Black Estrangement • Vol. XLV FoodSeptember 12, 2023 |

Chicken Soup: Seven Attempts

to say it happens, unaided, without sanction, would be untrue

— “Pathology,” Ife-Chudeni A. Oputa

1.

The kitchen on Medway was our initial sanctuary. You know the place. Thirty-year-old appliances the color of split pea soup, offset by wall-to-wall calico shag and a speckled Formica countertop. On the back wall hung a portrait of white Jesus (replaced by Black Jesus after my parents bought the house) and a corner placard pronouncing faith as good works. It was our first home after leaving Georgia for Maryland; the Northern subtext was never paid forward. Monopoly strewn across a glass tabletop on long Sundays meant for braiding hair and watching a roast — the kitchen was a brief depot in the narrative of who we would become. At the stove was usually where you’d find her. Cracking a frozen brick of turnip greens over a slippery strip of bacon, back leaning elegantly into the last drag of a True Menthol. 

Willarena is cooking. It is end of day, and dinner will be ready soon. Once the greens hit the bacon, and the salt and fat steam into a low, rumbling whisper. 

“Come over here and help me, Tallulah.”

Tallulah was her name for me, a nod to the eccentric actress known for her husky voice and women lovers. I was an overly sensitive child, often perched near my mother’s side. Tallulah Bankhead — a deliberate foreshadowing on her part and mine, which was a certain kind of mothering, the wisdom of prophecy in few words. With one hand bracing herself on the counter, Willarena reached up toward the spice cabinet, tiny toes flexing inside white satin slippers, with only the slightest rise. 

Maybe I walked over to the stove to provide relief after her long teaching day. I was taller than my mother, which wasn’t tall at all. Maybe I grabbed the shaker before she did, so she wouldn’t have to reach. With a few taps, the McCormick got added. Most of the time, she beat me to it; I’d return to the table defeated, plump thighs pressed into the wicker chair. Most of the time we didn’t speak until “Dinner’s ready!” flew out of her mouth, pursed in agitation. 

I need us to begin here, pausing to glance around at our invisible others. So many of us in this room, at this table. My mother’s weariness held the work of many inheritances. The hand-me-down labors of tending to a home with passion while quieted dreams swirled within. Before she became a mother, Willarena wanted to be an actress and a model. My inheritance — in which my name is Tallulah and dinner is cooking — was a wish. 

I want to meander here for a while. 

Postmodernist concerns of the domestic: coffee-colored stockings, Senga Nengudi’s R.S.V.P. series, 1977; unclipped hairpiece, Wigs (Portfolio), 1994, by Lorna Simpson; a stewpot, calling forth Blondell Cummings’s “Chicken Soup,” 1981 (despite the actual cast-iron pan Cummings wields as prop); and a hand on the hip, none other than Jackée Harry’s Sandra Clark, 227

Willarena scoops her usual small portion onto a saucer with a blue rim and retreats to her room, where the Julia Roberts rom-com Something to Talk About has been playing for some time. 

Was my mother an artist? 

When we lived there, I often felt as if we were living inside someone else’s life, their home. My mother might have too. The house was covered in dated wallpaper with a pattern of round bodies in tubs of soap bubbles, wood paneling in the living room, and a wrought iron railing on a stone front porch. One main road hoisted up our neighborhood archipelago. Just behind our house was Starland skating rink. s-t-a-r-l-a-n-d glowed red against the dusk of weekend evenings. A grapevine threaded wild inside the pipe-thick eaves above the small patch of yard in the back. When I was a kid, those vines inevitably became a jungle within my fabricated worlds. Today, white plastic fencing has replaced the rusty railing on the front porch. I would like to believe that the grapevine is still there, but I can’t be sure. My adult glimpses have been in quick drives during winter visits, with one eye on the road and the other peering down the wide lane of driveway, to notice the eaves now painted white. 

My mother’s kitchen, her stage, always allowed for a sacred returning. Much like remembering her, recalling the house is like conjuring a ghost. 

Willarena sashays into the kitchen, another smoke between her fingers, hips sloping from side to side. 

“Tallulah! Tallulah Bankhead! This movie is so good, Erica.” 

She pauses, to make sure I’m listening.

