I was born in Rio Piedras, Puerto Rico, to twenty-year-old college students. My dad was studying computer programming, my mom decorating and design. They tried to find a way to pursue their studies and raise a tiny baby, but my dad ultimately went the way of so many other young fathers with mouths to feed—he joined the Army.
My first home on the U.S. mainland was Fort Gillem, a small Army base just south of Atlanta, Georgia. Our neighborhood in suburban Forest Park was made up of identical brick townhouses with white doors and trim, with playgrounds of rusting metal and slides that burned your thighs in the summertime. I learned to swim (military-style) on that base, when Sergeant Swim Instructor threw me in the deep end and told me to get to the top. I also lost my first tooth there when I tripped and fell on metal bleachers during one of my dad’s baseball games. It seemed everything on that base was made of metal.
We had a small Puerto Rican enclave there. The kids ran around past dark, rolling in our Fisher-Price cars and catching lightning bugs. Our families cooked out on the weekends, making arroz con gandules (rice with pigeon peas) and costillas (pork ribs) marinated in adobo. And although these events—where our parents danced salsa, drank rum, and spoke Spanish rapidly—were how they stayed connected to the island, my friends and I just ate our fill and began refusing to speak Spanish. In the summer the nights were hot just like Puerto Rico, and we would sit outside way past our bedtime waiting for our drunk parents to take us home, Kool-Aid smiles on our faces and high on sugar.
We ate mostly Puerto Rican food at home, so the first Southern foods I ever ate were in day care.
I remember my parents dropping me off one morning, half-asleep and grumpy, at the La Petite day care in Mount Zion, Georgia. A teacher sat me down at a long table with a dozen other preschoolers and served me a plastic bowl of white, wiggly mush with an orangey-yellow cheese square melted on top.
I was six years old, the only Latina in my class. Like most kids, I ate simple things for breakfast—I was a connoisseur of Trix cereal and strawberry Quik at the time. I poked at the wiggle with the edge of my spoon to investigate. I frowned. A teacher noticed and exclaimed, “What? You don’t like guh-ree-its?!”
“Nuh-uh!” I said, frowning and shaking my head.
“Well, you’ll just have to go hungry, because that’s what we got,” she said, fist pressed firmly against her hip.
I surrendered and scooped a bit of the cheese square and mush out of the bowl, letting it slide off the spoon into my mouth. My disgusted expression brought on more giggles and snickers from teachers and other kids—many wondering aloud what on earth my parents fed me at home. Humiliated, I quit eating and went hungry that morning.
This was my first foray into (bad) Southern food. Then there were public school cafeterias, where I was forced to eat badly prepared lima beans, fried okra, baked beans, and peach cobbler. That’s also where I ate foods like Frito pie and Mexican pizza (a kid once asked me if that’s what my mom cooked, and I stuck my tongue out at him). Because at home, Mami never made anything remotely like these foods. Nothing was as offensive to her as collard greens, which she thought smelled like toilet. Cornbread was too dry, fried chicken too greasy, biscuits and gravy too baboso (snotlike).
My mother was a secret vegetarian. Growing up in Puerto Rico, Tata cooked everything from scratch with lots of love and lard. That meant Mami often came home from school to a giant beef tongue in the sink or a pot of stewed pigs’ feet and garbanzos on the stove. All she wanted was fresh greens. Instead, she got vegetables stewed to smithereens in pig fat.
I realize now it wasn’t just that Mami thought Southern food was nasty and smelly. This way of eating—the pigs’ feet and smothered greens—were part of her past, and she wanted a better future for me. When things were good at home, Mami mostly fed us simple American foods like baked chicken and veggies—made Puerto Rican with sazón seasoning—or Puerto Rican foods such as picadillo made healthy by substituting ground turkey for beef. Her food was tasty, but part of me wanted something more. You see, every once in a while the lunch ladies would get it right. I’d go through the lunch line and smile as I was served a pulled pork sandwich with pickles on a soft white bun and coleslaw that was still crunchy. I started to be able to tell the difference between those stale day care grits and food made with care.
So I got curious. Those same greens braised in broth and ham hocks, fluffy biscuits in peppery white gravy, yellow layer cake slathered in chocolate buttercream: these were dream foods. And in many ways more akin to the incredible foods I ate when I visited my grandmother in Puerto Rico. But because Mami didn’t approve, they were out of reach. Except when I went to the home of Arica Slaughter, my childhood best friend.
The Slaughters lived in Rex, the next suburb over from us, in one of those nice neighborhoods with a name. It had houses with two-car garages, long driveways, brick mailboxes, and flowerbeds. Their house was in a cul-de-sac, and their yard stretched an acre, bordered by a small creek, a line of polleny pine trees, and a chain-link pen where Bosh—the Slaughters’ Doberman—lived. The house had three bedrooms, a den, and a living room, and a kitchen with a giant sink, a double-wide stove, and one of those big refrigerators that opened like French doors.
