“Honey, I need your opinion. How does this taste?”
“Woo, girl, you got the flavor just right but it’s still too runny!”
Miss Honey was dancing around the front room, Mickey’s Big Mouth beer in one hand, and one lone cigarette hanging from her lip. I never could understand why it didn’t fall out of her mouth. I kept wanting to follow her with an ashtray to catch it when it fell.
But her words ring loud and clear when I think about the woman who taught me how to cook and soothed me when I was hurt. But most of all, Miss Honey made me laugh.
When I met Honey in Tulsa, Oklahoma, I did not know how to cook. I got by, but I hadn't learned how to cook fresh vegetables or home-cooked meals. I was raised on mac-n-cheese, pork-n-beans, and fish sticks.
It became Honey’s mission to teach me how to cook a soul-food Thanksgiving dinner. Today, I use her knowledge to create a feast every year. I even have requests for my sweet potato pies, usually about eight deep-dish pies.
But it wasn’t always like that.
I’ll never forget the first time I tried to make the pies from scratch. Honey and I boiled about 10 pounds of sweet potatoes in a big deep pot.
After we peeled the potatoes, she gave me the task of mashing by hand. Can you imagine that? She didn’t have a food processor, so I did it the old-fashioned way.
Sweet potatoes can be stringy, but I couldn’t seem to mash all the strings out. Honey was busy cooking other food, and I stopped mashing, hoping they would dissolve in the baking process.
I tried to obey her instructions, but I think I got lost. There was no recipe, only memory.
Needless to say, you could bounce the crust off the floor, and the filling never firmed. The strings stayed strings, and it became known as the year with the run-off pies. I believe that was 43 years ago.
One of our favorite activities for the Thanksgiving feast was cooking greens. We took a trip to Conrad Farms about 30 minutes outside the city where people could buy fresh-picked vegetables.
Honey taught me how to choose the best leaves. She said to pick flat mustard greens, not curly mustard. I don’t why to this day. Maybe it was personal preference.
I brought a garbage bag that we filled with mostly mustard greens and a few bunches of collared greens sprinkled in. These greens are flat with thick leaves that take a little longer to cook.
After arriving back home, Honey and I sat and talked and laughed while we picked the greens. It’s not what you think. Pickin’ greens is the process of folding the leaf over. Starting at the top, you pinch the spine and pull down, tearing it out to be discarded.
Honey was always there to pick me up when I was feeling bad. She held me when I cried that my mother refused to see my baby.
My daughter was a shade too dark for my mother’s taste. She worried about what her friends would think. It seems my mom was too embarrassed to be seen with us. Tongues may wag, you know.
But I’ll never forget the time I fell asleep under the sunlamp. They were popular in the 70s. Everybody wanted a tan; to be happy and brown in the sun.
When I woke up, I was burnt to a crisp. Beet red and sick. Physically ill. I drug myself to the car and drove to Honey’s house.
I laid on her couch while she put cold compresses soaked in apple cider vinegar all over my body. I believe that stupid lamp burned me from the inside out. But Honey took care of me. Like a real mother would.
And, I loved her for it.
Honey made me laugh. The kind of deep belly laughs that made tears run down your cheeks.
Some people thought she was dumb, but she had common sense. She was a backcountry girl from Oceola, Arkansas with a thick country accent. Sometimes, even I couldn’t understand her.
Honey would point and make signs to help me comprehend like I was the one without many smarts. Then we laughed again.
I spent many an evening sitting across from her at the kitchen table, lounging in the love of my friend. I am blessed to have known her.
Honey does not remember me now. I occasionally go visit on Thanksgiving. But she will always be alive and well in my heart right here in Tulsa, Oklahoma.