MY FOOD SPEAKS ALL THE LANGUAGES I CANNOT SPEAK

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Food connects us to home. The smells of family-recipe bread baking or a roasting holiday ham send us right back to our childhood kitchens, licking spoons and sneaking extras. For first-generation Americans, food represents so much more. It’s a chance to bring memories from faraway homes to life—and to introduce these places and journeys to others through dishes, ingredients, and teaching.

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The Southern Foodways Alliance documents the diverse food cultures of the South—and to kick off our web feature series we bring you glimpses of three women cooking from the heart and sharing their worlds through food.

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Food is My Passion
Maria del Carmen Flores
Garden Queen
Haylene Green
African Soul Food
Ida Ma Musu

“Y le doy gracias a Dios porque mi comida habla todos los idiomas que yo no puedo hablar.”

Maria del Carmen Flores wearing a blue dress.
“When I wear these dresses, I feel like I am fifteen years old…born again.” Maria wearing one of the dresses she sews for herself.

Maria del Carmen Flores, originally from El Salvador and now living in San Francisco, knows her handmade tostadas de plátanos (banana chips) and pupusas are more than just delicious—they help her communicate with her customers. “I thank God because my food speaks all the languages I cannot speak. That helps me,” says Maria. “I always say, people should try my food, and if they like it, that’s it.”

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Maria-La-CocinaTo taste Maria’s pupusas is to know her journey, family, and her dreams.  The SFA spoke with her at La Cocina, an incubator for food entrepreneurs in San Francisco. There, Maria runs Estrellita’s Snacks and sells at markets and food-truck fairs across the city. Maria has sold snack foods all her life, first walking the streets of San Salvador as a young girl. In Mexico City, she found a tree near a train station, and “with 100 pesos I bought a carton of beer, some beans [and] a kilo of tortillas…The business was full of people, under a tree, with a colorful blanket.” Her customers nicknamed her joint The Dreaming Rascal. When she arrived in San Francisco, it was making banana chips that allowed her to leave her bartending job, rent her home, and tap back into her entrepreneurial spirit.

Tostadas de Plátanos
Banana chips
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Haylene-SeedsHaylene Green speaks through her seeds—plants of the Caribbean islands rooted in Georgia soil. Her west Atlanta community garden is a dreamscape of Port Antonio, Jamaica, her childhood home. “I was practically born in the ocean,” she chuckled. Before Haylene emigrated to New York City in 1974, she lived amidst a cornucopia of lush tropical produce. “You could walk along the side of the road [to school] and just go in someone’s yard and ask them, ‘Could I pick up a mango?’ We got mangoes. We have avocados. We have coconuts. We have bananas.”

"I wear (my tropical pumpkin) over my shoulder. I call it my baby."—Haylene posing with another one of her vegetables, a squash.
“I wear (my tropical pumpkin) over my shoulder. I call it my baby.”—Haylene posing with another one of her vegetables, a squash.

When she moved south to Atlanta, Haylene was surprised that all those green trees were just green—no fruits or vegetables weighed down their branches. “I said to myself, ‘Well I’m going to change that.’ And I set out to try to plant trees that were edible.”  Her sister eventually secured her a garden plot, and today Haylene grows hibiscus, peppers, okra, bananas, herbs, and tropical pumpkins. You can find her at local farmers’ markets, where she sells Jamaican tropical pumpkin soup and hibiscus sorrel drink—grown with care in Atlanta, Georgia. “People love it…I am known as Hibiscus Sorrel Lady, Haylene the Garden Queen.”

Haylene knows anyone can garden, no matter where they are.
Sunlight, Air, & Water
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Ida Ma Musu
“I do more of a spiritual cooking as opposed to just cooking the dish.”—Ida Ma Musu

Ida Ma Musu escaped Monrovia, Liberia in 1980, in the early days of civil war. It took her years to find her children and bring them to the United States. “I can’t afford to cry, I can’t afford to fall apart,” she would tell herself in those early years. “I have to stay strong.” She opened Braids Out of Africa, but soon felt the need to pass on the cooking wisdom she learned from her grandmother to her customer’s daughters.

A graduate of Chef Ma Masu’s Cultural Cooking School.
A graduate of Chef Ma Masu’s Cultural Cooking School.

Her grandmother would tell Ida, “You have to get to know your pot…you have to fall in love with it.” She taught her to cook by smell and sight, to sense how hot a pan was by holding a hand above it. “I’m related to my food,” says Ida now. “I can look at it and tell if something is wrong.” Before her grandmother passed away she told Ida: “You have to pass [my knowledge] on. If you want me to live forever, the essence of what I’ve taught you will live on in other young women. I will never die because my essence will live on.” After years of hair braiding, Ida opened her café Chef Ma Masu West African Cuisine. Virginia’s first west African restaurant soon had lines out the door. Today at Africanne on Main Ida has established a school to train girls in the ways of her grandmother’s “spiritual cooking.”

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To taste Maria’s banana chips, Haylene’s tropical pumpkin soup, or to eat Ida’s soulful African cooking is to better understand their journeys and to glimpse their most cherished memories of home. The kitchens of these women, and so many others like them, are redefining the foods of the South.

UP NEXT: Discover a few of the beloved, trusty tools of cooks, pitmasters, and more.

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This feature was produced with oral history interviews, audio, photographs, and video from the archive of the Southern Foodways Alliance and the Southern Documentary Project.

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