Cornbread in the African American community is one of those staple side dishes that you will find at most dinner tables. Whether it’s made from scratch, hot water, or Jiffy, cornbread is a welcomed complement to most soul food meals. I was surprised to learn that cornbread originated in the Native American culture. Nevertheless, the African culture, its history and people have modified this iconic bread into what it is today: comfort food that soothes the soul. Little did I know that making a “doctored up” pan of Jiffy cornbread in my kitchen would be the catalyst of cross-cultural understanding between my house guest, Owen, and me.
Owen, Muavé, and Shamar, were pre-med students selected to shadow a world-renowned laparoscopic surgeon, my hubby, Dr. James “Butch” Rosser, Jr. My husband and I agreed to provide housing accommodations to the young men for one week at our home in New Mexico. As I was preparing the menu for the week, I was a bit apprehensive because I wanted to make sure that the young men felt comfortable in our home and would enjoy the soul food that was being prepared. I knew Muavé and Shamar would be fine, as they were African American, and familiar with the menu. But I wasn’t sure about Owen; he was of Jewish faith and not accustomed to the cuisine.
Often, I have been in situations where I was the minority and those around me didn’t make an effort to help me feel warm and fuzzy. I wanted to be intentional and go overboard to let this baby know he was “my child” for the week and there was nothing he could do about it. I truly wanted to create an atmosphere of inclusiveness while being true to our family’s culture and heritage.
The first night, I decided to prepare fried catfish, slaw, fries and cornbread. Owen had never had catfish, let alone heard of people eating it. I found out later that while I was out of the room, Owen sheepishly asked Muavé and Shamar what catfish tasted like. They reassured him he would love it. Sure enough, Owen enjoyed the catfish, but to my surprise he absolutely LOVED my Jiffy cornbread. The guys teased him, “Owen, you are tearing that cornbread up!”
I ask Owen if he ever had cornbread before. “Yes,” he said, “but it never tasted quite like this.”
I chuckled, “Well baby, I will make it for you every night if you want.”
He smiled, “Yes ma’am, I would like that.”
It warmed my entire soul. What if I had played it safe and not cooked what was really in my heart? I would have never given Owen the opportunity to experience this treasured soul food side dish. Food is a powerful force for good. It brings us together in ways that transcend race; it builds bridges of understanding and allows open discussions about our similarities and differences.
A few days later, I asked Owen if he wanted to learn how to make my famous cornbread, and he eagerly said yes. As I was standing over him, watching him intensely follow my directions, it brought back memories of a time when I was a little girl and my grandma Mary taught me how to make hot-water cornbread in a skillet. It was my absolute favorite. I remember her patiently showing me how to mix (but don’t over mix) and how to gently pour the batter in the skillet. My how times have changed but somehow remain the same.
As Owen’s cornbread came out of the oven, I could see the absolute pride on his face along with a little bit of nervousness. He said he wanted his cornbread to taste the same as mine and not be the “white version.” OMG! How I belly laughed! He was also feeling a little peer pressure from the guys at the table. I told him don’t even worry about them—they’ll eat it!! I bonded with Owen in my kitchen that day. He told me no one ever took time to teach him how to make the “doctored up” version of Jiffy cornbread. It was at that very moment, the magic happened. Time and space stood still. The barriers, apprehensions that we may have felt—or made up in our minds—just melted away.
As we ate dinner that evening, we discussed Owen’s Jewish heritage. He taught us why the number 18 is so significant in Judaism. We asked him all kinds of questions from what happens at Bar/Bat Mitzvah, to why some of the Jewish men wear side curls (payos) under their yarmulkes. It was an open dialogue with no holds barred. That night, enjoying Owen’s delicious cornbread, we all learned something. It was like a pathway to multicultural understanding. And all it took was a little pan of Jiffy cornbread and love to make the evening epic.
A week after everyone left, I received a text from Owen asking me for my cornbread recipe. He said he wanted to add some “soul” to his family’s meal back home in Baltimore. Now that’s how you change the world…one pan of cornbread at time.Leave a Comment