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?