Gravy, transcendence, and Sunday afternoons in Mississippi
I remember my first truly transcendent culinary experience like it was only weeks ago. Of course, it wasn’t any Michelin star-studded dining establishment —probably not even a place that high-brow critics would look twice at (though a decent chunk of lucky locals and tourists know the truth and often take to Yelp to sing its praises). But, on that warm and sunny afternoon in Jackson, I thought the heavens had cracked open and poured into this one rickety Victorian home-turned-buffet restaurant right off Congress Street by the State Capitol. Two Sisters Kitchen was the place where I first felt that food could be not just blissful, but wholly transformative, and that its powers of unification were not to be understated.
Growing up in the Bible belt, nestled deep in the southern crooks of Mississippi’s bayou-speckled coastline, being Christian was an unspoken assumption. For years, I didn’t even realize there were people who weren’t Christian; some of my most formative years were spent in this world of perpetually being late to church on Sundays, where “Jesus camp” was a summertime staple and ‘atheist’ may have just as well been a curse word. But in such parts of the Deep South, this common belief in an all-powerful, all-loving God is a thread that strings everyone together—a thread strong enough to keep some semblance of hope in the most impoverished areas of the country, to breach the sting of racism past and present. And I say this even now, after my own break-up with Christianity and falling-out with the conservative Catholic teachings of my youth. In fact, I believe there are very few things that can transcend the gaping wounds in the sticky hot Mississippi South—God is one of them, but I’ll be damned if a good meal isn’t the other.
In fact, I believe there are very few things that can transcend the gaping wounds in the sticky hot Mississippi South—God is one of them, but I’ll be damned if a good meal isn’t the other.
It was the middle of March. Or maybe the end. I was in high school, brought three hours north to Jackson by a less-than-successful scholarship interview and leaving it even more riddled with nervousness about my impending college decisions. But, as my father and I stepped onto the former home’s front steps, the air swelling with the aroma of yeast rolls and okra and fried chicken, we stepped out of any temporal confinements and entered into a strange, glowing vignette of the present moment. We had just barely beat the inevitable post-Church throngs, settling into a sun- warmed spot on the patio before ordering our sweet iced teas and beelining for the buffet.
There’s something about Southern food that truly does heal and nourish the soul. I piled my robin egg-blue plate sky high with fried okra, sweet cornbread, rice and gravy, green beans, and buttermilk biscuits. The list goes on: chunky mashed potatoes, bread pudding, award-winning fried chicken, and some mysterious casserole that I could have eaten every day for a month. And then there was the creamed corn—my dad and I couldn’t shut up about it the whole drive home (I specifically remember him saying “I think God reached down and scooped this creamed corn onto my plate. Seriously.”). One man sat perched in a shady corner of the back patio, his saxophone oozing with velvety afternoon jazz, and everybody—me, my dad, the Churchgoers in their Sunday best, the woman who nearly passed out from her meal and was fanning herself on the front steps—we all sat together, sharing in that warm, woozy fullness that is at once uncomfortable and purely blissful, soaking in every second.
A couple of months ago, I had the misfortune of stumbling upon a Facebook article shared onto my timeline bearing the bad news that Two Sisters Kitchen was closing down for good. My heart broke a little for that sacred place—a rare corner of the world where time slows to a lazy crawl, where all kinds of folks come together in a sort of fellowship over the near-transcendent beauty that is a warm patio and a heaping, steaming plate of real Mississippi soul food. I could hardly believe that I’d never again dip my fork into a bowl of that doughy peach cobbler, that I’d never again taste the sweet and savory nectar of that miraculous, mysterious chicken casserole.
The truth is, though, that there will always be another diamond-in-the-rough Southern food joint that goes heavy-handed on the salt and sugar in all the right places. Two Sisters Kitchen is not an anomaly, by any means, but its closure still compelled me to look back on what made it so damn special in the first place. Suddenly I found myself confronted with these nostalgic intricacies of home, and how they had become so dreamy and distant to me as I dwelled in my very different present-day Boston reality.
When I first arrived at Boston College, I found myself as the spokesperson for what life in Mississippi is really like. Sentences like “Wow, I’ve never met anyone from Mississippi before!” became commonplace in small talk and introductions—I was fascinated by the sheer volume of my peers who really knew nothing about the present-day realities of my home state. For the past three-going-on-four years, I’ve become something of an expert at conveying my experiences in the Mississippi public education system, in one of the most religious parts of the country, and, perhaps most notoriously, in a state still bogged down by its problematic history and racist realities (for Christ’s sake, there’s still a Confederate flag in our state flag).
I piled my robin egg-blue plate sky high with fried okra, sweet cornbread, rice and gravy, green beans, and buttermilk biscuits. The list goes on: chunky mashed potatoes, bread pudding, award-winning fried chicken, and some mysterious casserole that I could have eaten every day for a month
What surprised me most of all, however, was not some kind of stark departure in my upbringing from that of my friends’—instead, I found that many people warped the South (and Mississippi, especially) into some faraway land untouched by modernity and riddled with deep- seated hatred and racial tensions. A declaration of my hometown was often met with a response of shock tinged with pity. Now, I won’t go so far as to say that Mississippi doesn’t have more than its own fair share of problems—as I grew older, I became disillusioned by the hyper- religious, ultra-conservative norm, and I couldn’t wait to run off to some ivy-covered northeastern college and get away from it all. But as I settled into life in Chestnut Hill, surrounded by bleeding-heart liberals in their comfortably pristine all-white neighborhoods, I began to realize that Mississippi’s demons aren’t all too different from anyone else’s.
Of course, the two don’t always go hand in hand; not all Mississippians are Christians. I’d argue, though, that most of us know a thing or two about a real comfort food buffet. The cuisine of our home state—food born out of the struggles of slavery, from the impoverished lowlands of the Mississippi Delta—is one thing that repeatedly proves to have the power to unite us all together. At a place like Two Sisters Kitchen, Sunday mornings and soul food could bring about a harmony in diversity that many people would never associate with a place like Mississippi.
There’s a phrase that Southern folks use when someone has opened up to let the love of the Lord enter into their life, when they’re ready to drop everything and give themselves to God: it’s called getting “saved.” One reason I fell out of the religion that once steeped every facet of my life was a slow- but-steady realization that I’d never had a moment where I felt “saved,” that I found my prayers and rituals were empty and felt like there was nobody listening on the other end of the line (cue a well-placed Are You There, God? It’s Me, Margaret reference). Maybe I have yet to experience some higher reality through faith, and maybe I never will. But if I know one thing for certain, it’s that we were all transcended from the present earthly moment and held there, suspended in some transient space, on one sun-washed afternoon on the back patio of the formerly known Two Sisters Kitchen —“saved” at once by our common humanity and by the smoothness of live jazz and sweet tea—bellies full, but souls even fuller.