All in the Family

July 17, 2012

Words by Andrea Goto
Photography by Chia Chong
Styled by Libbie Summers, Katherine Sandoz, Brooke Atwood and Andrea Goto
With: Latoya Rivers and Matilda Rivers

I grew up eating what was served to me.  No one ever asked what I wanted, or offered an alternative to the salmon flopped on my plate flesh-side up, all pink and wet.  Mom would leave the scales on the opposite side, so I’d have to flip it and slowly peel back its shiny, slithery coat.  I’d curl my lip and wince.

“Your mom fixed a nice meal.  Eat it,” Dad would command, jabbing the air between us with his grease-stained index finger.

We were allowed one exception to the “eat-what’s-on-your-plate” rule, and that’s only because one night Dad refused Mom’s broiled lamb.  I could’ve chosen to use my get-out-of-jail-free card for fish, but there was one offender that all the ketchup in Heinzville couldn’t kill: liver and onions.  I tried it—once.  Worse yet, I still remember it.

Mom would let me chose the dinner menu on my birthday.  My favorite was corned beef with cabbage and apples.  The cabbage would sit all day in a bowl of iced sugar water, though I never understood why.  When the meat—shelled in brown sugar and whole cloves—was almost done, Mom would drop a stick of butter in a sauté pan to cook up diced onion and sliced apples.  She’d turn her back and I’d reach into the pan to retrieve a tender apple, the oil snapping angrily at my fingertips.

I’ve never had corned beef and cabbage like Mom’s, and unless she makes it, I never will again.

As I watch Latoya Rivers cook alongside her mother Mathilda, I can’t help but think of the legacy of food—the recipes passed down like a genetic code.  Like me, Latoya is 35 years old.  But unlike me, she’s keeping her family’s recipes alive like it’s her job.  Actually, it is her job.  The menu at her restaurant in Savannah’s Victorian District, Café Florie (the name is fusion of her grandmothers’ names) is a record of her family history—gastronomically speaking.

Her sweet potato pie is nearly the same recipe the family served for 30 at their Soul Food restaurant in Hartford, Conn.  The mac ‘n’ cheese, meatloaf and pound cake have also nested in the Rivers’ family tree for generations.

“We wanted to stay true to the soul food—how we used to eat,” Latoya says softly, her wide brown eyes fixed on the dough she intuitively rolls to the ideal thickness.

But she also likes to do it her way, offering her customers healthy vegan and vegetarian options—a new twist on the old taste.

She offers me an example.  “I like to educate people that there are alternatives to the pig tails that taste good.”

“Taste better sometimes,” Matilda interjects, her musical voice paced slowly, each word receiving its due attention.

I can tell Latoya is taken by the subtle compliment, which is to say I notice the hint of a smile at the corners of her mouth.

Suddenly Latoya looks up at me meaningfully, catching me off-guard with uncharacteristic directness and adds: “My parents used to cook and when they’re not here, how are we going to pass it on?”

Matilda glances sideways at her daughter, the youngest of her six children, and smiles from somewhere in her toes.

It’s a rhetorical question Latoya poses, because she’s already provided the means to pass it on. I, on the other hand, feel as if I’ve tuned my back on my legacy, naively believing that the perennial corned beef and cabbage will magically reappear for the rest of my days.

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