A mother follows the breadcrumb trail to piece together a family history and nourish her growing son.

By Tara Phillips
November 23, 2020
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Bagel with eggs, salmon, onion
Credit: Yeji Kim

I can recall quite vividly the rough and sharp texture on the walls of my grandparents’ apartment. It was a sign of the times, a trendy paint finish coming out of the UK in the 1970s. This was a seemingly strange choice for a co-op in Clinton Hill, Brooklyn, but my grandmother’s Jamaican roots inspired a particular loyalty to the Queen. A devotion evident in her insistence on taking her morning coffee and afternoon tea only in china teacups, even as a mélange of mugs resided in her cupboards.

Rubbing my hands over the surface of those walls, my 10-year-old stomach would growl in anticipation of my grandmother’s other psychic allegiances. After leaving Jamaica when she was only eight, Vivia grew up in the ever-changing world of 1930s New York City. She married her Jamaican identity with all of the cultures around her—Italian, Jewish, Irish—raising her children and grandchildren to embrace the melting pot mentality promised by Lady Liberty herself. 

This meant grueling waits on Saturday mornings for bagels. My grandmother would not buy her bagels from just anywhere. Among many other things, my grandmother’s legacy was teaching us what constitutes a good bagel and why it was worth the trip over the Brooklyn Bridge to the predominantly Jewish shopping thoroughfare of Delancey Street on the Lower East Side in order to indulge in the warm, soft delight of the New York bagel.

My grandfather, patient and loving, would serve as the chauffeur to his wife, taking his place behind the wheel of his blue Cadillac to brave the traffic and early morning hustle on the Brooklyn streets. As I watched them disappear behind the heavy metal door and listened while their voices faded down the hallway, I desperately sought distractions to occupy my mind during the wait. The Daily News crossword puzzles. The stack of TV Guides piled in the corner for later reference. Any number of tschotskes that lined the shelves and tables in their living room. As the minutes ticked by, WOR played Sinatra in the background, a soothing contrast to the growing ache in my stomach.

Just as my hunger was pushed to the brink, the sound of feet emerged in the distance. Satisfaction was in reach. The jingle of keys at the door honed my attention to what awaited on the other side—not my beloved grandparents—the bagels. My grandma walked in, settling the brown, wrinkled bag on the countertop in the tiny galley kitchen. She was not ready to unveil the goods just yet as the bagels were merely the supporting players in a greater production displaying her immersion.

I dared not venture into the kitchen—Grandma’s territory—but I was always beckoned to sneak a peek while standing in the narrow threshold. Grandma made quick work of the meal, chopping onions, slicing lox, and beating eggs as the cast iron pan gained its heat and power on the stove top. Soon, the sweet and salty smells overtook the stale apartment air. Lox, eggs, and onions—a classic Jewish breakfast that marked my grandmother’s citizenship in the Big Apple. I have no knowledge of the history of how this delicacy made it to the table of a Jamaican immigrant who landed in New York so young, but it did not matter. This was my grandmother’s legacy—to teach us the great cultures of the world through food all mixed together in New York City.

Unlike my mother, who culinarily leaned towards the gourmet, my grandmother did not fuss with fanfare or fancy accoutrements. We grabbed simple plates, forks, knives and spooned this bright yellow and pink masterpiece generously onto our dish. Then came the bagels. Venturing into the bag, my fingers bypassed the deep brown of the pumpernickel and the strange, sticky texture of onion. The plain bagel was calling me. The simplicity of its smooth, beige skin and soft white center were all I needed. Every bite filled with my grandmother’s love, wisdom, and loyalty—all worth the wait.

Hot Cross Buns
Credit: Yeji Kim

My grandmother’s ritual only demanded an hour or two of patience and hunger pangs; my father’s fidelity was on a whole other level. With Easter arriving only once a year, my father’s bread fetish required a different type of discipline. For the other 51 weeks of the year, I imagine my dad had to curb his enthusiasm to the point of amnesia. Kind of like the collective state of forgetfulness we all undergo after our Girl Scout cookie supply diminishes and the colorful boxes of Thin Mints and Samoas are well out of sight. We dare not think about how long we must wait until we can sink our teeth into a Do-Si-Do again, so we suppress the memory and are delightfully surprised when that co-worker unveils the order form on behalf of their Brownie daughter.