“This white woman walked into this salon, where ev-ry-body was, and sa-a-a-a-id, ‘If any of you has’ ” — Willarena pivots, whispering — “ ‘slept with my husband, tell me right now! ’ ”

She tosses her head, her words giving in to a vibrating snicker. The high pitch rings low as water leaks from her eyes. Pivoting again, she returns to her bedroom, still cackling and carrying on at this white woman’s audacity. 

Our house had two stories. 

Not long after school begins, my father receives a phone call. He is to pick Willarena up from school because nigger is scrawled on her car windshield. We all thought that this part was over. Back in Georgia, one of her student’s parents was in the KKK and threatened to “come and find you after school.” 

I am a teenager when my parents buy a house on the other side of town. The dryer’s edge is a ballet barre; my Discman plays Vivaldi. With sickled feet, I need to practice. The sound of the satin pointe shoes smacking, thumping, pounding against the slick linoleum in our laundry room resembles a child’s applause. Up onto my toes, then down — toe, ball, heel. Heel, ball, toe. I can rarely sustain more than a few seconds up on my toes — straight legs, arms free. After a few rounds, I collapse into a pile of myself, shove my fingers inside the shoe, creating a space for my toes between the lambswool and the “pointe.” I believe that if I create more space, then I can dance just like everyone else.

I am in the kitchen now, the newest one, with the linoleum floors. I am still in my leotard; my jeans are unbuttoned, and my tummy pushes out, full of pork chops and green beans. My mother always frowns at the way I wear my shoes throughout the house, heels tucked in, ribbons dragging behind me. 

Erica, them damn shoes are too expensive to be dragging across the floor like that! 

Her kitchen is bigger now. She is still tending to the stove. A pile of lesson plans sun themselves on our dining room table. Double doors open to a deck displaying dense pines and maples in a mysterious thicket in our backyard. A wooden wishing well with a shingled roof nestles in the center, a leftover from the previous owner. Her eyes steady, she is grinning into my shiny black eyes. With a nod, she motions to a plate of black-eyed peas and greens on the counter before turning back to her work. Eat, baby.

2.

In 1982, the year I was born, choreographer Ishmael Houston-Jones curated Parallels, a dance festival that featured, according to The New Yorker, “[B]lack dance artists as living in two worlds at the same time.” 

Feared and fearless. Risky and unseen. 

This cultured world, the worldliest of worlds, carried notes from Black American tradition: praise, affirmation, the blues. The other world was modernism, an art form or mode of thinking typically allowed their white counterparts. But Jones was curious, specifically about the Black artists whom some considered to be different or, as he described them, “pushing the form.” 

Parallels showcased many up-and-comers — Blondell Cummings was among them. Her signature work, “Chicken Soup,” famously ends with her on the floor, her small hands clutching a sponge. They move back and forth, left to right. Hands, no longer yours, contracted, owned, and directed by another, like a tool or an object. 

This cultured world, the worldliest of worlds, might not contain a kitchen table. When Cummings sits, she returns to what appears to be a conversation. She hears something. Is it us? Are we there? A nod, a wink, a glance tossed out into the galaxy of women in their kitchens. She is careful not to give the secrets away. From the back, someone calls her again. Uh-huh! she replies, pausing to listen once more. Between the thrusts of her body and sharp, gentle jerks from side to side, there is work. Ordinary work, lifted carefully and high into the light, newly born. Those few seconds of travel — from stove to shrug — are a passageway, correcting course.

Cummings jumps up to standing posture — appearing to convulse, but surely catching spirit. There is a pot on the stove. Soup is cooking. She lurches upright, stiffens her posture, then unfurls into an elegant height before collapsing back into her seat. Her movements are familiar — arms extended in front of her, then bent, and again, each gesture enlivens the composition. Attention blossoms each time as she raises the skillet high above her head, praising her portal for entry and allowing for her persistent return. A swing of her arm ramps up the motion as she hovers above her seat. The critic makes her edits, “[T]he piece didn’t take place in our house; it took place in her grandmother’s house.” But it also took place in the kitchen. Rocking, washing, repeating. Listening. Tending to domestic chores has been inherited thinking space. Minding the making, what we imbue is just as important as where it came from. 

