Grandma’s Hands

I thought long and hard about who I would feature first as my inspiration on my journey to becoming a chef & before it was any of the African American chefs that I will feature on this blog, it was my grandmother Elizabeth S Jones.

I remember being a little girl idolizing my grandmother, I slept in her bed when I was five, I would go with her when she would go to care for my Great Grandmother Babe, I remembered how she would make Babe breakfast, clean her home, do the laundry and sit with her. I always was a child who wanted to be with my grandmother & one of my favorite places in the world was to be in the kitchen with her. As a child, I knew food would be a very important part of my life because in my family, food was the epicenter of everything.

My mother & my aunts are all fantastic cooks. I would take inspiration from each of them. My mother Cherry, my aunt Shelia & my aunt Carolyn would each lend me the weapons I use today in the kitchen, but none of them could compare to what my grandmother could do. In fact, the way I cook today is deeply rooted in what I would see my grandmother do. I am a chef who rarely uses utensils when prepping my meals, I have always used my hands to mix my ingredients together, I have always wanted to feel the sensation of the food on my hands and when I look back on it is exactly how my grandmother does things.

With her long, neatly manicured hands which were always had painted red, my grandmother would mix the cornbread dressing just right using only her hands. When she made the potato salad, she would add the mustard, mayo, bell peppers, seasonings, potato, onions & more and then she would mix all the ingredients with just her hands. It was something about that very action of her using her hands instead of a spoon that I realized that she was infusing her “ashe” or essence into the food she made & when you eat my grandmother’s food, you can feel her healing, her love, her peace, & most of all her womanhood.

Great Grandma Babe (Ibae'), Great Aunt Sandra (Ibae') & grandma

My grandmother was the first person to help cultivate my love of food with just the simple action of feeding her family. My grandmother’s food held the story of my family’s place in this country as once enslaved Africans, from the shores of South Carolina & Virgina to the fields of Mississippi & Alabama to the fast city life of Chicago. My grandmother was born in sunflower county, Mississippi in the winter of 1945 to her mother Lonnie who we affectionately call “Babe” & her Father Jessie Jones, Sr. My grandmother was born during a time where racial tensions were high in the south and African Americans were living almost as if they were still enslaved.

My grandmother was the second daughter of what would be 11 sibling and the one most like her mother. When she was 3 years old, my great grandmother moved her and her 3 siblings to Chicago during what was known as the great migration of African Americans in Mississippi to Chicago. Although they had escaped the horrors of being black in post confederate south, being a black woman in America was no easy feat and she would not escape the truth of the south. When she was 10 years old the news of Emmitt Till hit Chicago like a ton of bricks reminding them of the state they left behind. Although my family had left Mississippi & its pain, the state of their origin wasn’t far from their hearts and that was evident in their food.

Aunt Sandra (Ibae') Aunt Dorthea, Aunt Bab, Aunt Nessa (Ibae') & Grandma
Aunt Sandra (Ibae’) Aunt Dorthea, Aunt Bab, Aunt Nessa (Ibae’) & Grandma

My grandmother would learn to cook at a very young age because at the early age of 15 she became a mother to her first daughter Glenda, who she would later lose at the age of 6. My grandmother would be the mother of 2 by the age of 17 when she birthed my Aunt Shelia and in the time of her upbringing it wasn’t out of the normal for a young woman to become a mother early in life. She learned to be nurturing and to care for her family and being a teenage mother didn’t stop her from achieving a multitude of goals in her life. She would become a Nurse’s assistant, and later in her life she would become a licensed cosmetologist. She went on to birth two more daughters, my aunt Carolyn & my own mother Cherry.

