Let me explain…This is a phrase that has become synonymous with “decadently delicious” throughout my extended family with its multi-generational southern roots. I heard it so often growing up that I never thought to question its origin or deeper meaning. It always served as something intensely self-explanatory. When exclaimed from Mama Susie’s kitchen table, it was almost always followed by an unbuttoning of the pants and a siesta on the rusty front porch swing.
While I’ve never sought to actually include this phrase in my daily vernacular, it doesn’t ring strange to my ears despite my plain vanilla Midwestern upbringing. Using “wanna” instead of the grammatically proper “want to” and abbreviating “your” so eloquently with “yo’” has always seemed beyond appropriate to me when used within the confines of my secure family walls. And this is despite the summa cum laude exclamation point after my undergraduate and graduate degrees. Even despite being the youngest child of two highly-accomplished educators because they too, have been known to feel the sudden urge to lightly tap their mothers after biting into a particularly tender rack of cooked oh-so-right baby back ribs.
If these walls could talk they would remind me that this decidedly unsophisticated food critic lingo could be mistaken for a very un-P.C. reference to elder abuse or familial violence – both serious – but neither considered relevant to my Aunt Charlotte’s peach cobbler. To those who might question the appropriateness of wanting to lash out physically against your mother as a result of feeling overwhelmingly satisfied around the middle, let me try to explain it to you so that you too, can benefit from the recommendations of my hearty clan.
Part of matriculating into full-fledged womanhood in my family is the establishment of a signature dish. The restrictions on this dish are few but unwavering. First, it has to taste distinctly superior when prepared by your hands because it is, after all, your dish. Second, you must be able to replicate the recipe without a cookbook, notes, or outside consultations of any kind. Being able to creatively substitute a key out-of-stock ingredient with something on-hand, negating the need for an unplanned Wal-Mart run gains you brownie points in this area. And finally, the preparation of your masterpiece must defy all conventional wisdom with regards to fat content, added sugar, and calories.
The matriarchs of my family all have something they can brag about, something that makes their husbands, cousins, and grandchildren want to jump up and slap their mamas. My paternal grandmother made chocolate pies that you would sell your True Religions for. These weren’t the pretty, light-brown French Silk pies that you see at Baker’s Square. Nope. These pies were ugly and lopsided and made us feel like we had special superhero powers that all of those who could not claim Susie as a relative would never have the honor of beholding. For these pies, my dad and my Uncle Lonnie Gerald would slap her. My big sister, on the other hand, went for a special twist on a more conventional side dish…sweet potato casserole. Uh-huh, I know you’ve had it before, but you haven’t had hers before. That’s the whole point. This casserole does have sweet potatoes in it, but it’s also full of other things…secret things. It’s the secret things that cause relatives to seek her autograph after Thanksgiving dinner. Those secrets made my brother want to slap our very own dear mom.
If eating delicious food does not give you a high that surpasses any controlled substance, this story may be beyond your grasp. If you’re still here with me, I’ll give you one more example. Grandmommy’s (yeah, I know I’m grown now but that’s her name nonetheless) garlic cheese grits. Many of my Illinois-bred friends are not familiar with grits. I don’t have time right now to get into the details, but I like grits because they’re soft and…well…gritty at the same time. Anyway, my maternal grandmother makes hers with lots of garlic (sleep alone that night) and tons of cheese and I don’t know what else. But every time I have them, I try to make room in my stomach for the other things on my plate, and somehow I never get past the yellowish-orange creamy stuff because it’s just that good. While I’ve never told her this before, I’m going to take this moment of literary anonymity to liberate myself, to break the chains of verbal oppression…GRANDMOMMY!!! YOUR GARLIC CHEESE GRITS ARE SO GOOD THEY MAKE ME WANT TO SLAP MY MAMA! There, I said it. Are you satisfied?
Last month, I decided to become a real woman. I wanted to make something that would make my whole family get arrested for assault and battery. Once my late night practice disasters morphed into something I deemed presentable to the elder council of the family (i.e. anyone over 60 and known for ‘telling it like it is’), I got up enough nerve to inconspicuously serve it at a family gathering. As Styrofoam plates with the separate little compartments were passed out and filled up with Round One provisions, I anxiously sat waiting to see if my Baked Cylindrical Pasta with Succulent Dairy Marinade (i.e. Macaroni & Cheese – work with me here, please) passed test #1:
Did it look good enough for folks to put a full portion on their plates – not just a little “let-me-be-polite-and-take-a-small-spoonful-as-not-to-hurt-the-feelings-of-the-person-who-cooked-it-since-they-might-be-standing-behind-me-in-line-watching-to-see-if-I’m-going-to-take-any” kind of portion? Uncle Rick took some which is a good sign because he’s picky but not a great sign because he’s a vegetarian and therefore has limited options among a smorgasbord of soul food. But still, I’ll go with it. On to the next test:
Did Early Adopters (kids who got to fix their plates first) come back for seconds before all of the adults finished fixing their first plates? Alyssa was pulling on her daddy’s leg trying to get him to cater to her 3-year-old whims. What’s that she said? I can’t hear because my nephew is crashing Hot Wheels into the neighbor’s wheelchair. Ahhh…yeah. She wants some more of the yellow stuff next to the hotdogs. Bingo! And last but certainly not least…
Is anyone, and I do mean ANYONE sitting at the grown-up table going to say it…even hint to…just happen to maybe whisper it…Nissy said it tasted almost as good as Aunt Charlotte’s. My dad and my niece Jasmine ate all of theirs together, and Papa Henderson sopped his up with some cornbread (it’s possible – I saw it).
Alas, no one said the necessary words to help me make the pilgrimage from a naïve youth to an enlightened WOMAN. So my optimistic inner voice asks, “Should I work towards perfecting the macaroni for the next event since it clearly passed the first two all-important tests, or should I scrap this traditional dish and move on to something else?” I decided on option two, so I have to go now – my Sweet Potato Pecan Pie test batch is almost done.