“When you come to a fork in the road, take it.” – Yogi Berra
Have you ever come to a fork in the road? Have you wondered if they would lead you to the same place? How do you know which one to take?
Alice Walker has this story called “Everyday Use.” It’s a fantastic story that I teach almost every semester. It’s a story about a mom and her two girls, told from the perspective of the mother. The two daughters are as different as they can be. One is called Maggie, and she is not terribly sophisticated, and maybe she has passed up some opportunities to get herself farther ahead in life. But she did that so she could stay with her mom. Maggie is a good person, genuine. The other is named Dee – actually she has changed her name to Wangero. The change is symbolic of her new, better life. She left home, went to college. She has become her own person.
So there’s an interesting thing that always happens when my students and I talk about this story. No one really likes Dee. They think she has appropriated her culture for selfish reasons, they think she is out of touch with what matters, they think she should appreciate her “old” life more than she seems to. They think Maggie is “nice” because she stayed with her mother. They think Maggie has missed out on a lot, but her choices somehow seem easier to live with. These are all true observations. Here’s the interesting part: they like Maggie, but they don’t want to be her. They’d rather be Dee.
This story means something to me because sometimes I feel like the outlier in my family. I moved out on my own after high school. I stayed behind in Maryland when my family moved on to Pennsylvania so I could start my own life, be independent. I wanted to be “more” – always have. I have remained in Maryland as my family has come full circle and returned to Tennessee. I put myself through college. I think differently. I do feel like I have chosen a different kind of life. Not a better life, but a different life.
There are things about my southern heritage that I really miss, and I acutely feel like I am not part of them at times. There is a line in Walker’s story where Dee wants these quilts that are family heirlooms – she wants to display them as art, which in its own way is a way to honor them, but not quite the right way maybe. After some argument about them, the mother says that Maggie can make more – she knows how to quilt. The implicit statement is that Maggie is part of the culture and Dee is not. I think about this a lot lately. The fork looms – what will make the difference? This is the difficult choice so often in life. Both options seem to have their advantages, but is there real difference in choosing one path over the other? Are we destined to be who we will be no matter what? Would Dee be a “better” person if she had stayed close, learned to quilt?
I have always wondered about this. It has been looming larger lately as I contemplate what the next phase of my life will be. I have accomplished many personal and professional goals, so naturally I am thinking about what is next. In this mindset, I recalled a poem I wrote in 1999 when I was a sophomore at the University of Baltimore. Just a month after I wrote it, my great-grandmother died, and I read it as part of her eulogy at her funeral. It was a way to honor her memory and what she meant to our family. Just this year, the Blackbird Poetry Festival ran with the theme of “Histories and HerStories,” and I decided to revise it to read it at the festival, this time thinking of all my grandmothers and how there is this legacy that maybe… the thought is hard to finish. It may be true that you can never go home again. Or maybe it’s not. I don’t know. Grandmothers seem to be the key to memory somehow, they are the stuff the tapestry is woven from. Maybe it’s that we all revolve around them – they are the center of the universe for big occasions, like Christmas morning. Or maybe it’s the food – the smell, the taste, the good feeling. At any rate, here is the poem, and of course it has to do with food.
“For Your Grandma”
On her pale, wrinkled hands, each line a dozen stories
Of days spent combing the hair of her grandchildren,
Pulling out splinters, washing out scratches, and wiping away tears.
Rough, scaly hands riddled with scars of picking, pickling, and canning,
Purple fingers, purple hands, stained from beating the beets,
The evidence of a life spent reaping the fruit needed for living, every day.
I watched her sometimes while she cooked.
Her fingers, long probing rods, kneaded the bread,
And her flour-covered hands tossed, slapped, and shaped sticky globs
That were thrown onto the biscuit pan
And shoved with purpose into the hot oven.
In a strange, wordless language, she smacked the helpless
Dough into perfect submission.
If you are from The South, you’d better be able to make biscuits.
They should be made of lard and flour, laced with butter, milk, and salt.
They must rise, golden and perfect.
They better not be made with Bisquick.
Otherwise, you might as well live in Maryland.
In my grandmother’s house, biscuits were a form of currency,
Good as money, the bread of life.
The oven timer was a siren call to the breakfast table,
A starting gun for the day, a blessing, a prayer.
I am a long way from that Tennessee kitchen, and
I hope she does not hear this: but I cannot remember
How to make biscuits the way she did.
I do remember her hands.
Wherever she is now,
I want her to see: my mother, my sister, me:
We have risen, we are golden, we are delicious.
And because you can’t talk about biscuits without really wanting one, here is a recipe for biscuits like my Grandma Odum used to make – they really are the best. The key is the lard:
2 1/4 cups of all-purpose flour
1 tspn salt
1/3 tspn baking soda
5 tbspns of lard
2 tspns of baking powder
1 cup of buttermilk
1/4 cup or so of melted salted butter
- Mix dry ingredients and sift into mixing bowl, then cut in lard until the mixture resembles a coarse meal.
- Stir in buttermilk until it is incorporated with the flour mixture. The dough will be kind of wet and very sticky.
- Flour your hands and turn the dough out onto a lightly floured surface. Roll the dough in the flour just enough to make it workable – you don’t want it to stick to your hands too much, but don’t work in too much extra flour either or the biscuits will be heavy and taste of raw flour.
- For each biscuit, pinch off a piece of dough about the size of a large egg or a small lemon and pat out in the un-greased pan with your hands. You don’t want it to be really flat, just pat it down a bit so it’s relatively biscuit-shaped and about 1 inch high.
- Bake at 475 degrees for 10 to 12 minutes until the tops are golden brown. Keep your eye on them while they’re in the oven so they don’t burn.
- Brush tops of biscuits with melted butter. Enjoy the awesome.
© Ryna May 2016