As I write this, I am ironing my clothes before a fast-paced summer of teaching. I want to be prepared. Making too. What I finish may not be mastery but it is a signal. What is also there, what is beyond?

American academic Patricia Hill Collins understands archetypes to be “controlling images,” a fastidious clarification for a personhood that could never align with the fallacy of institutional place. Blondell Cummings described her work as “moving pictures,” a means of choreographing archetypes and allowing these controlling images to speak. Chicken soup disturbs this perpetuity. Akin to mother’s milk, chicken soup is believed to be a remedy. More potent, it contains that crucial, yet hard-to-name something-or-other that can soothe the disparate ailments encasing our days in fogs of despair, or any achy restlessness. Blondell Cummings coaxed out the deeper complexity of domestic life; she allowed Black everyday life to become material, by taking us a few brilliant steps away to hover over the stove top and see what’s cooking. Her choice was crucial — the catch-all remedy, a solvent translatable across cultures and generations. Chicken soup is always a mystery in which the ingredients populate, and a bowl — steaming and fragrant — is placed in front of you.

Chicken soup, as location. 

Chicken soup, as pattern. 

Chicken soup, as distance — a reclamation of distance. I say, This isn’t about my mother. I would rather call myself a critic to intellectualize and name my preoccupations — chicken soup, the kitchen table, this essay. 

I might be asking: How do I write this? Without her, my table, where do I begin? 

3.

I like the way the word kitchen carries multiple meanings depending on where Blackness arranges itself in your life, your body. That soft coiled hair at the nape of my neck containing my history, sight unseen. A third eye. Or, of course, the kitchen where the food gets made and the conversations buzz. Some things solved, some things cast away, and everything else in between. Lorna Simpson’s Waterbearer, with arms stretched wide in a dimension where history and the domestic and my tender scalp all can sing. I go there to perform. To listen, bear witness. My consciousness resides in the kitchen. 

The kitchen table as art object is itself a study of the feminine, both in praise and subversion of the domestic, a historic organizing principle — politicking and figuring out solutions, a haven for tarot, a potential archive for our delicious back talk. Carrie Mae Weems’s Kitchen Table Series asked viewers to reconsider this legacy, through the story of a young Black mother and configurations of her daily life. Her daughter, husband, or friends often gather, but quite poignantly she is alone, the table bearing witness to her deepest ruminations. In a revolutionary image work, the poet Morgan Parker places herself at the table, hair tied back, forearms tattooed, cigarette in hand. These personas subvert otherwise flat archetypal intentions with more realistic depictions — a distance marker as postmodernist reach. 

4.

I was twelve years old the first time I made chicken soup. Puberty had rendered me quiet, and I often disappeared into a book. I wasn’t feeling well, but I didn’t have the kind of symptoms we usually look for. There was no runny nose. No headache or coughing. There was no fever. I just didn’t feel good, and I was growing more and more stuck inside myself. Chicken soup, as an act of caring for myself, might have been my first attempt at performance. 

“Whatchya doin’, girlie?” Daddy called. His cheerful greeting informs a busy start at his office.

“Oh, watchin’ TV.” I walk away from the phone cradle, stretching the cord, and return to leaning over my pot. 

“How are you feeling?” His gentle concern asks if everything is OK, assures you can talk to me. I wasn’t one for staying home from school, but that day I woke up already filled to the brim, warmed over from thinking, barely able to dress myself. Both my parents were already out the door — their commutes required an early start. I am standing in front of the television, clutching a pencil. Eventually, I think, I will finish my homework. My hands need something else to do. “Oh, fine. Better.” I am murmuring now, giving myself away for doing nothing. 

“Now, don’t mumble, baby.” He pauses. “Have you eaten? There are some cans of Dinty Moore Beef Stew and Campbell’s in there. Tomato soup.” 

“Yeah.” 

“Oh, you did? What did you eat?”

There was leftover chicken in the house. Soup needs onion, and chicken soup needs carrots and celery. Carrots get tossed in, along with last night’s diced onion. 

After a little while, I dumped it all in, the vegetables tumbling down to the bottom in deep splashes. Broth sizzles on the burner, forming small white bubbles. “I made soup.” The word falls out with as little pride as one should muster for such a youthful accomplishment. 

“Which one? I had beef stew for lunch.” 

