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The Collective Culture of Grief


I’m struggling to write this column. Just a week ago there was a mass shooting in Buffalo, and ten people were murdered because they dared to shop at a grocery store while Black. By the time this piece hits your mailbox the news cycle will have moved on, and many of you will have as well. Hopefully, I will have found a way to process and heal from yet another round of televised death, but today I’m carrying those folks in my heart, and I’m hoping their spirits are at rest. I hope their families find justice and that justice helps to ease their pain.

Cooking for others is my love language and a comfort during times of grief, so my pairing today will be a celebration of the diaspora—especially my Barbadian roots. Today we’re going to make oxtail with rice and peas, and plantain mozzarella fritters. To drink, we’ll have some hibiscus and lime iced tea with maybe just a splash of Sorel liqueur.

I’ll start by going to the butcher and purchasing thick cuts of oxtail. It’s going to be expensive, but we are celebrating the lives of our ancestors and we’re getting them the best. I’m in charge of the oxtail; I’ll get a good sear on it and deglaze with some red wine, soy sauce, and a splash of the rum that Alexis brought back to the States from his last trip to Haiti. Sweat the veggies and aromatics, add my Bajan seasoning blend, cover with homemade stock and simmer until the meat slides off the bone. Then add my butter beans and cook for another 30 minutes until the beans are tender. One of the cousins is bringing the rice and peas with extra gravy, and greens with smoked turkey.

Do not cry, Agela. This is a celebration of life. Later you can mourn. Later you can be filled with rage. Later you can break down. Right now, you have work to do. Right now, you have to be strong.

I’ve got some very ripe black plantain that will make delicious fritters. In Columbia, these are known as aborrajados. In Puerto Rico, a similar fritter is called piononos. Mash your plantain with salt and pepper and add a bit of flour to get it to stick together. Make a patty in your hand with the mashed plantain, add some fresh mozzarella, and then cover it with more of your plantain mixture. Place into a skillet and shallow fry until golden brown. Turn the fritter over and cook until both sides are golden and cheese is just starting to escape from the sides. Put on a baking sheet and keep warm in a low oven.

Okay Agela, all you have to do is put out the desserts and make the hibiscus iced tea. Put out the punch bowl and the bottle of Sorel. The elders will appreciate the cultural inclusion. They’ll start talking about the old times and tell stories about ancestors I never knew. I’ll sit around the table laughing and drinking with them. I’ll nibble on some fritters. I’ll drink some tea. I’ll bring out the jar of Alexis’ unlabeled rum for anyone who wants something stronger, and then I’ll just fade back into the kitchen.

I’ll start fixing plates for folks to take with them, and I’ll start rinsing out the dishes and putting them in the dishwasher. I’ll turn my speaker up and play some Aretha. Her voice is big, strong, empowering, and comforting. Her cover of Sam Cooke’s song “A Change is Gonna Come” will wrap around my heart as I try to process rage, grief, and despair.

Family and friends will leave with full bellies and heavy hearts. I’ll turn on the dishwasher and set the coffee machine for 6:30 a.m. I’ve got to go to work tomorrow, and there’s no time to mourn. No time to heal. I’m already thinking of what I’ll serve the next time I have to pair the comfort of food with the unrelenting grief of live-streamed Black death.

Agela Abdullah

Agela Abdullah is a “reformed” cook and chef who took her first job behind the cheese counter in 2008. She currently handles marketing for an Illinois cheesemaker and serves as a board member for the Cheese Culture Coalition. She lives in Chicago with two cats, two sourdough starters, and an old laptop named Harbison.

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