by Camisha Broussard
When I was eight years old my favorite aunt, before I actually knew a good-hearted person from one not-so-much, took me to a cafeteria-style restaurant in the heart of Chicago’s Hyde Park. It was pretty basic.
Attached to a string of businesses that extended the entire block, beginning with a vinyl record shop, which sat on the corner, a Benetton clothing store immediately next to it, and a classy liquor store that I was never allowed to enter, was the South Side neighborhood favorite. Its lengthy awning extended toward 53rd street, beautiful, big, and bright, with the words “Mellow Yellow” scripted in bold black lettering across its face. The inside was much simpler than its grand exterior. The dining room held both square and round wooden tables, matching chairs, white tablecloths, and a small vase with a single purple flower and sparse foliage on every table. I sat at our table and watched my aunt as she stood in line, grabbed a tray, and worked her way down the aisle through the many food choices. Although I am 40 years older now and I forget quite a lot, I remember one very simple thing about that day, a waitress walking pass me balancing a tray on the center of her palm. On top of the tray was a tall white drink. It was beautiful. Not because it was white. White in and of itself is pretty bland and nothing to get very excited about. The colors that danced around the drink made it beautiful. On the rim of the glass hung a bright yellow pineapple wedge. On its top was a beautiful orange slice, perfectly thick and perfectly round. The final cherry on top was just that, a cherry with its stem sticking out like it was pointing directly to its owner. Pina Colada, the waitress called it when my aunt joined me at the table and saw me eyeing the drink. She asked the waitress for a virgin Pina Colada.
It’s the image of that Pina Colada, first seen when I was 8 years old, that inspired me to seek out a culinary school twelve years, one failed marriage, and one son later.
I decided to hop on the Jeffery Number 6 bus into downtown Chicago and visit a school called CHIC, Culinary Hospitality Institute of Chicago.
That was in 1992. Computers weren’t a household item. The internet was accessed through a free disc available at any cash register from the local Walgreens. The only email was AOL, and not too many people had that. Google wasn’t a household word, let alone a search engine. As a matter of fact, there was no such thing as a search engine. Finding CHIC was a very purposeful action. It meant taking time out of the day, sitting down, and picking up a really thick, heavy yellow book called the Ameritech Yellow Pages.
I remember the excitement I felt as the recruiter gave me a tour of CHIC’s facility. Entering each kitchen, he sold me on enrolling,
“In the next 10 years there’s going to be a boom in the world of culinary arts!” he boasted.
We weren’t in the boom at that moment. I only knew of two chefs, Julia Childs and this man from Louisiana that I would occasionally, if I was awake very late at night, catch on Channel 11. He had a really strong accent. For some reason it was always strongest when he pronounced “oonyons” and when he said, “I gareuhntee.” Those were the only chefs I knew. Neither inspired a poor Black girl like me to explore the culinary world. What inspired me was that beautiful Pina Colada served in the heart of Chicago’s South Side.
I took the campus information, prepared myself to take out a $30,000 loan to pay for the classes, joyfully hopped on the bus and headed back home so that I could call my grandma and tell my mom that I was going to be a chef. I was going to culinary school!
“What” by grandma spoke softly over the receiver from her Dyersburg porch. I pictured her reaching the spiral phone cord over her head, moving it to the left while she tilted her head to the right, her Kool Menthol 100 swinging from the corner of her lips.
“Culinary School grandma. I’m going to learn how to cook.”
“cook” she huttered. “Hmmmm Uhmmmm.”
She was quiet, more so than usual. She was the kind of quiet she usually reserved only for when I’d disappointed her. I tried my best to never hear the Hmmmmm Uhmmmm that always told exactly what my grandmother was thinking.
“Baby.” She called out to me. “You already know how to cook.”
“Yes ma’am, but I want to learn the right way and own my own restaurant.”
“Why you quiet?”
“Well baby. I just thought you’d go to a real school. I thought you were better than that.”
I threw away my campus material, including the loan application, and enrolled in Chicago State University the following day. I spent the next 7 years figuring out how college worked, working to earn a real degree, changing my major three times, meeting a guy, having children, getting married, and still missing what could have been. I enjoyed my time at Chicago State. But something in me still needed to cook.
Those who know me know that I love to cook. Three degrees later I still love to create a great dish. I enjoy it to no end. It relaxes me. It soothes me. I like to make food not only tastes good, but I like to make it look good. I like for people to look at my meals like I looked at that Pina Colada. I like to accent the food, use Micros to add color. I like to create sauces to decorate the plate. Anyone can learn how to bake a chicken, but nothing makes a meal tastes better than when it is prepared by someone who really loves nurturing the soul and spirit, and who commits to adding only the freshest ingredients.