The objects of my father's obsession were hot cross buns. My entire life, hot cross buns had existed no other place than on our kitchen counter at the peak of Easter season, wrapped in wax paper and foil for my Dad’s hands only—not that any of us had any interest in partaking in this delicacy. I have no recollection of even tasting one. We had all come to accept my father’s inclination to selfishly hoard snacks, perhaps a remnant of growing up an only child. In fact, he indulged in another Easter favorite: marshmallow Peeps. Preferring them stale, my father tucked away open boxes of Peeps in the dark recesses of the pantry to signal that they were completely off limits. As a family, we never called into question that what was his, was his. Looking back now, I appreciate my father’s embrace of the joy that came with buying his buns for the season. He would walk in the door, package in hand, with a little boy grin as he had struck his annual motherlode.

Over the course of a week, my father would peel away one bun at a time, catching the falling icing from the side, picking up a stray currant from the protective foil wrapping. He would never put into words why he had such love for this Old World delight. Given my father’s Harlem roots, I had always believed that hot cross buns were some remnant from the South that migrated with his mother, aunt and uncles with the fried chicken, macaroni and cheese, and greens recipes. It was only recently while perusing the aisles of the popular British market, Marks & Spencer, that I learned their true origin. Among the rows of packages of scones and other English fare, there they were—hot cross buns. 

I let out a tiny gasp and exclaimed to my friend, Fred who had been with me at the time that I had not seen hot cross buns in years. I rambled through the explanation of my father's devotion but, what on Earth were they doing in this English market? Fred, a Frenchman himself, was quick to point out that hot cross buns are from England and this fact was swiftly confirmed by his partner, David, who was the only proper Brit in our company.

I absorbed David’s declaration with bittersweet bewilderment. How did I not know this simple fact about one of my father’s favorite things all my life? Was it just something he had never told me or something I had never bothered to ask? The bright lights of Marks & Spencer faded as I got lost in my own reverie about my father and these hot cross buns. Drifting back to my childhood years of sitting at the butcher block table, surrounded by the light yellows and chocolate-brown woods of our '80s kitchen, watching my dad enjoy his hot cross buns, I was reminded of his many untold stories—the mysteries of the life he lived before my existence. 

I started to wonder what was the story behind how this Harlem brotha, raised out of the grandeur of the Great Migration into the turbulent '60s and funky '70s stumbled upon a simple gift from a twelfth-century Anglican monk? If my maternal grandmother had served as the gatekeeper to the perfect bagel, who was the responsible party that ushered hot cross buns into my father’s life, creating a yearly obsession and ritual that was a marker of my own childhood? 

The truth would remain elusive as it has been nearly seven years since my father’s passing and 54 since the death of his own mother, Cola—a woman I would never know myself. My father was only 22 years old when his mother died, and he seldom spoke much of her. In his words, that was the painful burden he chose to “leave at the baggage claim.” And perhaps that was an effective coping strategy for my dad, but for me, it always left me wondering about her own legacy in his life and mine. Was one of Cola’s many unnamed legacies the introduction of hot cross buns into the life of a little Black boy in Harlem?

To my surprise, my mother shed a small light on the mystery of the hot cross buns. It turns out that Cola Greene was a gourmet chef during her time. We do not know for sure if hot cross buns qualified as "gourmet" in Cola’s mind, but my mother remembers how impressed she was with my father’s knowledge of some of the best restaurants in New York City. Although my mother had never met Cola either, she understood from my dad’s stories that she had taught him about things like lobster and caviar, even if they did not make a regular appearance on their dining table.

This information was a beacon of light into my consciousness, illuminating a new understanding of both the present and past reality of my family. Once again, I was struck by a sadness that I have lived my entire life not knowing this about my paternal grandmother, but this tidbit of truth felt like a powerful link to my own son and his culinary curiosities. 

When Emmanuel was just two years old, he would find a spot right on the edge of the tile of our open kitchen and gleefully stir things in a bowl. I would throw dried cranberries his way and listen to the clank of the wooden spoon against stainless steel. By the age of four, Emmanuel would pass hours in front of his play kitchen, placing plastic veggies and meat on plates, serving them up to us with pride. But, what I thought was just child’s play turned more serious at seven when he donned an apron and chef hat and made me a Mother’s Day meal all on his own. As he grew, Emmanuel’s declarations about his future as a chef were filled with more conviction and experimentation.

