Tuesday, November 15, 2011


Photo: John C. Wilson
You’ve read before about the powerful role of matriarchy in my life. Aside from the lifesaving steadfastness of my Osage grandmother, the shadowy meticulousness of my French-Swiss grandmother, and the bawdy good spirits of our beloved Nana, alert readers have detected references to Mama Diva. As I noted when writing about Nana, if I write less about these women who were and are so important not just to my life but to so many lives, it is not to diminish the power of their influence but because, as is sometimes true of memories, the closest ones hurt the most.

But among the other things it is about, Thanksgiving is about memories, and if pain is carried along with those, then that is not inappropriate for this holiday. Though it is celebratory, Thanksgiving is built upon hardship. The turkey gives of itself to feed us, and the holiday itself proceeds not just from the difficulties experienced by Puritans in what they called “the new world” but from the difficult subject of first contact between Native Americans and those colonialists. Perhaps it has to do with its placement after Halloween, which has a deeply spiritual core whose root is passage, both of time and of lives within time, but Thanksgiving is a time to remember. Though memories of her are a constant companion, there is no more appropriate time to honor Mama Diva that during this period of gratitude and remembrance. Because, as anyone who experienced the holiday with her will affirm, Thanksgiving does and ever shall belong to Mama Diva.

I met Mama Diva on my first day as a young actor/model working at a high end cosmetics counter in a big department store – fittingly, that day was a black Friday. I don’t think too deeply about why we gravitated to each other. I like to believe it was simple kismet. I do know that she saw something in me and I definitely did so in her. We became inseparable in what was to become, along with my husband and my grandmother, the most profound relationship of my life. And for that, I am truly grateful.

By the time I met Mama Diva, John and I had a long-established practice of hosting Thanksgiving dinner for our citybound friends. Mama Diva had an even longer established practice of doing the same. Accordingly, so long ago that I can no longer pinpoint when, the festivities were consolidated. We moved our Thanksgiving from our small, cramped apartment in Brooklyn to her expansive, packed apartment in Harlem. We took our friends and our recipes and our traditions with us, and she met us at the door with hers, and invited us inside.

Memories abound of those times. In writing this piece, I reached out to my family of friends to ask if there were any memories they wanted to share. Among the first to respond was Lissa, who reminded us that when we first started going to Mama Diva’s for Thanksgiving, Harlem had not yet gentrified. Though her pocket of Harlem was not inherently dangerous, the visit nonetheless required some precautions, which Mama Diva arranged via a street escort. How well we remember clambering down the wide sidewalks of that elegant neighborhood, bundled against the northeast chill, laden with boxes of food and bottles of booze. Once buzzed inside, we thanked the walker with an invitation to either come up or stop by later, then clattered across the echoing expanse of the foyer and up the winding stairway. Mama Diva would be waiting on the landing, steam heat and the rich blooming smells of soul cooking roiling out of the open doorway to her apartment.

If Thanksgiving is about family, then family among friends was forged on those fourth Thursdays in November as truly as it is in any dining room whose inhabitants happen to be linked by DNA. I can’t think of a single way that it wasn’t a family holiday except that there were no fights, no misunderstandings, no acrimony. It was such a family day that one year, Lissa brought her mother, and it is reported that this gracious and beautiful woman still glows at the memory of that Thanksgiving, as do we that she was with us. Sisters often brought suitors brave enough to face an audition under no less an all-seeing, all-knowing gaze than Mama Diva’s. And, of course, Mama Diva had her own collection of callers. One time, she invited a gay boy of her acquaintance who brought his boyfriend of the moment. This lad’s family had never really celebrated Thanksgiving and it turned out that he was ill prepared for the carb overload. To this day, not a Thanksgiving goes by where we don’t break into a chorus of “kawffeee” as we recall him stumbling around whining for a cup of just exactly that.

Most of the memories, though, are fleeting. These snippets of experience and remembrances of moments accumulate and, as each year passes as it beautifully and unforgivingly does, coalesce. In the mosaic of my mind, I recall: balancing the plates on our knees. Jockeying for a place on the couch and, if you missed the couch, the game of musical chairs to find one sturdy enough to hold you (Stephen: “ass through chair!”). Smooth jazz on the stereo (Douglas: “now here’s your local forecast”). The incredible smell of the apartment as you first came in. The apple cider, the egg nog, the whiskey. Her sweatshirt, her apron, her slippers (Little Mildred: “footies!”). The pile of dishes afterwards that never seemed to go down. The excitement of the dogs, freed from their holding pen, when they were finally allowed to join the party (John: “Quaddafi!”). Parading throughout the building, bearing slices of dessert and sips of champagne (Lissa: “Freixenet.”), in an open door policy that just exactly echoed the early colonial practice of Harvest Home.

