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Hear's My Story: Senior Voices in Greensboro

HEAR'S MY STORY, Senior Voices in Greensboro

Let's Eat! Food in Everyday Life

Wysong and Miles Co. Picnic, August 1943 <br> Courtesy Greensboro Historical Museum Archives

Wysong and Miles Co. Picnic, August 1943
Courtesy Greensboro Historical Museum Archives

Everyone cares about food. We need it to survive, but it is important for other reasons too. People use food to show pride in their cultures and to affirm their identities. Eating is often a social event; people use food to connect with other people. For these reasons, we chose to talk to Greensboro seniors about their memories of food. We asked about their favorite foods, how they learned to cook, where they went shopping, and what meals were like in their homes. The seniors memories and insights showed that food both reveals our distinctiveness and can bring us all to the same table.

Learning to Cook

Jeanette Kercadó learned to cook from her mother and grandmother.

"They both cooked really good. I learned some stuff from them. When I was in my teens, I was kind of hardheaded, so I didn't feel like learning anything, but sometimes I would go over and I would look and ask questions. It would stay in my head. I learned a lot."
-Jeanette Kercadó

Picnic, 1943

Jeanette Kercado, circa 1958.
Courtesy Jeanette Kercado

Carrie Ingram also learned to cook from her grandmother:

"All we would say was, 'What else do I need to know?' She was so sweet and so kind in everything. She would tell us, 'I'm going to show you how to do this.' She says, 'I want you to watch me. Pay real close attention. Now the next time I want you to do it.' So that's what we did."
-Carrie Ingram

"Back then they didn't have recipes. They just used a little teaspoon of that, a little teaspoon or tablespoon of that. They made their own recipe. They didn't write out; they figured out in their head and mind."
-Maggie Townsend

The seniors taught their own children what they learned from their mothers, aunts, and grandmothers. Carrie Ingram recalls the first time her six-year-old daughter made a pound cake on the wood stove:

"She wanted to do it, and I told her okay. Made sure she washed her hands real good and everything. I greased the pound cake pan and I made sure all her ingredients were out, had the butter room temperature, everything. She did fine until she started cracking the eggs. The second egg she cracked - when it went all over her hands, she said 'Ewwwww!' I said, 'We're going to wash our hands. You finish, it'll be all right.' She did it. And when the cake finished cooking, it was so beautiful. She was so proud."
-Carrie Ingram

Sources of Food

When they were growing up, seniors recall, their families got food in different ways than we do today. More people lived on farms and shopping was done in small neighborhood stores. For Montagnards who re-settled in Greensboro, the contrast from a rural to urban life has been particularly striking.

Hunting and fishing were important to Mal during his youth:

"If we wanted seafood, we'd just go to the river and get one and eat it on the spot. It's fresh, it's organic. If we wanted meat, we'd go hunting, kill them and eat it fresh, like that."

He says times have changed in his home village in Kontum Province, Vietnam.

"Technology comes along, you know, you don't hunt anymore, you don't just go to the river and get those things."
-Mal, translated by Snow Rahlan

“I didn’t even see a frozen dinner or this, that, and the other until later on. Everything was fresh.”
-Annie Kinion

Jeannett Kercadó, who was raised in Puerto Rico, remembered:

"[In Puerto Rico], they sell fresh coconuts. Somebody just climbs up the tree, knocks them down. You cut it off and then they put a straw in there, and you drink the juice from it. It's really good."

Here in the United States, Carrie Ingram lived on a vegetable and fruit farm. Butter didn't come in a plastic tub.

"Now I never did learn how to milk a cow, but I would churn. You know we had these old-fashion churns with the butter and everything. A lot of people say it's hard, but it wasn't hard. We knew we had to do it."
-Carrie Ingram

Due to segregation, Carrie Ingram avoided the nearby hot dog stand, where African-Americans were only allowed window service while whites ate inside.

“If my money is good enough to go in there to buy a hot dog, why can’t I?”
-Carrie Ingram

Gloria Powell's recipe for fungee

Gloria Powell lived in Harlem. The store owners knew her and they would put groceries on the family's account. Gloria and her sister would go to the store to get cornmeal for the fungee, a Caribbean dish that her mother made.

“The man would take a shovel and there was a bag and he would weigh how much of the yellow meal you had.”
-Gloria Powell

"We always had vegetables. That's what we snacked on. We would go in the garden and get carrots and cabbage and eat it right out of the garden."
- Bedelia Hargrove

Food and Family

Whether a holiday dinner, a church social, or simply an everyday meal with family, food allows people to connect with each other. Friends and family can make even a humble meal taste like a feast.

