I met my wife ten years ago this coming June. Although we’ve only been married for a few years of those ten, we’ve been largely inseparable since we met in 2004. I like to think that she and I complement one another and together are better people than not. I know that I am.
Our tenure as cooks and, although I am hesitant to use the term as it implies a certain amount of arrogance, foodies began shortly after we met, mainly due to necessity. We were living on the outskirts of Washington, D.C., working relatively low-paying jobs for the area and completely strapped for cash. Cooking together became a way to save money on food costs, allowed us to experiment with foods that we would otherwise not be able to afford and helped us bond as a couple much deeper and faster than any other situation.
She also introduced me to other foods and cultures along the way. I’d never spent a lot of time on the true Eastern Shore, where I found to my astonishment that the people were friendly, down to earth and spent a lot of time doing things that I like to do, such as crabbing, hunting, oyster gathering (and eating!), gardening and working on old cars and trucks. I tried real crab cakes, ate half my body weight in raw oysters, learned to clean and shuck those tasty morsels, tried different types of roe, learned how soft-shelled crabs are harvested and why they are so tasty and expensive and expanded my horizons rather dramatically.
Which brings us to our annual celebration of Martin Luther King Day. The first year that we were dating, my then girlfriend, and to-be wife was seriously looking forward to celebrating MLK Day. At first I thought she was joking – it just seemed wrong, somehow. Why? We celebrate St. Patrick’s Day (a bit too much), Cinco De Mayo, Thanksgiving (which seems wrong somehow as it is supposed to honor the Native Americans), Hanukah, and a whole host of international holidays which are wrapped around food as a honor to that culture.
So why did celebrating MLK Day with Fried Chicken, Collard Greens, Grits, Cornbread and reading Dr. King’s quotes make me so uncomfortable? For one thing, I think that it was my total lack of exposure to other cultures growing up where I did, in a holler between the small towns of Richlands and Grundy in deep Southwest Virginia.
Is it then, racist, to celebrate, as a white American, black culture through food on a major holiday? Why do we even question such a thing? Why are we, as a couple who are serious about honoring a southern black culture and embracing it’s positive effect on our own, hesitant to even admit that we do such a thing?
For one reason, nearly every white person that we have told about our celebrations of MLK Day through distinctly black southern, or one could argue just southern, food has hesitantly laughed, coughed and changed the subject. Rapidly. It’s as if we aren’t supposed to talk about Jim Crow laws, or segregation or this little thing called the Civil War. Why is that so wrong? Is it a southern white thing? Are we inherently ashamed?
All I know is that we made the best fried chicken, black-eyed peas and cornbread that I have ever had except for my Mom’s last night, invited some friends over and admired how much courage that it must have taken for Dr. King to deliver his message of equality and peace in a time of turmoil and outrage.