Photo: Eric Diesel
And the food (Kat: “collard greens and nanner pudd’n”)! Two big turkeys, one baked with a ham hock and one baked without for guests who didn’t eat pork. A saddle of salmon and a pot of barbecue. Fragrant clumpy cornbread stuffing and thick dark giblet gravy. Brown and serve rolls and fluffy white rice. Mashed potatoes and candied sweets and creamed onions and pureed rutabagas. She labored for days while I baked pies (Ali: “pie lieutenant”) and cakes and made cranberry sauce. The group favorite was spice cake from my grandmother’s recipe but Mama Diva’s favorite was chocolate-almond torte. Guests brought wine or appetizers or (her favorite contribution) a twenty dollar bill that was destined to make its way to the number hole, where it had better have the sense to return redoubled.

Mama Diva ran a true soul kitchen, so definitively that when I was asked to write a section about soul food for a food encyclopedia I interviewed Mama Diva for the piece. Though she was quite capable of letting her food speak for itself, she was as ready to talk about soul food as she was to cook or eat it. One of her greatest peeves was the common confusion between soul food and southern cooking. She believed that identifying soul cooking as southern cooking was an expression of racism, and she could get quite passionate about it. She was not immune from either the temptation of a few sips of Courvoisier or their effects, but she didn’t need much lubrication to launch into a lecture that was just as certainly a lesson about soul cooking as what was happening stovetop and plateside. Or at the table. Tellingly, no one was turned away. A lot of people came through that kitchen. Sometimes they ate alone in a corner and sometimes they joined in the ribaldry. No one went away empty-handed. Everyone had another meal waiting in a plastic dish, even if it was secreted in their belongings by the hostess when they weren’t looking.

She taught me – and, I dare say, all of us – a lot. She had led an amazing life, from a childhood of want on the Lower East Side to a young womanhood as a noted beauty to a mature womanhood as an artist. She had lived in Los Angeles and Virginia but she was the very essence of Harlem grandeur. Perhaps my favorite stolen moment of the day was gazing upon faded photographs in chipped frames. The woman in those pictures was unaccountably young and quite breathtakingly beautiful. In her day, she had been known as China Doll, for both her beauty and the reverence it commanded. That was a time and a place that to be a great beauty was its own vocation, and brought with it the attentions and responsibilities of fur-swathed and bejeweled evenings in nightclubs. Time had done what it will do, but when she came into our lives, she was no less beautiful. She may no longer have exactly favored the doxie in those frames, but the twinkle in her eyes was the same, as were the camera-ready smile, the quick wit, the regal carriage, the fixed nails, the golden bracelets clanking at her wrists. She was never more beautiful than when she spoke about those days, for it was as if they were happening as she described it. And that is the potency of memory.

I spoke with her by telephone every day. One year, during one such conversation, the inevitable transpired and she confessed that she didn’t think she had the energy to host Thanksgiving that year. I think we all had been quietly expecting this and, though I can’t say a plan was formally in place, as a family we made arrangements without missing a beat. We transferred the event to John’s and my apartment, even though our move to Astoria was so recent that we didn’t yet have a dining room table. No matter; we were used to balancing plates on laps. Kat and Douglas picked Mama Diva up in Harlem and the family converged upon Astoria. We did our best to replicate Mama Diva’s menu and her skills as a hostess, and her pronouncement of the day as a success ranks as one of the proudest moments of my life.

I am comfortable that I speak for anyone who was there that the exact geographic center of Mama Diva's kitchen was the behemoth pot of greens abubble on the stovetop. Greens are the soul of the soul kitchen. They are as pivotal to soul cooking as barbecue, fried chicken and black-eyed peas. Greens are a field crop, the leafy outcroppings of mustard, turnip or collard plants. Some would say they are tough to love and they are definitely tough to cook well. They are rugged survivors in the wild and retain that characteristic in the kitchen, where they must be attended to with equal amounts of discipline and affection. But they give of themselves if the cook is giving in preparing them. I would be lying and thereby risking an ass-kicking from Heaven’s banquette if I told you the below is the absolutely authentic recipe for Mama Diva’s greens. But I have been with her as she made them, and I think I have approximated her greens very closely and maybe even exactly. At the very least, the below is a fail-safe recipe for what I hope will become a Thanksgiving tradition in your home: stewed greens that are, truly, memories in a pot.


