March is Women’s History month. As I think about this in the context of Mormonism, I think about how personal history is such an important part of our religious practice. This personal history becomes part of our individual narratives. Unfortunately, my attempts to collect my personal history do not extend beyond this continent. Even genealogy is a penetrating reminder of the continual tragedy of slavery and its far-reaching effects. Despite this, I have realized that I have found connection to the women from my personal history through personal ritual. Sure, it doesn’t reach far beyond the continent and beyond the grips of slavery, but it makes me feel closer to the women who have gone before me.
Every year, I perform my own ritual or homage to the women in my family. The history I have to embrace comes in the form of recipes, adorned with tips and tricks passed on by the experienced hand of each woman who lovingly guided the ingredients into the masterpieces I have now. Each recipe has been molded by a collective effort—an effort I know was not limited to my direct line, but includes women that were probably called aunt, cousin, mother, or sister, regardless of bloodline. I like that. I like knowing that each of these meals is a communal act that brought women and families closer together. Every year I perform my own role and make my own contributions to honor these recipes and women.
I find that I feel most connected to the women I descend from when I make gumbo each fall. Gumbo is love. It is an investment of time. It is peeling, cracking, stirring, cutting, deep nutty brown that you pour into the hearts of family: love. Anyone who has ever made real slow Louisiana gumbo knows that this process is certainly a production. Do it right (or wrong enough), and you may even find a real come-to-Jesus moment in that pot of gumbo. That is why it only gets made once a year in my home. I usually make it during October General Conference. It seems like the right time of year for me; it’s just before the holiday season, but in time to welcome a new rhythm and pace of life. It is usually my farewell to summer and my hello to shorter days that welcome the warmth and comfort of something heartier.
I perform my gumbo ritual faithfully. Each year, I call my grandma to ask her for her old gumbo recipe, and each year she proceeds to look for it and then tell me that she can’t find it anymore (this part has been going on for the last five years or so). I, in turn, lament that I didn’t write it down the previous year even though I had said that I would. I’m not sure my grandma knows that this is our pattern—that we perform the same conversation each year—but I find comfort in its repetition and continuity. Besides, honestly, I can’t take the time away from the all-consuming ritual of making gumbo to simply assess gumbo and record the recipe. I can’t disrupt the process.
Together, my grandmother and I sit on the phone and brainstorm the standard ingredients from the previous year. The longer we talk the more tips my grandmother remembers. It becomes “Aunt So-and-So would do this” and “Cousin So-and-So would do that.” My most favorite part is that each gumbo conversation begins and ends with “Oh, Tasha don’t forget your white potato. You need to have one peeled white potato. It doesn’t seem like it would, but it really works.” I respond with, “Grandma, you know I’m not going to forget the potato, I always remember the potato. I leave it whole, right?” I then promise to let her know how it turns out. We have several more of these conversations as I prepare to make my gumbo.
Just after we watch the first session of conference, I gather my ingredients, chop my vegetables, and start on my roux. I know some people hate making the roux, but it is my favorite part: It takes such attention and care. You start out with white flour and some oil, and you just stir. You have to pay attention and stir constantly to ensure that your roux doesn’t burn. I like to stir my roux for about an hour, which I know is longer than most, but I love watching the transformation. The slow transformation from white and runny to the dark deep color that forms thickly in the pan with each coaxing stir.
It is a meditative process to sit, stir, and watch the roux. As the color deepens, I fall deeper into history and contemplate all the many women that leaned over their pots or pans to gauge the depth and darkness of their roux. I picture all of their hands stirring together with mine. I picture their lives and families who are also my family. I imagine their pain, trials, sorrows, hopes, laughter, and love. I imagine some of them singing or yelling as they stirred their roux. I wonder about the lives of all these women that intertwine in me and my gumbo. I feel united through and beyond time in this singular act of stirring that I know has been performed by so many before me. And I feel it. I feel them. I remember them when so many have tried for their erasure. I remember them without knowing faces or stories. At best, I remember them by partial names, misattributed names, actual names, and even storied names pulled forth from the unventured depths of Ancestry.com or the prodded recesses of aging memories. I try to remember and imagine them in order to honor these women who made me.
I cook my gumbo all day. Really, I don’t know the exact number of hours, but it isn’t done until after dark. I can’t tell you much about the recipe or the mechanics. The amounts are figured out in moments of inspiration and so is the time. I just know the process as I experience it and as I transcend the limitations of time—even those of life and death.
Through this process I am united together eternally with the women from my past, in the moments found in the transition of flour and oil to the depths of roux.