Opinion: How one community is feeding neighbors – and passing on traditions

Credit: Robin Franzen Parker.

Credit: Robin Franzen Parker.

Black grandmothers gather virtually to share recipes and tips.

On a recent Saturday night in September, Mildred Braxton did something she never thought she’d do: She taught 20 or so others how to make succotash and steamed collard greens over Zoom.

With the confidence of a Food Network chef, Braxton, a parent of five and grandmother of three, put a skillet on the burner, poured some oil into the pan, and let it heat up before throwing in some chopped onion, frozen corn, frozen lima beans and black-eyed peas, narrating all the while. After covering the pan and letting it all heat up, she added stewed tomatoes, okra, and seasonings.

“Okra is the last vegetable I put in because it’s easy for it to fall apart,” said Braxton, who hails from Mississippi. “Okra has a bad rap. I’m standing up for okra!”

This virtual dinner party is part of a Portland, Oregon-based program called Grandma’s Hands, a platform for Black grandmothers to share family recipes and food traditions with future generations.

So far, the 12 grandmothers involved have prepared four monthly meals for 30 to 40 participants at a time. In addition to delivering the food they make along with a bag of fresh produce grown by farmers of color to the participants throughout the community, the program brings everyone together virtually to partake of the food while sharing recipes and tips.

Though the focus of Grandma’s Hands is to facilitate community engagement and reconnect community members with culturally grounded natural foods and agricultural practices, the program may also help reduce food insecurity by teaching the younger generation the economic benefits of cooking at home for their families.

“Our [modern] life is not conducive to being healthy,” said Chuck Smith, co-founder of the Black Food Sovereignty Coalition, which helps run the program. “Cooking as a regular family activity has been squeezed out of people’s schedules.”

The idea for the series grew out of freewheeling conversations between leaders of a nonprofit and a community health clinic in Rockwood, a diverse neighborhood in the Portland suburbs. Rockwood is one of the poorest neighborhoods in Multnomah County.

At the meeting, Willie Chambers and Lynn Ketch, who represent the Rockwood Community Development Corporation, began reminiscing about their own food traditions.

Joining them was Katrina Ratzlaff, the CEO and advancement director at Wallace, a community health clinic. “I said something like, ‘My memories of cooking and sharing food were standing by my grandma at the kitchen counter,’” Ratzlaff said. “'I think a lot of folks are like that. Grandmas are the anchor. In many communities, they take care of the kids and do the cooking.'”

Chambers was reminded of the Bill Withers' song Grandma’s Hands, and before he’d even nailed down the concept, they had the perfect name.

The idea for the dinners took shape quickly.

Grandma’s Hands started in June and takes place on the third Saturday of every month.

The initiative is funded by a specialty crop grant from the Oregon Department of Agriculture.

Originally, the plan had involved in-person dinner parties, but COVID-19 toppled that idea and the gatherings moved online.

Every month, a group of six to 10 grandmothers, recruited through word of mouth, gets together in person at the Sunrise Center, dons masks, and cooks up meals for the participants.

One grandma takes charge of each month’s meal and also offers to answer questions about the recipe or culinary tradition. Some participants pick up their meals at the center, while others have volunteers deliver them.

“People really enjoy the interactions,” said Willie Chambers' wife, Vanessa. She served as the lead chef for the June dinner, where she cooked sautéed cabbage, corn bread, black beans and spareribs. “It’s a good connection with other family members and other grandmas. We sit and eat together.”

Although eating with others on a Zoom call is stretching the definition of the word “together,” there is a community spirit to these virtual dinner parties.

“How else do you like to prepare okra?” Shantae Johnson, one of the owners of the nearby organic farm, asked Braxton during her lesson. She responded with a time-tested tip: “I like to cut it up into little pieces, coat it with flour or cornmeal, and fry it.”

Because the recipes are posted on the Grandma’s Hands' website ahead of time, participants can prepare the meals themselves — or just enjoy the food the grandmas have cooked and attempt to replicate it at another point.

Later in the evening, during breakout sessions of four to five families each, participants discuss the food. “What did you think about the meal?” Smith will ask, to get things started. Or, “How did you learn to cook?”

Terry Wattley, a Gresham resident who attended the September event, says he has been doing more cooking since he and his wife had their second son.

He has found that the dinners provide an excellent way to get his 4-year-old interested with cooking. He also appreciates the breakout session, where he quizzes others for recipe ideas so he can expand his culinary repertoire.

One of the best parts of the Oregon Department of Agriculture grant is that it allows the Rockwood nonprofit to purchase produce for the meals from Black- and Indigenous-run farms in the Portland area.

The meals have helped some adult participants learn to appreciate vegetables that they’d spent a lifetime avoiding. Chambers, for instance, would have sworn she didn’t like Brussels sprouts. But then, she tried grandmother Rhonda Combs' Brussels sprouts at the July dinner.

“She caramelized them with balsamic vinegar and served them with red peppers, onions, and avocado oil,” said Chambers.

The result was transformational.

“It was like, ‘Wow! I would probably fix this myself.’”

Hannah Wallace writes for Civil Eats, a daily news source for critical thought about the American food system. These stories are part of the SoJo Exchange of COVID-19 stories from the Solutions Journalism Network, a nonprofit organization dedicated to rigorous reporting about responses to social problems. The original story can be found here.