That is not a typo in the amount of greens you will need for Thanksgiving dinner; greens cook down. Do not skip the step of soaking the greens; it both removes the extensive grit that are part of cooking with fresh greens and initiates the process of tenderizing the greens that will conclude with the day-long cooking.

For the greens
6 - 8 bunches assorted greens, such as collard, mustard and turnip
2 smoked ham hocks
1 pound small turnips
2 medium yellow onions
1/2 cup apple cider vinegar
1/4 cup packed brown sugar
½ teaspoon hot red pepper flakes
1 tablespoon table salt
1 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper

For the pickled onions
2 medium red onions
1/2 cup white vinegar
2 bay leaves
2 teaspoons granulated sugar
2 teaspoons table salt
1/2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
2 whole allspice or cloves

One or two days before Thanksgiving day
1. Fill the kitchen sink or a large clean food-safe bucket with water.
2. Separate the leaves from all of the greens. Plunge the leaves into the water.
3. Allow the greens to sit in the water for 30 minutes, using your hands to swirl the greens in the water a couple of times during that period.
4. Drain the water from the greens and rinse the greens well under a stream of cool water.
5. If the greens feel gritty, repeat steps 1 – 4 above.
6. Once you have thoroughly cleaned the greens, place a large clean mixing bowl and a large stock pot near your work surface.
7. Working one cleaned leaf at a time, use one hand to steady the leaf while using the other hand to strip down the spiny rib at the center of the leaf. Collect the ribs in the bowl and collect the leaves in the pot.
8. Once you have stripped all of the greens (it will go quickly once you get your rhythm going), cover the pot with its lid. Set aside in a cool place until Thanksgiving day. Check the greens a couple of times during the resting period, picking through to discard any that display discoloration.
9. Pick through the collected ribs to select a half dozen that are brightly colored and clean smelling without being fibrous.
10. Align these ribs side by side along a cutting board. Use a sharp knife to cut across the ribs to form small cross-cuttings.
11. Scrape the cross-cut ribs into a plastic bag and refrigerate until Thanksgiving day.
12. Peel the red onions and remove the root and stem ends. Place each onion on a clean cutting board reserved for fresh vegetables. Halve each onion from root to stem; halve each half. Cut each quarter into thin crescents. Scrape the onions into a heat- and refrigeration-proof bowl.
13. Measure the vinegar into a non-reactive pan. Add the sugar, salt, pepper, bay leaves and allspice/cloves to the pan.
14. Place the pan on the stovetop and turn the burner to medium. Bring to a boil, stirring with a wire whisk to dissolve the sugar and salt.
15. Once the brine is boiling and the sugar and salt have dissolved, turn off the burner. Pour the hot brine over the sliced red onions. It is okay if it doesn't seem that there is enough brine for the onions; the onions will shrink a bit as they season in the brine.
16. Cover the dish containing the red onions and refrigerate, stirring occasionally to ensure that the onions are evenly distributed throughout the brine, until ready to serve on Thanksgiving Day.

Early on Thanksgiving day
1. Peel each turnip and use the tip of a small paring knife to remove the cone-shaped core at the top of each turnip. Place each turnip cored side down on the cutting board and use the knife to halve each turnip from the point downwards; halve each half. Place the quartered turnips in a colander and rinse under cool water. Leave in the sink to drain.
2. Empty the rested greens into a bowl large enough to hold them. Rinse out the stock pot. Place the pot on a back burner of the stovetop.
3. Mix the salt, pepper and pepper flakes together in a small bowl and place near the greens pot.
4. Measure the brown sugar and cider vinegar into the pot. It is okay if the mixture foams; that is a normal chemical reaction.
5. Peel the onions and remove the root and stem ends. Place each onion on a clean cutting board reserved for fresh vegetables. Halve each onion from root to stem; halve each half. Cut each quarter into thin crescents. Scrape the onions into the pot containing the vinegar and brown sugar.
6. Empty the bag containing the cross-cut greens ribs into the pot.
7. Unwrap the ham hocks and nestle them into the pot mixture.
8. Add a few handfuls of the rested greens to the pot. Add a quartered turnip and a sprinkling of the salt-pepper mixture.
9. Turn the burner to low.  Cover the pot.
10. Continue cooking throughout the day, checking the pot approximately every ½ hour to add greens and turnips to the pot, sprinkling each addition with the salt-pepper mixture. As the greens start to really cook down and the onions/ribs start to soften (this will take a couple of hours), stir the contents of the pot after each addition.
11. Cook until you have used all of the greens and turnips and all of the contents in the pot are soft and very fragrant, approximately six hours. Serve hot directly from the stovetop, passing the dish of pickled onions at the table.