As I was thinking about the meaning of Easter and preparing for it in a practical way, in other words planning the menu, I was pleased that one of the local supermarkets had collard, mustard and turnip greens on sale for only fifty cents a pound. These simple vegetables were my introduction to “soul food”.
Although you can find almost anything here on the buffets in Las Vegas, greens have a tendency to be overcooked in the first place. And when they sit for any length of time on a steam table they almost inevitably meet that fate. So I prefer the ones that I make which are gently steamed and then finished with a topping of sautéed caramelized onions cooked in chopped bacon.
Although it was late January in 1972 it was a bitterly cold day when I arrived home somewhat later than usual. I scurried to get in from the cold and the wind which was fierce – to be greeted by Tristan my Irish Setter and his companion, Josh who was a Newfoundland/Belgian Shepherd mix. I had only a few minutes to warm up before taking them out to attend to their duties.
I sincerely hoped that Josh wouldn’t dawdle as, with the protection off his extremely dense coat, he seemed to enjoy this near zero weather. Perhaps it was the fact that I had come home a little later than usual or that the dogs took pity on me but they both did their thing quickly and I gratefully cleaned up after them and returned home. My fingers were still cold even though protected by heavy gloves.
After I took off my outer clothes and heated up my hands under some warm water, I began preparing their dinner and turned on the little portable television that sat on the kitchen counter, primarily for the purpose of providing some background noise. I went about getting the kids their food and had just placed their bowls on the floor when a news flash came across the screen.
Mahalia Jackson, the Queen of Gospel Music had suddenly passed away in a suburb about fifteen miles south at the young age of sixty years. I remember the chill that ran through me when I heard this – as though the kitchen windows had been flung wide open and the bitter cold had found its way into my apartment.
Although I had been raised in Christianity’s more liturgical traditions where services were very specifically laid out and where the rituals were well defined, from time to time I would visit other churches run by members who had come from a different tradition of the faith. There were no small number of Southern Missionary Baptist churches on Chicago’s South Side from which I could choose.
These were the churches which were the birthplace of Gospel Music – the music over which Mahalia reigned. So different from the Gregorian chant and the works of Mozart and Bach which I knew, these were hymns written by people who had the genetic memory of slavery firmly etched into their experience and into their minds. They were the religious version of the more secular music known as “the blues”.
There was an honest spontaneity on the parts of the congregants to the minister as he would preach his sermon on the selection of Scripture which he had chosen – with enough “Amen-ing” to fill Carnegie Hall to the rafters. There was a great deal of swaying in the seats as they received the Word of God and a great deal of fanning of the face – as though to disperse the Holy Spirit among all the members of the church who had come that Sunday. And, of course, there was the music.
Mahalia sang the hymn, “Precious Lord” at the funeral service for Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. It was written by the Father of Gospel Music, Thomas A. Dorsey after his wife died in childbirth and their newborn daughter died the day later. I present it to you for your enrichment while wishing you a wonderful Easter.
This is the real soul food.