“No. No, I made chicken soup.” The white mug with the cascading red hearts holds a portion of the soup, steam rising into the air above me. I am leaning over the mug now, and my face casts a shadow — round cheeks and a long slender trunk of a neck on my petite frame. 

“You made soup? All by yourself?” 

“I don’t know. I just made it.” 

When my father comes home, he barely loosens his tie before announcing, “Now I want to see this soup.” 

His was a charge, grounded in a request from me, that this soup was true. A twelve-year-old cooking for herself isn’t necessarily a marvel, especially this twelve-year-old, but there was mood, and not enough information. I stand, still draped in the clothes that I slept in, and follow him to the kitchen, where he is already opening the refrigerator door, with one arm resting on his thigh, head tilting from side to side as he scans for the soup. 

“I threw it away,” I say, placing both hands on the kitchen counter. 

“You threw it away?!” His voice cracks and he turns his head quickly in my direction. 

“It’s in the garbage.” I pause, moving away from the counter. 

Laughter fills his tone now, his neck falling slack. “Why would you do that, girlie?”

“I don’t know.” 

“Hmm.” He closes the refrigerator door. Then, just as quickly, he breaks contact, to save himself, and reunites with his after-work chores. “I can’t understand how someone would throw away something they made from scratch, for the first time. I would want to share it. I would be proud of it.” His voice trails off as he continues to narrate his way through the house. I shuffle to my bedroom and sit on the edge of the bed, pencil in hand.

5.

I write from a wooden secretary. I found this desk after the first night I spent in my Queens apartment. Now there are black cigarette burns on its edges, noticeable when papers shift, memorable for the sentences I completed while a disregarded cigarette smoldered alongside me. The desk was accompanied by a bookshelf; they were left curbside, in front of the apartment building next door, waiting for me. Both pieces of furniture were conjured by my anxious prayers the evening before. I was alone that night, slowly accepting that I had finally done it, that I had finally left my white farm town and made it to New York to do my Black soul some good. The decision to leave was an early belief in what is mine. And after many years in this sanctuary, I am now able to reflect on the radical quality of my departure, a physical enactment of the tight breath in my chest that could not be released, that I was unable to let live. And along with being a sanctuary, when I think about this, I realize that this apartment has also been a certain kind of prison. As I sit here and piece together my survival, seeking to understand my imagination and hoping to enjoy the rest of my life, I must accept that I have been here before, at this desk, recycling ways to hear myself.

My posture is terrible; one would never know that I was a ballerina. The pain in my groin causes me to slouch over my keyboard. My pelvis is tilted forward, which has created a knot that hurts when I walk or sit or stand. Or breathe. A massage therapist told me that it is common to have uneven hips; most people walk around this way, undiagnosed. My wife would later discover this knot while we made love, her hand gently placed in that nook below my pelvis, where my thigh connects to it. There was a curious look on her face, as if her hand were a tuning fork, and my groin, dense and emotional soil. Something is in there, she said. 

Early days in New York satisfied my yearning for a home. The air smelled new —  it held a privacy that would soon construct my writer self. The apartment was waiting for me in the Village Voice. I spread the pages out on my bed and circled listings with a pen. We each put down eighteen dollars to cover security plus first plus last, which I took from my summer 2000 paycheck. I spent an entire summer looking for an apartment that would be my home for fifteen years. After ten years there, I will be told by a therapist that I stay too long at the fair, when I’ve returned to the arms of a woman who doesn’t love me, for one of many “last times.” I crack a joke about lesbians and then drag myself onto the N train, water pooling in my eyes. I don’t eat that night. I don’t eat most nights. Instead, I pour a hefty glass of wine and drag my pen through pages of my journal — a taut, illegible record of grumbling loneliness. 

Kitchen tables appeared in rotation. I can often more readily envision their shapes than I can their owners, my roommates. The longest one, with six grown-up chairs, arrived. We were holding it for a friend who couldn’t fit it into her apartment. The size invited dinner parties. (Dinner parties were usually comprised of a “big egg,” or a frittata with any vegetables we had in the apartment, or a pizza, if someone ordered one, all shared over a bottle of cheap wine.) One look at the table summoned a practice that had been silent for a while. 

