Cooking Genes: Culinary Legacy

Most of my family members seem to have cooking genes. Well, except for my oldest brother Johnny. When asked what he made for dinner, he always said: “I made a phone call!” My other brother Sidney can hold his own with Red Beans and Rice (Louisiana-style) or Chicken Pelau (Trinidadian one-pot stewed chicken and rice).

However, my father was a professional baker. And he could “throw-down” his own traditional Southern Creole and African American soul food (Mississippi and Louisiana). When I asked him how he learned to cook so well, he said: “Where I come from, everybody knows how to cook!” On weekends mom and dad had a tag team catering business, of sorts. He was a local legend for his pies baked in the Southern tradition—apple, peach, sweet potato, and pecan.

But, he never sold them. He was a gentle, sweetheart of a man who believed in southern hospitality. He gave away his pies simply because people loved them. Brooklyn neighbors would visit and wait for the pies to come out of the oven. After he passed away, it was years before I would eat pie.

My mother was a great cook too, God rest her soul. She loved to say that our food was delicious because we were a “mixed-up” family! She had a different outlook regarding enterprise. She would certainly sell a few of dad’s pies! She was West Indian (Chinese Trinidadian/Guyanese) and always included a pie deal in her boxed-lunch business—one of her many “side hustles.”  Mom’s specialties were Creole Caribbean appetizers.  She would re-purpose dad’s extra piecrust dough to make Jamaican Meat Patties and Indo-Caribbean Samosas.

Dad always made extra piecrust for Mom and pretended as if he didn’t know what she was up to. My parents cooked in their own separate kitchens. The kind of food that we ate could be called: Afro-Asian-Indo-Caribbean-Soul-Creole Cuisine. We lived in a two-family brownstone—dad downstairs and mom upstairs. Our home was always full of our mixed-heritage relatives and extended family members. Most of them had migrated from the American South or some Caribbean nation.

Mom would setup over a dozen trays of patties and samosas. She would cook some and freeze and bake some later. Actually, “the girls”—me, my sister Kim and cousin Sandi— were put to work on a home-based assembly line. That was “back in the day” when children were obedient. Kim would roll out the dough and cut out circles using a cookie cutter or an inverted jar. I would fill the dough circles with a cooked spicy ground meat mixture or potato-vegetable fillings. I would carefully fold the patties into half moons and press them closed with a fork. Sandi would paint each patty with an egg wash, arrange on trays, and place in an oven and bake. We made what seemed like hundreds of these bite-sized snacks. On the day of Mom’s event, like an Atlantic City bus trip, we would wake early bake, cool, and pack and sell these goodies as part of a boxed-lunch deal.

Today, my sister and I both love to prepare our traditional foods. When we get together, we exchange food gifts and re-trace family recipes. We sometimes shop in old ethnic New York neighborhoods searching for special items. I believe that we inherited “cooking genes.” We learned to cook by immersion in our elder’s kitchens. They taught us the same way that they learned —through family stories and hands-on experience.

Traditional food has always been my passion. I love the stories associated with them as well as the opportunity to experiment with healthier versions of these traditions. I also love cookbooks, food blogs, and I am always searching for interesting family recipes and stories.

Who inherited cooking genes in your family? Do you have a favorite family recipe? Would you like to participate as a guest blogger in our “cooking genes” series?

7 thoughts on “Cooking Genes: Culinary Legacy

  1. When we were teens I often left your home full and exhuasted from life , food and love. The men in my family on both sides butchered wild game and cooked but my mother and her mother were considered legendary cooks. I think people would drive from North Carolina without eating anticipating sitting a my grandmother’s and later my mother’s table. I loved to hang around my grandmother’s kitchen stick my finger in the cake batterand lick the spoons as the went into the sink. She made a marble cake I’ve never seen duplicated. They both would set aside for me the odd shape biscut cuts that I would eat hot with melted butter and Alaga Syrup. After my grandmother passed my mother inherated the mantle of best family cook in New York and everyone went out of their way to have dinner at our home. Kim Valvera once had thanksgiving dinner at my parents home I was use to his eccentricities and wasn’t paying attention to him when I realized everyone had stopped eating and were looking down the table where he was seated. Kim was eating slowly with his eyes shut savoring every bite and moaning as if having an orgasim. Eyes still closed he paused for a minute and said “Mrs. Butler this is so good!!!” The whole table burst into laughter. My parents were both legendary for making the most fabulous bean pie — fluffy, creamy, on a thin crust, carmalized brown on top. They had a bakery on Albany Avenue between Pacific and Dean and when tyhe pies came out of the oven people would line up down the block. My father developed his own recepie could bake several hundred a day but could not bake less than ten. My mother baked them at home for us through out her life. Her pies were so good she had to hide them from me and my brother. Willingly he or I would take a whipping to search and find where the pies were hidden. We must have been seriously addicted and so were my friends who would wait for me outside my apartment if they heard I had visited my parent’s home. No one taught me to cook I learned by trial and error. When I first moved out on my own my father told me I must not mistake his home for a restaurant my mother was not my cook I should eat where I live. At first I eat all my meals in restaurants then I ate less meals finally I started eating spice ham on white bread and finally peanut butter and jelly. Out of shear frustration I bought my first setof pots and started learning to cook. My goal became to make it taste like my mother made it. Wasted a lot of food along the way but eventually I got praised for my cooking. I even taught my wife how to cook. It sounds strange but when we were going together I use to go see her and I remember the latin food. In my memory I recalled being told her daughter cooked it. In my mind I thoight “she’s fine and she cooks too.” When she visited me I cooked for her after we got married I find out she can’t cook at all and no one remembers telling me she could. With pleasure I shared everything I knew about cooking and she got so good I started regressing. Thank you for drawing these memories from me. My family taught me eating was an opportunity to enjoy the company of others and to share what you have with them and they with you the nourishments of life.

    1. Wow, Tommie your words brought back so many memories for me too. We had the best childhood growing up in each other’s lives. Thanks for remembering visits to my family’s home. Sometimes when I reflect back to those days, I wonder if it was part of a dream! I can see Kim with his eyes closed moaning like an orgasm over delicious food! That’s a hilarious image! That memory does bring out how we all learned about our diverse Diasporan cultures–Southern Cuisine, Caribbean, Asian and Latin—through dining at each other’s homes. Of course, back in our day, everybody ate home cooking! So, we ate the best food on earth! Interesting and funny how you learned to cook–trial by error. But you did have your family’s traditional soul food recipes–probably handed down through the generations–and not written down into a cookbook– as your guide and goal. Your parents knew instinctively that good cooking was a way to show love. Sounds like you had and still have a lot of love!

    1. Hello Elmo, Thank you for your comments. Would love to hear about the Caribbean food that you grew up eating!

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