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Ain’t nobody can cook like your mama.

I don’t know you and I don’t know your mama (if she’s even still in this world), but still I say . . .

Ain’t nobody can cook like your mama.

There is only one exception to that: MY mama could cook better than yours. And there is only one exception to THAT rule: Beth McDaniel, of Greenwood, Arkansas, can cook better than my mama could. Possibly. But Beth is possessed of para-normal cooking skills. It isn’t fair to compare Beth to the cooking that any mere mortal human being can do.

But back to my mama. Her name was Charlene, and her cooking was, by universal agreement, extraordinary. Now that she has been gone for many years, her cooking has become legendary. She fed no-telling-how-many people at her table over the years, and nearly everywhere I go, I run into people who remember her cooking.

As great a cook as she eventually turned out to be, Mom didn’t learn how to cook until she and Dad got married. I have in my keeping the little dime-store paperback that was her first cookbook. It is falling apart, but I still enjoy looking at it. Anyone who learns to cook is going to have some catastrophes, and Mom was no different. Dad used to tell about the first “dumplings” she made not long after they got married. “It was hard to choke ’em down,” he said, “but she made a brave attempt to fix one of my favorites and she soon got the hang of it.”

During my teenage years, we lived in Gulfport, Mississippi, way down on the Gulf Coast. The church we attended was very small, but because of the “touristy” nature of the region, we would have visitors at church nearly every Sunday. When we left to go to the church building on Sunday morning, we never knew how many people might be visiting that day, but whatever visitors showed up, they got invited to the Henry home afterwards for Sunday dinner. I don’t know how Mom did it. I’ve prepared Thanksgiving dinner every year for many years, so I know a little of what it takes to put a big meal together. But I still don’t know how Mom pulled off those magnificent Sunday dinners, for an always unpredictable number of people, on such short notice. It was a remarkable achievement, but as a teenager, I just thought it was normal.

Over the years, Mom accumulated many recipes, obviously. I have those recipes in my possession today, and I wouldn’t trade anything for them. Anytime she got a recipe from someone else, she always noted on the back who she got it from and when. So it is fun to get those out and be reminded where she got them. In some cases, I have to admit that I enjoyed Mom’s preparation of certain dishes over the years without knowing where they had come from. In other cases, I distinctly remember having the dish first in someone else’s home and Mom asking the hostess for the recipe.

Mom was always eager to try the “latest thing” that was making the rounds, and believe it or not, I remember when she discovered lasagna! It was in the mid-1960s, and we had never heard of it until we were invited over to Jim and Neva Burkett’s house. In the Air Force, they were originally from Sacramento, California, and Neva had prepared this amazing concoction called “lasagna” that their friends were raving about back in California. It was wonderful, of course, and Mom asked Neva for the recipe. When I look at that recipe today, it reminds me how many times Mom made it for us in the years after Neva shared it with her. As in most women’s culinary repertoire, lasagna became a tried-and-true standard for Mom.

We didn’t have much money, and in most of the houses we lived in, Mom’s kitchen was small, with very little working space. But in those tiny kitchens, she somehow produced meals that were of the finest quality. And Mom knew how to set a pretty table. She had two sets of china: one for “regular” special occasions and one for the Thanksgiving and Christmas season. Early on, she and Dad had also invested in a beautiful set of sterling silverware. There were plenty of meals when the china was not used, of course, but when it was appropriate, the Henry table was very nicely appointed.

Mom worked in a bank, and so on weeknights, it was not possible for her to go “all out” on the evening meal. Dad, who was a pretty good cook himself, would often get the evening meal together, while Mom rested and read the newspaper in the living room. However when Saturday rolled around, that was a different story! She cooked all Saturday morning, and when Dad came home for lunch from his job as a watchmaker, we had “Saturday dinner.” (In the South, “dinner” is what you have at midday, and “supper” is what you have in the evening.) My brother, Phil, and I still remember those Saturday dinners with great joy. On those Saturdays, Mom would usually prepare what folks today call “comfort food” or “soul food.” So if you ever wondered, that’s where those foods came to be my personal favorites. To this day, I seem to enjoy pinto beans and cornbread more on Saturday than any other day.

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I kind of wish my mother had been African-American. Or even African-African. (My father, although a white man, was named Leroy, so it would have worked out well.) There is just no way around the fact that black people can cook better than white folks. If your mother is a black woman, then you most definitely can say there ain’t nobody can cook like your mama. Even on a bad day, your mama can outcook the mother of any white kid anywhere around. And you should be grateful for the blessing of your birthright.

But alas, my mother was white. Nevertheless, she could really “step in” a pot of greens. Now that I am an old man, I realize what a gift from God it was that I got to enjoy her cooking for as long as I did . . . wrongly assuming for most of those years that the way Charlene Henry cooked was nothing more than the way EVERYBODY’S mother cooked. How wrong I was.

If you are married and your spouse does the cooking, you will need to value — and praise! — your spouse’s cooking genuinely. Especially in the early years of marriage, your spouse’s cooking may not measure up to your mama’s, but if you want to destroy your marriage (and risk your life), there is probably no better way to do it than by saying, “Honey, I sure do wish you could cook like my mama. Ain’t nobody can cook like my mama.” Don’t say that. Even though, as everybody knows, it’s the gospel truth.

But seriously, I want you to treasure your own mother’s cooking. The love that went into preparing all that food truly does make it, for you, the best food in the world. Even if was inferior, or even just mediocre, you probably won’t realize that until later (unless you happen to go to Greenwood, Arkansas and sit down at Beth McDaniel’s table). In the meantime, the quirky little ways your mother fixed certain foods, you will think of that as the “right way” and the way everybody else does it is the exception. And bless your heart, I say to you that . . . ignorance is bliss.

Gary Henry –