04/18/2013 02:54 pm ET Updated Jun 18, 2013

Biting Into Me: Food's Role in Identity and Connection


My first year at Saint Louis University as professor Cindy Ott's graduate assistant I was introduced, by her, to the fields of material culture and food culture studies. Dr. Ott was working on her (now published) book manuscript Pumpkin: The Curious Case of an American Icon. At the mention of her book's subject, the pumpkin, I frowned, confused; I had never read Michael Pollen at that point, or Eric Schlosser, or even Upton Sinclair's The Jungle so I could not imagine why one would want to study food. What could food tell us? Dr. Ott's work, focusing on the humble pumpkin, a fruit I have never liked, and tracing its role in American history and iconography forced me to revisit a truth I knew once as a child: Food is blood. It is essential. To put another way, food is everything!

Food, perhaps like few other things, connects us to our pasts. When I lived, as a child, overseas what I missed most was good Texan food, because it was representative of all I knew, all I had in the states. When I came back to the states as a preteen (I pre-date the era of "tweens") what I missed most about the UK was the food; I still cannot find a proper fish and chip shop here. I have bonded with so many of my black brothers and sisters from all over the U.S. through discussions about the role of sweet potato pie and pumpkin pie at the ("traditional") black Thanksgiving table; we laugh at how the pumpkin pie is always store-bought for that one person who will eat a slice, but the sweet potato pie, now that is another matter. Debates can last forever as to who in a family makes the best sweet potato pie, and as to whether your family's sweet potato pie is better, do you use eggs or not; do you use brown sugar or white, but we all agree, Thanksgiving is nothing without that pie and it tastes nothing at all like pumpkin.

Recently, I was talking to this young poet on Facebook; I was being a little flirty -- what can I say, I like smart creative guys -- and we started talking about food. Specifically, we were naming the best dishes we ever ate. His was this fantastic meal he had in Panama; me, being the fat boy that I am, I had a few, but one of the meals was the first meal I had at my grandmother's house in Illinois when I returned to the U.S. The star of that meal was my grandmother's biscuits.

Recently I visited my grandmother, who is 86 years old, and I asked her to teach me how to make her biscuits. Her face lit up. My uncle and mother assisted her in moving to the kitchen, and in the course of maybe twenty to thirty minutes my grandmother shared her recipe with me. Nothing was written down, and her hands, smoothed from time, feeling cool on mine, guided me. You see part of food, a vital part, is preparing it, and in that moment she was passing along to me, history, our history. My grandmother told me how she learned the recipe from her grandmother, who most likely learned it from her mother who would have been a slave. This same biscuit, made with probably little variation, could have symbolized oppression, something to cook for the master or the mistress of a plantation (I do not know) but it also symbolized for me "home," family, the U.S.

When the biscuits were done, I took one, hot, cut it in half, examined the crumb, slathered a little butter on it, and bit into it. I closed my eyes. My grandmother, who had moved into her sitting room by this time, called to me, "How's the biscuits baby?" I yelled back, "They are so good grandma!" I took another bite, and I swear I felt my grandmother's hands, heard Arkansas grass swaying in the wind, and saw people wearily reaching their shacks after time spent in the fields. I was biting into me. And I tasted good.