Lue Ella Mitchell remembers family meals at her home:

"We enjoyed it. Sit there and talk and laugh. Whatever happened that day at school or whatever, we'd sit down and talk about it and laugh." -Lue Ella Mitchell

Gloria Powell's recipe for fungee

Mal, a Montagnard immigrant from Vietnam, remembers grilling watercress and rau dan, a Vietnamese vegetable, in bamboo:

"The best part of it is when you open it and lay it out and eat it as a group." -Mal, translated by Snow Rahlan

Many of the seniors associate food with family and happy memories:

"We sat at a long table. Our grandmother would always sit at the head. [She] would always bless the table. She would pass food around and everything. It was just so joyful. After we had went out and picked the vegetables, get the apples to make the pies and everything, just to sit down and just taste the food, the goodness and everything in the food after our hands had prepared it. It was so good."
-Carrie Ingram

"At Christmastime, we had fruitcakes and cookies and candy and fruit and different things to eat. I was just happy, that's all."
-Betty Taylor

Picnic in Greensboro's Nocho Park, circa 1950

Picnic in Greensboro's Nocho Park, circa 1950.
Courtesy Greensboro Historical Museum Archives

"My grandmother made chicken and dumplings. She was a good cook. She was a Southern cook, and I just loved her dumplings 'cause they was nice and floaty, like they were dancing."
-Gloria Powell

"I loved going to eat out. They take you to eat and get you a little hot dog and a little soda. Oooh, that was a good time."
- Lue Ella Mitchell

"Going out to eat-It's nothing like a good home-cooked meal. When you have the home-cooked meal, you got all your vitamins, just the love and everything that goes in it. You just enjoy it."
- Carrie Ingram

"We almost didn't know what New Year meant back home, because if you can't even live that daily life, how are you expected to eat all that cuisine that other people are having for that particular holiday? [But here in the United States,] if you have a balance in your bank account, go and buy it—but make sure you withdraw lower than what your deposit is!"
-Mal, translated by Snow Rahlan

"When I had to make biscuits and all the dough would get on my hands, I would go wash my hands and then have to put 'em back. [My grandmother] said, 'No need of washing 'em, you got to put 'em right back in there!'"
- Maggie Townsend

"When it was time to help clean up, we'd know we were supposed to go and help and clean up. And it wasn't like, 'Well, I did it [last] time.' We all worked together. That's the way it was."
-Carrie Ingram

Not Having Enough Food

Gloria Powell spent the first eleven years of her life at a residential hospital. At the hospital, punishment might be going to bed without food. At one point, another child kept throwing food under the table.

Gloria Powell and Hellen at Lincoln Hospital, circa 1930.

Gloria Powell and Hellen
at Lincoln Hospital, circa 1930.
Courtesy Gloria Powell

"They would call me out: 'Who threw that bread up underneath the table?' 'I don't know.' 'OK, go to your bed!' And I would go to bed. 'And you're not getting nothin' to eat!'"

But Gloria was clever and hid her bread under her arms. Unfortunately, the adults caught on.

"'Stick your hands out.' You know what happened. The bread would fall on the floor."

The next time it happened, they told her to hold out her hands, but no bread appeared. When it was time to go back to the dorm,

"They was up there grinning 'cause they thought I was walking so funny. Yes I was walking funny. I had the bread between my legs."

"I know what it is to be hungry and by knowing what [it is] to be hungry-it doesn't matter to me what food is. I like lookin' at food. I like the way it looks, you know."
-Gloria Powell

Many of the seniors who lived on farms fared better.

"Yeah, we really had enough to eat. Our aunt saw to us having enough. Even sometimes I think about the times if she didn't have but a little meat she would give it to us and she would tell us that she didn't want no meat. As I got older, I realized she was doing it for [my brother and I]."
-Maggie Townsend

In Vietnam, Mal's family fished and hunted, but things were still difficult.

"In Vietnam we went hungry daily. Even though God said, 'you work, you eat.' And I did work, but I didn't eat. The reason is lack of land and garden for us to plant all the food we needed." -Mal, translated by Snow Rahlan

Unique Foods

What makes food unique or special? We have access to so many more foods today than we did even twenty years ago. A typical American prior to World War II would have been unfamiliar with foods we take for granted, like Chinese food, pizza, and tacos.

Jeanette Kercado's recipe for flan de batata

"With a large family, you would think that we [would know] about spaghetti, but I really didn't until my church in Pennsylvania. They would have spaghetti dinners on Saturday and that's when I found out about spaghetti."
-Bedelia Hargrove, reminiscing about her first experience with spaghetti as an adult.

Immigrants, though, brought their special dishes with them. Jeanette Kercadó remembers her mother's flan and a dish called pasteles.

"It's made out of plantain and bananas, green bananas. And you put in one potato. You grate them all, make the batter out of it, and it's really good because you have this special kind of paper. It looks like wax paper. You flatten it down and then you put this pork meat that you cut and cook separate. Then you put that in there, and olives and stuff, and then you fold it over and wrap it up with a special kind of string. Then you cook it for an hour and that's it."
-Jeanette Kercadó

Gloria Powell's mother, Jean Dottin

Gloria Powell's mother, Jean Dotten
Courtesy Gloria Powell

Gloria Powell's Caribbean mother made a medicine of broth from chicken feet, which Gloria cleaned.

"I had to take that yellow part of the skin off of the chicken feet, then chop his nails off."

"The strangest thing I found is that American food involves sour and sweet at the same time and in Montagnard cuisine, we separate those. If we want something sour we eat it on the side. If we want something sweet we eat it on the side, but it wasn't part of the food."
-Mal, translated by Snow Rahlan

What is normal in one type of cuisine might be strange in another.

"They would boil [the cleaned chicken feet and water], boil it, boil it and then they would strain it and that was good for colds. And they would put other things inside of it, you know, because they was from the Islands."
-Gloria Powell

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