It was all glittering and wonderful, despite the ducks.
More than 100 food writers from around the country descended on the historic Peabody Hotel for the Association of Food Journalists’ annual orgiastic “Eat. Drink. Write.” conference. The hotel — a jewel box of burnished wood, marble floors and prismatic chandeliers — seduces with impeccably mannered uniformed staff, a grand piano in the lobby and marshmallow-y feather pillows, yet it is famous for a twice-daily march of ducks through the lobby.
The opening day meet-and-greet was on the hotel’s mezzanine level for prime viewing of the afternoon duck parade. I was glad of the fat, fried green tomatoes and Jack Daniels Peach Sour cocktails that distracted me from thinking about ducks pooping in the fountain and in the elevator.
The fried green tomatoes were just the start of four days of high-octane Southern flavors: citrus-marinated shrimp, beef carpaccio with minted cabbage slaw, grilled okra, hot water cornbread, long-simmered greens with homemade pepper sauce, charred mushroom tamales, succotash, barbecued goat, cheddar biscuits and praline bars. Washed down with fresh-squeezed lemonade, watermelon iced tea and all manner of whiskey cocktails.
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Even more satisfying was the brain food: panels of leading food scholars, journalists, chefs, cookbook authors and filmmakers debating attitudes about food and what they reveal about society.
Kim Severson of the New York Times, explaining why her paper is doubling down on food with a new online cooking site and changing the name of the print Dining section to Food, argued that food is the new cultural currency, taking on the defining role that jazz, then sex, then film played for previous generations. I had never made the connection before about how people now toss around the names of famous chefs with a reverence once reserved for jazz artists or film directors.
And in a session about African-American culinary writing, I had a Proustian madeleine moment.
When Toni Tipton Martin, who is producing a multimedia project about black cookbooks called “The Jemima Code,” said the most important tool in a Southern kitchen is the hand of a black woman, because it can measure and sift and so on, I was instantly transported to Alexandria, Va., circa 1973, when Rosie was in the kitchen making cobbler.
Rosie worked on the cleaning crew at the Navy Annex, where my dad worked, and one day he announced to the family that he had hired Rosie to clean our house as well. We had never had a cleaning lady, and my mom was an excellent housekeeper.
Plus, Rosie didn’t have a car so we had to drive her quite a ways to her home on K Street in the District, as we referred to Washington, D.C., proper. When my dad was explaining Rosie’s qualifications, it seemed odd when he said, “and she makes a very good peach cobbler.”
It turned out that was the main thing she did when she came to our house. Rosie was older and her knees bothered her and she didn’t see well through her thick eyeglasses. But she would come with a brown paper sack half full of peaches from the supermarket.
In the sink, she washed the peaches, then peeled, pitted and sliced them with a paring knife while she laughed heartily about the latest antics of her grandson, whom she was raising.
Rosie used a copper scoop to dump the flour into a large Pryex bowl, but she measured out the sugar, salt and baking powder in her plump, brown hand.
The idea that you could take ordinary stuff like fruit, flour, sugar and butter and turn them into a heavenly deep-dish, pie-like delight was new and exciting. Brownies and Snackin’ Cake mixes were how my family rolled, dessert-wise.
When I asked Rosie, “How do you make it?” she would say, “The most important ingredient is love.”
I would press, “How do you know how much sugar?” and she would say, “I just know. It’s a gift from God.”
My mom, who adored Rosie’s grandson and bought him all kinds of toys and clothes, sometimes wondered aloud to my dad if we could just be friends with Rosie instead of paying her to come and clean. She noted that most days, Rosie would make a mess in the kitchen preparing the cobbler, then clean it up and go home.
But my dad, brother, sister and I realized that the heavenly cobbler was worth more than spotless carpets, and Rosie continued to come and bake for us.
When we moved away, the smell and taste of Rosie’s peach cobbler stayed with me. Over the years — as a teenager, a college student and a mom — I have tried and failed to re-create it. I’ve found and followed countless recipes, many tasty, but something essential is lacking.
Now I know what it is: Rosie’s hand.