Arica’s mother, Miss Donna, was a skinny white lady from Tennessee with graying sandy blonde hair, a pointed face punctuated by a delicate nose, and bright blue eyes. She wore gold-rimmed bifocals and dressed in sweatpants, button-down men’s collared shirts, and slip-on shoes.
Miss Donna spent her days watching daytime TV, smoking cigarettes, drinking gin and tonics, and cooking. She was fascinated that I’d never had foods that were everyday to her, like hoecakes with corn syrup, chitterlings with hot sauce, and black-eyed peas. Anytime she learned that I hadn’t tried a certain food, she’d make it for me immediately.
Miss Donna never made me feel like an outsider. In Puerto Rico, grownups made me feel like my culture, my addiction to air-conditioning, and the way I spoke Spanish were signs that I was . . . different. And in the South, adults asked me questions like What does your name mean? How spicy is your mom’s cooking? Do your parents speak English? These questions made me feel like I couldn’t fit into their idea of “Latina,” but I didn’t quite belong in the South either.
• • •
Arica’s house was a sanctuary, especially when my parents entered the throes of a divorce. At Miss Donna’s house, it was always time to eat. Her cabinets buckled with namebrand snacks—the kind my parents could never afford: Nabisco, Keebler, Lay’s, Aunt Jemima, Kellogg’s. She kept three extra freezers on the back porch, equally packed with steaks, roasts, whole chickens, gallons of milk—abundance in response to the profound poverty Arica’s dad had grown up with.
Benjamin Slaughter, or Mr. Benny, was a six-foot-tall black man built like a football player, with a lazy eye he’d gotten after one of his brothers accidentally hit him in the back of the head with the end of a heavy baton. His eyeball had popped out of the socket, and his mom had pushed it back in with Vaseline. We all bear the scars and signs of childhood hurts and accidents. Mr. Benny’s were just easier to see than some.
Some days I’d come in from playing outside, my hair full of pine straw from rolling down hills and shoes filthy from mucking around in the creek, and find Miss Donna sitting at the table staring at the wall, cigarette in hand, another gin and tonic in front of her in a rocks glass beaded with condensation.
“You alright, Miss Donna?” I’d ask.
She’d look over, sadly. “Yeah, baby. You hungry?”
She never went back to Tennessee after marrying Mr. Benny. She had been his secretary at the construction company he founded and ran despite his third-grade education. Benny worshipped Miss Donna, and Miss Donna adored him. He’d come in late from work, quiet and reserved, and in his deep, gentle voice, he’d say, “Good evening, Miss Donna.” “Good evening Mr. Benny,” she’d reply, looking back at him over the top of her glasses. I never saw them kiss or even embrace. But when Mr. Benny was home, he and Miss Donna sat side by side.
Miss Donna’s father disowned her when she married Benny. A strong believer in the teachings of the Klan, he never forgave Donna for marrying a black man.
• • •
When I was twelve, Miss Donna had a heart attack and died suddenly of multiple organ failure. They suspected that her heavy drinking was to blame, that she might have also had colon cancer. It was my first funeral, and I went dressed in an oversized Tweety Bird T-shirt and black leggings.
“Are you sure you want to wear that?” Mami asked, one eyebrow raised.
I didn’t know what else to wear. When I got there, I couldn’t speak to Arica or Mr. Benny. I sat in the back with my mom and stared at Miss Donna’s face peeking out of her casket. People hugged and cried, a pastor led the group in song. We left fifteen minutes later. Arica and I were never the same. I didn’t comfort her as a friend should have. And I never went back to that house. Arica was my best friend, but it might have been Miss Donna I was visiting all along.
I think of her often: when I see a Doberman, or drink a gin and tonic, and especially when I make grits. I once told Miss Donna the story of the La Petite grits. She listened intently, brow furrowed, and quickly went to work to correct that bad memory. I watched as she warmed water and milk in a saucepan and slowly poured in white corn grits, stirring and simmering until they thickened and sputtered. She filled three bowls halfway and sat them down in front of me along with a jar of grape jelly (Arica’s favorite), a stick of butter, a bowl of sugar, and salt and pepper.
I wish I could say that they were amazing, and that my obsession with grits started that day. Instead, we scooped three mostly uneaten bowls of grits into the trash. Perhaps it was the memory of those first grits still lingering on my palate. But Miss Donna didn’t give up. Over time, we tried maple syrup, strawberry jam, Tabasco . . . and ultimately hit a sweet spot with cheddar cheese and lots of pepper.
Miss Donna seemed to understand that I needed to be coaxed and prodded, guided slowly, and given a chance to adjust my taste buds and my background. She helped me find my home in the South.
This excerpt from Coconuts and Collards: Recipes and Stories from Puerto Rico to the Deep South by Von Diaz has been reprinted with permission of the University Press of Florida.
This article appears in our May 2023 issue.