INFLUENCE OF GRANDMAS
BY DEVONN FRANCIS
My mother, when she was upset with me, would turn off her English accent and curse me in Patwa. Her right hand poised on a long wooden spoon. Her left kept time with a tapping foot, humming to her own kitchen song. I felt she could sense my fidgeting. Her devotion was now split between my whereabouts and a simmering dutch oven she inherited—some sort of cauldron from antiquity passed down from her mother from her mother’s mother and dented with love. And as the scent of oxtail and thyme made the air warm and dense like summer thunderclouds, she would conjure me by my second name, bellowing a deep howl.
"Charles!" she screamed. There I was in the layer of the beast, in her kitchen. I sank deep into my dinner chair. I looked up to find her eyes glowing, first dark like cold cast iron, then red as burners on a grease-worn stovetop. Beads of sweat seemed to form strategically at the tip of her nose. She would catch the drops with a folded paper napkin, all the while thrusting a slender finger in my direction like the body of a predator on the verge of a kill: exceptional in every manner of the word, elegant and knowing of its prey.
"DeVonn Charles, finish your food and don't get up until you do so help you God!"
But for a 9-year-old this was a godless place. A forced to finish your dinner before you left the table kind of place. A test of endurance kind of place. A, “Jamaicans eat yam and banana and oxtail ya know!” kind of place. I was nine years old and presumably staring at the back end of an animal, or chicken foot, or fish head. I wanted nothing to do with any of it. Across the table my father was already onto his second helping and paying no attention to my mother and me. He took great pride in sucking the marrow out of each and every bone.
I felt she was watching me. I was meant to deal with the tail and she had stopped time and compressed space in order for me to do so. She was always good like that. She was always crafting magic where it had not yet existed, although at the time I could not yet detect her magic in the not-so-choice morsels. How painstaking it was to gnaw at the bits of meat that engrossed the tail bone and the gristle and cartilage that met my mouth at the most inopportune moments. Little did I know that she had conspired with her kitchen and forced every tough fiber of that animal’s tailbone to be of service to me. She stole away the heat of the earth and pressure and forged dinner out of a tough inedible cut of meat. She wrestled it with spices and a half nelson of herbs. But at the time I did not know. I often dreamed of no place in particular but desperately wanted to make it there—far away from here.
Years later I moved away to New York and found my whole self tingling from the residual magic that my mother cast upon me with her meals. Memories of her kitchen labor and long, thankless afterwork hours over the stovetop stuck to me like burnt ends at the bottom of the pan. Lonely and lovestarved, the desire to connect with my own food history infectiously spread over me. I turned to those private culinary tomes in my mind which encouraged me to claim the kitchen as my space and a way to take dominion over my body and identity—Jamaican or otherwise. I thought fondly of the invisible bloodline that connected me to many dark and calloused kitchen hands. All of those hard-faced Jamaican individuals who loved one another with clenched fists and furrowed brows. These indelible accessories of toughness were the preface to the clashing of lovers coming together by way of heat and pressure just like my mother’s evening supper, simmering until tender in the old dutch oven.
Is DeVonn a model or chef or pretty much the most insightful human you’ve ever run into? I’d venture to say he masters all three with a smile and some sass; in addition to his restaurant jump off, DeVonn also runs Enroot.