapes, and a chilled bottle of wine. But it was the Pimento Cheesethat made me want to sing—only I had to sing silently. Shredded cheddar, chopped green olives and pimentos, bound together with mayonnaise, served on a fresh baguette. Oh. My. Lord.
I briefly considered becoming a nun and eating pimento cheese in peaceful silence for the rest of my days. (Fortunately, the monks didn’t invite me, and after two days of silence I was ready to burst with things I wanted to say. Also, the imprint of my little monkeys was far too deep and too dear.)
By the time I gothome, I was a new woman: ready to take on my Wild Things with a refreshed heart and soul.
Clearly, silence with chanting padres, and ocean views aren’t always in the cards. But bread, wine, and good cheese can be a soul-saving communion between you, and the God-you-call-out-to, when you finally remember to call out.
My Dad’s spaghetti sauce, and my Mom’s bread are only a memory now. Mom’s hands are too painful to knead bread anymore, and Dad has passed on. My Grandma and Juddi are gone too.
Still, the memories sustain me. Plus, I’ve got their recipes. Better yet, my wild chimps have grown into the loveliest of human beings, and sometimes now cook for me!
Our eldest made us a spaghetti dinner last night that rivaled his Grandpa’s sauce. This created, for me, a new level Soul Food. Recipes passed from one’s parents, down to one’s children, are, I think, Super Soul Foods. They reassure us that life goes on-- and on, and that the future has arrived, and we are still here.
The pandemic is thankfully receding, and we’re getting back to jogging and gyms and kale again. But we all know, for sure, the next set of rapids is just around the corner.
This time, we’ll know what to do. When life gets ragged and fraught, bring on the Soul Food. Apply liberally, like plaster, to anyone who looks like they’re starting to crack, including your own good self. And share, your favorites, please, so we can all get spackled together.
Soul Food in my view is like prayer. Offer it to your loved ones. Accept it, when offered. It never hurts, and almost always helps. I think itisa kind of prayer, actually. The most delicious kind.
Welcome to Streamriffs.com, a place for fellow creek- walkers and nature lovers. Lori Fisher Peelen lives in California with her family.