Morning narrows my eyes; my temples tighten in protection. I am standing now, hips dropped in motion, dallying between two worlds. As I move through the bedroom door, each step lifts me higher and more in cadence. I am walking to my kitchen, still seeking its rhythm. When I arrive, I am already moving with administrative precision, the saltshaker and any stray wooden spoons are shifted slightly to the left before I can start the coffee. 

On my list: bananas, eggs, fennel, cardamom, aluminum foil.* A friend described my apartment as a ballet studio: the square symmetry of a warehouse, with a bay window, stark white walls, and all tile flooring — brown, oblong “flowers” from the seventies, like the smelly carpet in the house I grew up in. I began to track the presence of living in two worlds.

I prepared an elaborate performance, squandering the tips I earned from waitressing: baked salmon topped with capers and butter, edges curling from the tartness of lemon. Collard greens accompany the salmon, a carefully cleaned and blanched sauté decorated with white onion and sweet yellow pepper. Bold rings of acorn squash are on another plate, the leathery green rind wrinkled into a softer, more palatable suede. Next to the squash on a red plate are wedges of brie, its ooze quickly rendered inedible by the summer heat. I am in the habit of backing away from my table to enjoy a lonely cigarette, onion bits trapped between my fingers. I amble down the hallway to my bedroom, forcing my invisible party guests to wait until I return to start eating.

I forgot the bread. 

The baguette is lying on the counter’s horizon, a span the length of my arm. I return to cut the loaf into diligent diagonals before setting it into its angled places around the salmon-collard creation. A bottle of wine, missing a few glasses, always completes the welcome table. Arms folded, I examine my work, letting a bit of cigarette ash land on the streaky tile. In the glowing light of a late summer afternoon, evening begins — itself a soul serving someone else’s life. 

I inch toward the kitchen table with careful steps, pausing briefly before I begin to scoop every still-warm bite into plastic containers. I work swiftly against the heat reddening my hands, lemon juice dripping, fish finding its way beneath my fingernails. I let the fridge door slam behind me, finishing the job, the lids from the containers warped toward the steaming, mushy cadavers. 

… …

“Why don’t you try sitting down and enjoying the meal?” 

At the time, my therapist resembled a more-than-middle-aged Joan Didion (ironically, she was unfamiliar with Didion’s work): wiry, with legs that wrapped around each other like pipe cleaners from a child’s collection of arts and crafts supplies. It was the Wednesday after the salmon meal. It was always a Wednesday after a meal. Each word was accompanied by fast blinks behind her wide-framed glasses, her demeanor in sharp contrast to how casually I spoke about the situation. I spoke the way one might recall their weekend plans to the person standing in front of them in line at the supermarket. She wrote in almost vertical scribbles, using a different notebook every session. Why don’t you eat, Erica? Hers was a new thought. Eating after cooking. I repeated it to myself. This was never considered, much less a reason for my ritual. Cooking was about the labor. The work was more important than the results. I was surprised that my therapist regarded this as unusual. But as soon as she said so, I realized that I sounded like a lunatic. The kind of lunatic who prepares enough food for a family, only to have it rot and congeal into untouchable waste, never having tasted it. And even worse, I was a broke lunatic, foolishly wasting my funds on this habit.

 “That’s an interesting idea.” I chuckled, wishing that she would stop writing. Look at me, I thought. My laughter told me that I deemed the finished meal unimportant, not some delicious bounty worthy of being shared. Or eaten, for that matter. I was skipping the pleasure altogether. 

She smiled, uncrossing her legs for a moment, making her black-and-green polka dot socks more visible, before recrossing them. The Empire State Building could be seen from the large window of her co-op apartment near Union Square, a bright pink needle in the sky.

“Do you think you can try that this weekend? If you decide to cook?” 

I could see her considering the diagnosis of an eating disorder. I’m a cook, I thought, suddenly feeling hungry. 

“Have you eaten today?”

6.

