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Voices / Essay

Let’s talk and get uncomfortably comfortable, but I will include a recipe

(No. I really did. But we must start in a hard place first.)

Shanta Lee Gander is an artist, writer, reporter, and multi-faceted professional in the areas of marketing, management, event planning, and more.

West Brattleboro

Over the years, I’ve learned that cooking food and throwing a shindig can create a natural lubricant to make people come together with greater ease.

As a method of creating mutual understanding, socializing over food isn’t perfect. It doesn’t solve any of America’s many diseases — race, class, and so on. And sometimes, much like the process of cooking, things need to start with a lot of work before the labor can be enjoyed. We need to start in a hard place long before things can appear seamless.

So let’s start with the uncomfortable.

* * *

It’s not my job to teach or lend understanding. Nor is it my job to explain how I calculate the energy I want to spend on conversations that require me to ask myself about the link to racism, ageism, or both. Nor is it my job to send links to articles in order to provide someone with an understanding of why their behavior is racist.

I can just tell you that it is exhausting when I imagine if certain things would still happen if I were a White person.

Beyond that, I can’t explain how the offer for help that I never asked for — alongside the explanation of someone’s professional background — causes me to question all my years of experience and education.

I can’t explain how signs and bumper stickers do less to welcome me than symbols and actions do, like the way in which stores that carry visible cultural signifiers vis-à-vis clothing, hair products, or food are actual embodiments of welcome. All the rest are empty signifiers, high off their own virtue signaling. In other words, actions hold more promise than empty gestures.

I can’t share my exhaustion in explaining why I tend to focus on and have a passion for Black American/African diaspora history within my research, while I also have to explain that it isn’t leaving other groups out.

I can’t express the rage within my bones each time I carefully navigate and censor myself as a Black woman in Vermont to respond to the individuals who gaslight me in public or in private spaces in ways that cause mere observers to say, “You must take the high road. It isn’t worth it.”

I want to give my MBA brain and two decades of experience a break so that you don’t have to hear all of the ways that businesses, organizations, and so many other folks need to step up their strategic planning game in order to move forward in real ways rather than adding diversity in as something to check off a box.

And, of course, I won’t bother talking about how brown bodies continue to be the foundations upon which local and national White soapboxes are leveraged.

* * *

We are almost ready to eat.

I’ll share something that I’ve been doing to build my own community across genders, races, and any other box anyone wants to check off. It is as close to my skin as my own name and lives as deep as some of the few joyful memories I have from childhood.

I do a gathering I call Black Southern Thanksgiving. Now I know what some of y’all might be thinking: How can I claim to bring folks together with something with that title?

This is what makes it special.

The title has nothing to do with the color of the skin of the folks who attend. In fact, it is partly tongue-in-cheek, or flip in a way that fits my humor.

It is also about paying homage to my Great-Auntie Mary Franklin, who threw down when she cooked. Summer family gatherings were legendary with her and my Great-Uncle John at the helm.

Thanksgiving was no different and included everything from the baked candy yams (complete with the marshmallow topping), the macaroni and cheese, the ham, the turkey, and the collard greens.

For most of my 10 years of living in Vermont, as each year passed, these kinds of Thanksgivings become more distant. Macaroni and cheese, were missing in action for years, as were the collard greens. I never questioned it, until a fluke and encouragement from my husband brought them back.

In 2017, I was brave enough to ask my mother-in-law if I could bring some macaroni and cheese to Thanksgiving. She politely declined, which prompted me to murmur, “I guess that is only at Black Thanksgivings.”

Honestly, as a fellow cook and hostess, I understood the polite decline. She had everything all set and did not need the complication. Not one to miss any beat, she asked what I said, I repeated my statement, and we all laughed.

The comment sparked a conversation about the different ways we all celebrate Thanksgiving. The conversation also gave birth to an idea that I had not thought about until that evening.

That night, after returning home, I said to my husband, Mac, that it had been years since I had had the full spread from my childhood. As with most conversations in our house, this turned from the expression of longing to Mac saying, “You are making me hungry. Why don’t we have Black Thanksgiving at our place?”

That year was the start of a now-annual tradition, with a spread of many dishes, alongside things like cornbread stuffing, regular stuffing, and sausage stuffing. In 2018, a friend opened his home and we hosted more than 40 people there.

That year, I didn’t think about the more than 20 hours of cooking in preparation, or that it was the first time on my feet after my recovery from surgery. I just thought about how much joy it brought me to bring everyone together and share something I’d not experienced for so many years.

It brought me closer to thinking about my Great-Auntie Mary.

As clichéd as it sounds, food is a bridge. This tradition of ours connects our New York, Vermont, and Connecticut friends under the same roof, whenever they can join us.

* * *

I’m not claiming that any of this can serve as the bandage for a deep wound that requires so much salve.

Still, for a moment, when sharing this tradition, a space is created for people to just show up and share any kind of story they wish, or just cozy up in the corner to carry on a conversation with someone they just met.

For one moment, I can just focus on keeping the stuffing moist, or whether someone has gotten their share of banana pudding. I don’t have to censor myself. Any crazy stories that I or my guests wish to share can take place in a space free of judgment.

The recipe I offer up is sweet potato bake. Now, this isn’t for the faint of heart — stamina is required, as is love. Oh, and friends: friends of different stripes, shades, and backgrounds to join in the affair and just eat.

And now, the recipe.

Sweet Potato Bake

¶10 lb. of sweet potatoes

¶2 cups light brown sugar

¶12 Tbsp. melted butter

¶2{1/2} tsp. cinnamon*

¶2 tsp. salt*

¶1 tsp. nutmeg*

¶2 large eggs

¶2{1/2} cups marshmallows

¶Pinch of powder ginger

¶A few teaspoons of vanilla extract

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees.

Wash and peel the sweet potatoes. Boil them potatoes until tender. Drain and mash them in a large mixing bowl.

Mix in the melted butter, brown sugar, vanilla, salt, nutmeg, and ginger.

Add a dash of any of those ingredients (except the butter, you won’t need more butter) to taste and mash. Some lumps are okay, but you will want the general texture to be almost smooth.

Add the vanilla extract and mash. Then switch to stirring.

Transfer the mixture to a large aluminum pan. Sprinkle the marshmallows over the top.

Bake for 45 minutes at 350 degrees. Make sure to check on it at the 30-minute mark.

I don’t usually measure when I cook, so you might need to adjust ingredients marked with an asterisk to taste.

When chefs share recipes, sometimes they leave out a missing ingredient on purpose. Feel free to add whatever you think might be missing from this in order to make it your own.

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Originally published in The Commons issue #548 (Wednesday, February 12, 2020). This story appeared on page C1.

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