Please don't invite me over to dinner: The case against home-cooked meals

Home cooking plays a treasured role in African American culture, I know. But give me a restaurant meal any day

By D. Watkins

Editor at Large

Published March 23, 2019 7:30PM (EDT)


All the appetizing aromas from Big Mama’s kitchen greet you at the front door: Plump chicken breasts sizzling in her special batter, fresh collard greens she planted, pulled and plucked from the earth before stewing with a whole pig’s foot for flavor, macaroni and cheese that should be called cheese-and-mac because the noodles are drowning in six types of dairy — and you'd better not forget the candy-dripping yams with marshmallows swirling in King Syrup. All of this complemented by Big Mama’s sweet and buttery biscuits — you know, the golden, crunchy at the top ones that only she can make? Washed down with an ice cold Diet Pepsi? Sounds amazing, right? Not to me. I hate home cooked meals.

People twist their faces and look at me like I’m crazy when I tell them this, wondering how a black man from Baltimore — a predominately black city — would not be willing to cancel his schedule or trade it all for a hot plate from Big Mama’s. And I understand where the confusion comes from. Food has been one — if not the top — of our coping mechanisms for surviving as African Americans. In many urban areas, we are forced to deal with poor housing, underfunded schools, police shootings, while living in the middle of food deserts. And still my people can whip up magic — 45 different entrees from one pig alone, turning parts of the animal into delicacies that many didn’t even know were edible. This has been a game black people have had to play since slavery. I remember one of my undergraduate history professors telling us the story of a slave cracking a perfectly healthy pig in the head with a rock until the animal looked defective so that his master would reject it, allowing the slave to keep it for a personal family feast.

I also understand the role that the soul food dinner plays in black families­­. They are both competitive — like, who makes the best potato salad? — and communal, giving us time to share our triumphs and hardships over dishes whipped up by Big Mama's arms. Black people love soul food so much that they made a movie called "Soul Food" where the family ate so much soul food that the grandma got diabetes and had to have her foot chopped off, and then died in the next scene. After she died, the family made zero changes to their diet; they buried her and ate even more soul food. As nostalgic as these moments are, and as much as I love my family, I still don’t care about home-cooked meals.

It started when I was young­. My mother couldn’t cook to save her life — or ours, for that matter. She was a young mom, and we all kind of grew up together, figuring the world out around the same time. Mom was the best at frying eggs, I’ll give her that, and she taught me; my mom could probably win a trophy for her fried eggs . Her scramble was on point: always fluffy, bright yellow and not too buttery, perfect. But her chicken was bone dry, the boxed rice she’d make that always stuck to the pan was bone dry, and all of those canned vegetables she’d push on us were bone dry too. She even figured out a way to make bone dry soup.

And her mother Famma — my own Big Mama — could cook, but there were like 40 children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren running in and out of her house, and I and the other runts of the group had to fight like gladiators for scraps of sweet potato residue and sticky carvings from the bottom of the turkey. Many of our big family dinners ended with me eating McDonalds or 60-cent rice and gravy from the Korean corner store with the clouded window while my fat older cousins' bellies would fall over their waistlines while they bragged about how good Big Mama’s stuffin' was, how they wanted more macaroni, and wished there was more pound cake. When I got older, I made it a point to feed my nephews and little cousins first.

“Yoooo, D, my girlfriend makes the best chicken, in the world,” a good friend said to me from the passenger seat of my car. “You gotta have it, and I’m not taking no for an answer.”

He was a month out of jail and I was coming off book tour. “With all due respect, I don’t need to validate your girl's chicken,” I said, “If you like it, that’s good enough.”

Long gone were the days of me fighting for scraps at Big Mama's, scraping rice off the bottom of my mom’s pan, and avoiding the mayo-based salads I've never liked. I’ve since traveled the world and dined at five-star restaurants. Accidentally along the way, I became a food snob. I never planned on becoming a foodie, but getting a tiny bit of recognition as an artist got me a whole bunch of free dinners in the form of fake meetings and invites to restaurants I could never afford, and then learned to afford because so much effort went into the food: the service, the craft drinks, the tiny fancy desserts I thought I wouldn't like but ended up loving. I learned to worship my palate, and developed an eye for culinary aesthetics, a taste for exotic spices and intentional preparations.

None of this means my friend's girlfriend isn't capable of making a good chicken. And I’m not sexist, either — I’m all about men being in the kitchen; I’ll proudly reject their food too.

