High On The Hog and The Loss of My Sanctuary

On July 31st, 2019, my birthday, I moved from my own home back into someone else’s for the first time in 16 years. It’d been months in the making. I lost my third job in three years in March of that year, unemployment was gone, and rideshare driving wasn’t sustaining me. Giving up the apartment was inevitable, as was selling a lot of my ancillary appliances and belongings to afford storage for the more serious things I’d hoped to need again — like my bed and dining room table. And as practical as it sounds to speak of now, on that day, my heart was broken like it had never been broken before. It felt like rock bottom. It cemented what had been beating in the back of my mind since I lost my first job and had to give up the house I was living in. I was a failure. A real one. And for me, the greatest punishment was having to regress back a decade and a half to cooking in a kitchen that wasn’t mine. No more homemade biscuits and Sunday meal prep. No more inviting my niblings over to hang out and bake cookies. Now everything I did required extensive advanced planning, because now everything I did required permission. My space wasn’t mine. I was a guest, and no matter how at home I might have felt, I couldn’t forget that.

Fast forward to now. Last week, I decided to watch High On The Hog, a Netflix series detailing the impact of African-American cuisine on American culture, hosted by chef and food writer Stephen Satterfield. The series is based on the book of the same name, by culinary historian and professor, Dr. Jessica B. Harris. In the series, Stephen travels to places in the US and Africa that shaped the African-American cooking and eating experience. From the Water People of Benin to the Carolina coast, to my own hometown of Philly, and the trails of Texas and the beginnings of Juneteenth, Stephen explored the way our food, and the way we prepared it, shaped the way this country thinks and feels about the culinary experience. And while I was watching, one of the main things that struck me was the sanctity and safety of our cooking spaces. In the second episode, Stephen spoke to Chef BJ Dennis and Gabrielle Etienne, both of whom were sharing the ways that they used the woods outside as a special space in their culinary lives — BJ by roasting a whole hog in the ground in a friend’s backyard, and Gabrielle by planting a garden on her family’s land and hosting dinners right there in it. In the third episode, he stood in the actual kitchen that most likely popularized macaroni and cheese. In the fourth episode, Stephen interviewed author and baker Jerrelle Guy, who was brought to tears describing the freedom that her kitchen provided. It resonated so deeply with me, and with my life. It gave me something. I felt… renewed, and validated. The food that we cook has an impact, but the space where we cook it has a legacy, power, and meaning also.

July 31st, 2019 I gave up my apartment and moved into someone’s home. A home where I didn’t have my own kitchen. And having to give it up was one of the hardest things about my entire situation. I didn’t realize how much I loved my cooking space, how much I depended on it to feel normal, until I had to live in someone else’s home for an extended period of time, and cook in their kitchen. There was no space for me there. There was no familiarity… no connection. I’d been using food to commune with my family, and to honor those who taught me. I’d been using my kitchen to remember who I was, and where I came from. I’d been using my culinary space to ground myself, keep myself sane. And then I had to give it up. And it made me so sad that I hardly cooked for eighteen months, even though I loved it, and often wanted to. I didn’t have my pots, or my utensils, or even the room or authority to incorporate my routines. It wasn’t my place. It wasn’t my space. And it had me feeling so disconnected from everything, even myself. In the way that Gabrielle was afraid she’d lose something vital once the state bulldozed her garden to make a highway; in the way that Jerrelle worried she wouldn’t feel as free if she wasn’t baking in a room that was her own, I didn’t know who I was without my own kitchen. It made me anxious, claustrophobic. There was a heaviness in my soul I couldn’t reconcile. And I know now that the cause was a lack of a safe cooking space. I was lacking a place where I could love freely, love safely. It left me open, and exposed. I couldn’t use cooking to ease my mind like I used to. There was no easing my mind.

On March 8, 2021, I started a new job, 13 days shy of my two-year unemployment anniversary. And as of May 1st, I’m in my own apartment again. With my own kitchen. My pots are in the cabinets, my utensils are in the drawers, my system is in place. I’ve even got a brand new Dutch oven, courtesy of my sister-in-law. I’m not baking any cookies yet, but every day I feel less and less heavy, knowing that I can if I want to.

Being born into this wonderful thing called Blackness has been an amazing learning experience. But I’m reminded daily that being Black in America means always looking for a safe space. A place to feel fearless, and share that fearlessness with others. High On The Hog nudged me into remembering that sometimes that place is the kitchen. More than a place to cook and eat, our kitchens (and other cooking spaces) have been a source of courage and comfort. A place to belong to ourselves. It feels great to finally belong to myself again.

Writer. Fat Girl. Whiskey Lover. Hip-Hop Head. Creator. Magical Being.

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Shameka Erby

Writer. Fat Girl. Whiskey Lover. Hip-Hop Head. Creator. Magical Being.