By the time Emmanuel reached the double digits and inched above my petite 5-foot-1 frame, our modern Bed-Stuy kitchen, flanked on one side with exposed brick and the other with a granite breakfast bar, had become his domain. I was a pretty spoiled momma. My only job was to keep the cabinets and refrigerator stocked. Emmanuel would handle the rest. A divine gift of grace for a single mother who worked 11 hours a day, tending to the needs of 400 elementary school students and their teachers. I doth not protest much when Emmanuel took ownership of making sure we were fed in the evenings. Most nights, after I dutifully managed the dishes after our meals, I took my usual spot on the couch and drifted to sleep by 10 p.m.

And like any aspiring chef, Emmanuel went through his phases. He once took a cookie cookbook out of the library and we spent an entire holiday season making cookies of every texture and flavor. Cooking meat is always his jam, conjuring up different seasonings and marinades to tickle our taste buds. And of course, there was the bread phase, a phase peppered with valiant attempts at varied loaves from quick breads to a makeshift baguette looking thing.

Then, came the naan. As I nestled into my usual corner on the couch after a long day’s work and a satisfying meal, I paid little attention to Emmanuel’s lingering in the kitchen. His homework was complete and it was possible that his growing body was in search of a late evening snack. Until I noticed the laptop on the counter and realized perhaps something more serious was going on.

“Hey Mom, I think I’m going to try and make naan.”

“Naan?” I replied.

“Yeah, naan.”

“Naan? As in the Indian bread?”

“Yeah. I found a recipe and I want to try and make it.”

“Right now? You want to make naan right now? Emmanuel, it’s 8:30 at night?”

“I know, but I just feel like making naan.”

“How are you going to make naan? Do you even have the ingredients to make naan?”

“Yeah, we have everything.”

“Alright. Whatever, Emmanuel.”

I had neither the energy nor the mental capacity to engage more. If the kid wanted to make naan, who was I to stop him? Barring the complete destruction of our kitchen which seemed unlikely, I figured there was no harm in letting him play around with his culinary curiosity. In retrospect, I smile at the notion that Emmanuel may have simply been channeling those that came before him—my father’s urgency, my grandmother’s cultural reverence, and Cola’s leanings towards the extraordinary. 

“Mom. Mom!”

“Huh? AHHH!

Plate of naan
Credit: Yeji Kim

Awoken from my premature slumber, there Emmanuel stood in front of me with a plate thrust in my face. Startled, I had forgotten about his naan-making endeavor as I had drifted to sleep and was pleasantly surprised to see his success. Beaming with pride, he laughed at my “fear” of a plate of bread and offered up a piece. It was perfect.

The plate of naan carried us through the week. Slathered with butter and honey, it was a tasty complement to my morning coffee. Each time I indulged, I would ask Emmanuel why he wanted to make naan. His answer was always the same. ”I don’t know. I just felt like trying it.” I probed, but he had nothing more to offer. He never made it again. He moved on to something else, adding baking naan to his list of culinary conquests.

I write these words and share these memories against the precarious backdrop of Black people clamoring for our humanity to be seen. Not just the physiological reality of our actual existence, but the complexity and beauty of our lives in its fullness. I am reminded of an evening during a family holiday visit when my mother and I were trying to entice my brother to watch the movie, Mudbound, with us. He rolled his eyes and asked, “Is it another going-through movie?” Puzzled, I replied, “What’s a going-through movie?” 

“Black people going through something.”

My brother, having shared the same familial scenery as me, communicated in so few words the imperative for new narratives about the textures and layers of Black life. Narratives about stale Peeps and old Cadillacs and the love and history passed down from grandmothers. Yes, we want to survive and live without fear or suspicion. But we also want to be seen for the endearing qualities and idiosyncrasies that define all of the human experience.

So, my imperative is not only to bring these stories to anyone willing to listen, but to also give them to my son, Emmanuel, so that he sees himself and the beauty and value of his own people. Is this not what every Black boy or girl deserves? To be more than the tragic history that has been bestowed upon them by centuries of injustice? 

Let Black lives be seen both by the world and in each other. It is a mother’s joy to know that my own son carries the grit, mystery, and curiosity of my grandmothers and father. The chronicles of their lives exist in his own explorations and pursuits and will be the foundation on which he stands, evidenced in an unexpected devotion to something so simple as bread. Both universal and unique, just like our stories.