But don’t insult me by throwing around the term “best chicken." I take chicken very seriously. My homie and his girlfriend still live in a world where knowing how to cook makes you a woman, just like building cabinets and watching the game with a cold brew makes you a man. It made realize how removed from that old-school culture I was. My fiancée can cook well enough to start her own restaurant, but good food has never been the way to my heart, just like watching the game isn't important to me. (I don't even drink beer, and building cabinets sounds like a horrible way to spend a Saturday, especially since you can just pay someone to do it.)

“For me, bro,” he pleaded. “Just try it for me. You looked out for me while I was locked, now we gonna bless you with this chicken. You gonna love it!”

Even though I was going crazy from being on a deadline for my second book, I agreed to have a celebratory dinner at my homie’s house. I pulled up early and thought it was cool that he wore a chef's hat, but also weird because he wasn't cooking anything. Their house was nice, the walls lined with color portraits of them and positive affirmations like "Love Always Wins." Bro served me Hennessey in a champagne flute, because we street and classy.

"You ready!" my homie yelled, and brought our food out on Styrofoam plates. I honestly didn't think they sold Styrofoam anymore. The hot chicken grease melted the center of my plate. “Yo, double-plate me!” I didn’t want to get grease on their table. The string beans collaged into the potato salad, which had enough excess mayonnaise in it to fill up a jar. But I’m sport, so I shut my eyes and bit in.

“It’s bomb, ain’t it bro? Tell me how bomb it is!” my homie said, his lady by his side. Both in matching aprons, beaming.

"It's cool," I said. "I'm really not that hungry though. I drank too much."

"Be for real!" she said. "Do you like it? I can take it. I really wanna know."

Most people who demand the truth about their art, food, outfit or whatever don't really want to know. But I had had some Hennessey — and I don't really drink Hennessey — and I was amongst friends.

“I love ya’ll, but there’s at least ten different restaurants in a one-mile radius with better chicken," I said. "The presentation was bad — where the hell you find Styrofoam? I don’t really eat mayo. From a one to a ten, I’d give this meal about a two.”

They laughed — clearly they thought I was joking — until I pushed the plate into the middle of table, knocked back my Hennessey, and started preparing my exit.

“Oh, you serious? F**k you, D. Something is really wrong with you!” his girlfriend yelled, storming out of the room.

“I think I should leave" I joked. "I’m kinda hungry."

“Don’t be an asshole," my homie said. "You can’t just leave. That’s bad etiquette, fool! Sit down.”

He was right; you can’t just eat — or not eat — at a person’s house and then leave. You have to stick around and joke and tell stories, even if you have to work or are on deadline, because it’s all part of the process. So that’s what I did. We joked around and tried to fix the chicken. I added a lot of extra pepper and hot sauce to mine. Mix that with more yak and I wasn't going to taste anything for days anyway.

His girlfriend came back into the room and clowned us for being drunk fools. "Never thought some dudes so ghetto could act so bougie," she said. "Look at y'all drinking cognac out of champagne glasses like two dummies! Talkin' bout my chicken ain't good, please. See y'all eating it!"

I laughed and told her that I can't cook, so I shouldn't be judging.

"I pay for food because somebody else cares about preparing it more than I do," I said. "People pay me to write, just like I pay a guy to change my oil. Oil change guy knows all the new oils and is an expert. We aren't food experts, so it's cool if we pay."

They both called me stupid, and we laughed the night away. I love chopping it up with my friends, but in general, I work too hard to eat food that I’m not into, and I need to pay attention to my health. I've been in situations where a hot plate obligated me to stay longer at a person’s house, because you can't just eat and leave — like my homie said, that's bad etiquette, fool. And then you have to act like you want to help clean up after the meal is over. Does anybody ever really want to wash dishes at another person's house? I don't want to wash them at my own.

At restaurants, I can leave the dishes on the table when I'm done. If the food sucks I can send it back ten times, and I don't have to worry about offending my companions because they didn't cook it. I can also leave as soon as the bill has been paid — there's no rule saying to sit and chill longer unless I want to.

A home-cooked dinner demands all of the things from me that I don't want to be obligated to give. But if you want to invite me over anyway, I might come, just for the meal. I'm always hungry.

By D. Watkins

D. Watkins is an Editor at Large for Salon. He is also a writer on the HBO limited series "We Own This City" and a professor at the University of Baltimore. Watkins is the author of the award-winning, New York Times best-selling memoirs “The Beast Side: Living  (and Dying) While Black in America”, "The Cook Up: A Crack Rock Memoir," "Where Tomorrows Aren't Promised: A Memoir of Survival and Hope" as well as "We Speak For Ourselves: How Woke Culture Prohibits Progress." His new books, "Black Boy Smile: A Memoir in Moments," and "The Wire: A Complete Visual History" are out now.

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