When Turkey Wings and Pralines Stand in for Real Talk

When it comes to my parents, food provides our best lane of discourse

My parents have never asked me if I had a boyfriend. It’s just their luck that I never have one. Still, it would be nice if one day while sitting on newspaper, eating crawfish my dad boiled in the front of the house like the country Black man he is (compliment), my mom and dad would look at each other and say to me, “Ain’t you a lil’ old to be in one of those situationships?” as I chewed my way through the sausage and potatoes before proceeding to ironically suck the head of the crawfish after such an inquiry.

But, as sure as America is to turn into Gilead should that racist reality show host get reelected, this delightfully progressive scenario is sure to not happen.

There are only certain subjects that I know I can speak to my father about. To jump right into the clichés of life, of course, the list launches with the weather. While I will concede that in light of climate change, conversations about “how it feel outside” have gotten decidedly more interesting, they still manage to feel like an impersonal life-suck. We could probably speak at length about the music of Johnnie Taylor, because if you have never heard “Disco Lady” or “Last Two Dollars,” you are missing out, but I have yet to take advantage of this more pleasurable conversation topic.

I am going to cherish the talks we can have, even if it’s about turkey wings and pralines rather than who may or may not be in my heart and mind.

Now, my mama and I have a bit more range in terms of conversation starters. She, too, talks about the weather, but we can at least move on to other things, like a shared contempt of Donald Trump. I try not to stay in political waters for too long, because while my mom may not say things like, “God created Adam and Eve, not Adam and Steve,” out loud, she very much feels God created Steve, only Steve should never give into his natural urges because the momentary benefits of sodomy are not worth eternal damnation. She will tell you this, in so many words, if provoked. Then I have to talk about how if I’m going to hell for doing what-what in someone’s butt, she’s going to be roomies with me, ’cause Leviticus says all that shellfish we consume during Lent has long had us booked for hell.

Food provides our best lane of discourse. There, I can talk about something I am excited about without worries it might incite a comment that might lead to a disagreement that will limit our communication even further. For the longest time, I couldn’t tell whether I found this reality endearing because it’s an effort to maintain a presence in my life or offended that it’s such a superficial one.

However, as I wrote in the memoir that neither parent will ever read and would very much appreciate that I not mention, what I’ve come to accept is that you may never manage to have closure with those who have harmed you, so you have to go about creating your own.

For much of my adult life, I have only returned home once or twice a year. My father and my mother each know why, but we never talk about such things much. But again, we never will.

So what do people bound to each other talk about in the meantime? For us, I’ve noticed that we only consistently speak to each other with passion and conviction when talking about food. With my dad, who, by the way, for the sake of visuals, looks like Katt Williams entering his peak AARP period, that’s specifically all the food he makes for me that he knows I cannot experience back home.

No one is bringing up deer sausage to me in New York City. Or fried rabbit. People do talk about turkey wings up here, but they don’t quite taste the way he makes them. For all of the Slap Ya Mama seasoning I use, I can’t even get quite capture his version — principally because he smokes them outside on a pit and not in an oven. OK, fine: My wings from the oven still can’t fuck with his wings made in the oven.

On those every-so-often calls, he often makes it a point to say that he’ll make them for me once I get home. He says he’ll do the same about gumbo, and if I want, étouffée, though as amazing as his gumbo is, I prefer my mom’s étouffée.

Her cornbread, too, because it’s sweet. I don’t need to be eating like I want to lose my leg, but I told y’all I stopped denying myself pleasure, or at least try oh-so-hard not to. That means I crave her macaroni and cheese. And yeah, that étouffée. But mostly in recent years, it’s the sweets she makes from scratch I most long for: her pralines, cookies, cakes, and pies. My brother and sister say that my mom only bakes to great length when I come home.

My mom allows me to indulge the other food I miss: Shipley’s Do-Nuts, Pappadeaux’s fried alligator, Whataburger’s everything.

My parents came from difficult backgrounds in their own right and ended up in a situation they never intended to be in due to socioeconomic challenges beyond their control. They did the best they could with the limited skills they had, and while that does not absolve any wrongdoing, it provides the sort of context necessary to understand how difficult people end up that way. That no one’s character can be painted in broad strokes of black and white. That love is complicated, especially when the people responsible for your life were themselves not taught the best ways on how to love.

In recent months, I’ve lost a grandmother, an uncle, and a good friend. My parents, unexpectedly, have recently and individually spoken to me about death in terms of its inevitability. My mama has been talking about dying since I was child, so in spite of my natural urge to be immune to declarations of death looming by adding five years to her life chart, now more than ever do I wonder how much time we have left. It could be 20 more years, or just her luck, three smooth decades, or by the end of this sentence. The same can be said of me: the losses of people my age and younger don’t blind me to that, and you know, I’m an American who goes to movie theaters, and I’m a Black person who breathes in the continental U.S. But like my dad recently told me, “You got more time than me, boy.”

I had already told myself that it was time to go home more often, but those surprise conversations have spurred greater conviction in me to make good on my word. In the meantime, I am going to cherish the talks we can have, even if it’s about turkey wings and pralines rather than who may or may not be in my heart and mind. Oh, and whether it’s snowing or why is it so much colder than it ever used to be in hurricane country.

No, it does not make our relationship full, but I’ve allowed myself to accept that it’s best to let the people in your life love you the best way they know how. The alternative is to forgo whatever they can provide, and for someone that’s lost so many people so suddenly and rapidly, I want to cherish whatever I can have for as long as I can have it.

And in hindsight, while the darkest parts of my childhood may be doomed to forever come first to mind, they weren’t all bad, and in most of the few good memories I have, food played a role. The times my dad would take my brother and me fishing and crabbing; he usually cleaned and fried what we caught in the back of his truck by day’s end. The excitement we all still have when my mom bakes.

This was always their way to show love, compassion, and concern in the midst of chaos. I should have known each, in their own way, is still using it to keep some level of connection, lest any of us waste more time not being around each other more. If I know nothing else, I know my parents love me.

So I am going to have to learn how to cook all of this myself. It’s long overdue. Not only will it be parts of them I can hold on to after they’re gone, I imagine it will give us something new to talk about.

Author of “I Can’t Date Jesus” and “I Don’t Want To Die Poor.” Houstonian.

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