That means a garden.
The thought of going to my own garden and picking up my vegetables and herbs is one that had seduced me for years. So in 2011 I tried it for the first time. My thumb was not green, red or black maybe, but definitely not green. My sons were so tickled at the very thought of me trying to grow a garden, that they held secret bets to see how long it would take me to kill everything. Their household joke was that I killed everything green but money. But for years I’d wanted to grow my own garden and the longer I’d been in Texas, the more I’d learned that . . . I could do anything. Just like my mother and grandmother said.
So one week I decided to finally plant my herb garden.
I started simple. I drew a simple sketch of what I wanted my raised garden to look like, then I bought six landscape logs. When I got home I realized that I had no way to cut the logs and I knew no one who could do it for me. So back to the chair thing that grandma instilled in me. So I returned to the home store and purchased my first electric circular saw.
A stickler for how things should look, I examed my backyard for the perfect spot. I wanted to make sure that if I did this project the right way. Right outside of my back door there was a small area that I initially thought would be perfect for my garden, simply because I’d have access to the garden immediately after opening the door. However I was wrong. It was not the most ideal spot for my garden. One of the things about getting older is realizing that you’re not always right and more importantly, being wrong doesn’t have to be intimidating or defining.
So I began to really survey the yard and what I can only describe as a whisper spoke to me and said, “go to the side of the house.” I followed the whisper and it was beautiful on the side of the house. A long, wide strip of land stretched approximately twenty-five feet long and ten feet wide. It was immediately where my garden needed to be.
Another great thing about growing older is that you also grow wiser and more patient. I realized it would be a good idea to watch and see how much sun the side of the house received on a typical day. So I watched, and watched, and watched. For nearly ten hours the sun never left the side of my home. That was definitely the spot! And I was ready!
With my spade and shovel in hand, I began working. After a while my iPod joined in, then my sun blocker, then my Off bug repellant. I hadn’t planned for any of these things to attend the garden party, but years of learning can come in handy, subconsciously, when you least expect it.
There is something about creating. There is something about starting from nothing and seeing, I mean really seeing what you can do. Achievement, I think they call it.
By the time my garden really started to come together, I was in the backyard, dancing to Marvin Gaye, the Black Eye Peas, and Booney James. Dancing and digging, dancing and digging. And in the quiet of my own backyard, I began to feel a peace unlike any I’d ever experienced before.
I felt good. I was older. I was wiser. I was more secure and happier than I’d ever been. I loved every part of my life.
I think about my grandmother and wonder what she would have said seeing me shovel dirt and haul it away in a beverage cooler? What would she have said to me coming to the yard, working, and thinking . . . “oh I can do this,” prompting another unscheduled ride to the home improvement store. What would she say to have seen a patch of green go from a mundane part of my backyard to what was becoming my herb garden? What would she say had she seen me pick up a circular saw, put my two countertop stools next to each other, and create a makeshift saw bench? What would she have said when I pulled out my black and pink toolset, the one I keep hidden from my boys if I want to keep it. What would she have said had she seen me sit in the grass to stain the wood so that it didn’t turn ugly in years to come?
The beautiful thing about having had a relationship with someone is that they don’t have to be here for you to know what they would have said. I knew her and knew her well. I carry my grandmother in my heart and my head everyday. She is with me. She is a part of me. She made me. And I never have to wonder what she would say. I can hear her more clearly now than I did when I was a little girl.
If she were here, she would look at me. Her eyes would become watery. She would look at my tools. She would look at my gloves. She would look at my garden. Then she would look at me and say simply, quietly, peacefully, and meaningfully . . . “my Misha.”
I killed the garden. Not for lack of trying but out of fear. I was a city girl, not at all ready for the Texas wild life. My backyard snake had different plans for my garden and I figured his plans were more important than mine, so I let him have it.
She was right. I was better than that. I wasn’t simply a cook. I was more. I was taking the easy way out. I still cook, and I’m pretty good at it. I buy culinary books, experiment in the kitchen, and sometimes I even have friends over and treat them as if I am a chef and they are my guests.
But she was right. I needed college. I needed to be surrounded by thoughts and words and people and ideas. It made me who I am.
Today I am Joyce Jeans’s misha, the professional, and I am Camisha’s cook, the makeshift chef, amateur gardener, writing professor, mother, and all around kick butt woman.
I’m married now, again. Today I bought a few Basil plants, some mint, some oregano and thyme, and a lemongrass plant.
Time to start planting.
If you’ve read this essay to the end, we’re friends now.