No matter what life threw at my grandmother she handled it with grace and strength. At only 4’11 she is a feisty little thing who could curse & throw hands with the best of them. She also has never been a wallflower neither, meeting my grandfather Leon, at a dice game of all places. One thing for sure, is my grandmother is loved by all that came in contact with her due to her hospitality and her caring nature and no one knows this better than her family. My grandmother’s 3 surviving daughters would go on to give her 14 grandchildren and each one of my 13 cousins would tell you that all of our best memories growing up where at grandma’s house and in grandma’s kitchen

Grandma’s house was where we learned to play spades, where we learned to dance, where we learned to fight because my cousin Kenya didn’t play that punk stuff lol, and it is where I learned to love food. My grandma’s house is where I first associated love with food. With a family that would grow to 14 grandkids plus all the additional people who would come to consider my grandmother mom or grandma that number easily grew by 9 when my mother’s sister on her father side, would become my grandmother unofficial daughter & she would adopt her brothers three daughters. With so many bellies around, food was always an important part of the equation.

My grandmother didn’t just cook because she had a large family, she cooked because she enjoyed it. It was her love for her family that kept her in the kitchen & she would always make sure her daughters had their favorites. I would come to watch my grandmother cook for 2 days when thanksgiving was rolling around, making sure Aunt Shelia had her chitterlings, my mother had her sweet potato pie & my aunt Carolyn had her dressing. I watched the way she used her hands to infused flavor into everything she made from greens to fried chicken to my all-time favorite, her potato salad.

I didn’t realize at the time because I was a child, that everything my grandmother would cook had the history of my ancestor wrapped into & the love of the south. See as a child I didn’t know that we were the products of Mississippi, Alabama & South Carolina, I just knew that this food was love. My grandmother’s food fed our souls as Soul food should. As a child, I wanted to know how to make food the way my grandmother did & at 9 years old she began to teach me with my first task of picking the collards for the thanksgiving meal. I remembered those massive leaves seemed bigger than I was & grandma would show me how to remove the leaves from the stalks and tell me to make sure that I picked them good and clean. It was this very moment I knew food would hold a significant place in my life. My grandmother was the first to encourage my love of cooking & the first to affirm my gift. When I would fry the chicken just right, she would brag to anybody who would listen how good it was. Everything that food has given me I owe to my grandmother, not because it’s the story of most black cooks in American, but because cooking with her was where I learned what real loved looked and felt like. My grandmother is the Matriarch of my entire family, immediately and extended. She gracefully stepped in her mother’s place when Babe transitioned, after ensuring she was well nourished and well cared for in her final years of life. I have fond memories of going to Babe’s house as my grandmother cleaned for her and cooked her favorite things. I also remembered how she would try to doctor the powdered milk and cornflakes for me because it was the only cereal Babe ever had lol. She brought her little sister back from the brink of death and added 20 years to her life, through love and food. And when my cousin Kenya was tragically murdered at 17, my grandmother, despite the pain of losing her first grandchild, helped us get through our lost by making sure we ate well through our bereavement period.

I could write about her for ions because she has inspired my career in more ways than ways than I think she even realizes, but I will wrap this post by introducing you all to my first “Ode To the Black Chef” spotlight, the first person to teach me why soul is important in our food. The first person who I admired in the kitchen, My grandmother Liz.

Over the next four weeks, I will share some of my family’s stories through the recipes that inspired my career. Not only will I share what my grandmother taught me, but I will also share what I learned from my mother & my aunts in the kitchen. Before I idolized the likes of Edna Lewis & Leah Chase, I Idolized my grandmother, so I hope you enjoy getting to know who I am as a chef through the food that made me the person I am today. – Chef Bella Jones

****My grandmother currently resides in San Antonio, Texas with her great granddaughter Tytiana & her little fur baby Cj. She is the proud grandmother of 14 and great grandmother to 24.****

One thought on “Grandma’s Hands

  1. I would love to meet her. I feel like I already know her; partly though knowing you; partly because your descriptions of her reminds me so much of my own great-grandmother, Mama Nez. Bless her for her inspiration ‘pon generations to come and congratulations on your own journey. Bon Appetit!

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