I watch for the first time a video recording of Cummings’s “Food for Thought” suite performed at St. Mark’s Church at the Jerome Robbins dance archive in Manhattan. In spite of the videographer’s steady hand, the POV is affixed to the flitting light of Cummings’s body in motion. Despite the professional quality, the tone is undeniably that of a home movie. Fittingly, my chair was broken: I am seated at the lowest point, my knees bent high enough to touch my elbows. Grace Paley’s short story “An Interest in Life” narrates the background with a food diary: wilted lettuce, two moldy dried-up lemons, tightly wrapped Danish bleu cheese, flat seltzer water — circuitous threads coursing within my subconscious. I find myself leaning farther back, my short legs dangling as my feet lift slightly off the floor. Another person has arrived at the library’s circulation desk — it is time for the shift change. Sorry, I was in a rush earlier. Her colleague follows behind. I was carrying groceries, and they were heavy. When they speak simultaneously, the words collapse into one sound, elaborate contents of fridges catalogued by roommates and lovers, and a routine family dinner. My mother never joined us. Briefly inert, I am thinking of my own bottle of carrot juice, my whole grain bread, rinsed kale, and leftover spaghetti.

7.

Living with love invites other voices. I am unable to keep up. My resistance shows itself on Saturday mornings. I’m up whisking eggs. Z meanders in, bleary eyed and light, reaching for me. I lend a kiss but tip into flames when she begins to touch things. Would you like some coffee? she attempts. I recoil, clear in my rage. This isn’t how this should go, we both must think. 

My home evolved into a collective of working lesbians, artists, and queer people — a nontraditional household that allowed us all to thrive; the destiny, perhaps, of this place. When Z moved her belongings in, she made the reluctant decision to live in an archive. Dirty dishes. Food caked on handles, and pots stored away with stained lids. Dusty bookshelves and years of artwork lining the walls. I am no longer alone. Our lovemaking is surrounded by the ghostly objects of those who came before, an addiction that gained momentum after my mother died, exactly one year after I moved into this place. The ghosts that live here are not only memories of those who have come and gone; they have taken up residence to protect me and anyone who enters. While this may be a gift, there is also a tension, the burden of caring for these artifacts. Before Z, my kitchen persona was when I was most alive. Tending, preparing, initiating for my family, even if alone. 

Like me, Z is haunted. Initially we followed the same instinct. It’s strange to think that food and sex could scratch the same itchy desire — pulling taut grief ’s frayed edges. Queerness, a fitting word for such terse ambiguity, divorced from faking it, or asking. We fucked with our mouths full. Yes, queer is the word, and clarity, too. 

My urge toward confrontation dwindled, and then a year later her mother was diagnosed. Anger coiled around us as we made love. Humming, her yearning clung to me. We were in a different house. Our shoulders battled — warm and wet — the smooth skin of our familiar intimacy. Home is in your arms. We hadn’t showered, fragrant in our helpless longing for each other’s taste. My shirt crumpled over my breasts. Above me, her hair yarned the tense air as she charged my body. Are you sure? She covered my mouth. Voices knobbed around in the kitchen and living room below us. I was messy on her fingers. Different ghosts — those eyes, both present and burdened, begged me to never leave her. 

When she moved in with me, the air was tight. The sway, the disappearance, the ability to let one’s soul rest is where I find cooking again: a tense collision of the woman for whom I will never again cook and the woman to whom I have committed many meals. Z stands to turn off the lights. I set a platter of chicken between us. I yearn to clutch my plate and slouch off alone. She smiles calmly. I shuffle away to grab a sweater, hollering to start eating before it gets cold. After we make love, Z rests her head on my thigh and gazes inside me. If all the food from the first half of my life were to suddenly materialize, whole pinto beans, long ropes of spaghetti, and uncooked eggs would parade from between my legs. Her brown eyes lift to the ceiling between slow sips of water. I return to the table.


* Tucked into my copy of A Lover’s Discourse was a folded Post-it with a list on it: almond milk, coconut yogurt, confectioner’s sugar, mushroom barley.

Photo of Erica N. Cardwell

Erica N. Cardwell is a writer, critic, and educator currently based in Toronto. She is the recipient of a 2021 Andy Warhol Foundation Arts Writers Grant. Her writing has appeared in ARTS.BLACK, Frieze, BOMB, The Believer, The Brooklyn Rail, and other publications. Her book Wrong Is Not My Name: Notes on (Black) Art will be published by the Feminist Press in March 2024. She is Assistant Professor of Creative Writing at the University of Toronto Scarborough.

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