Air date: August 1, 2017
Guest: Aliyah Bilal-Gore
Runtime: 29 minutes
Summary: In our first episode, Jen sits down with Aliyah to discuss making Southern food. Aliyah’s journey takes her from South Carolina to Berlin and teaches her about her family and identity. It’s a story that is fascinating and moving.
Links of Interest:
What I Made This Week:
From the transcript below: “Before I wrap up, I’d like to tell you a little bit about something I made this week. A few days ago, my son turned one and we had a barbecue for family and friends to celebrate. I love making food for my family, especially my children. Watching them enjoy something that I’ve created for them gives me so much joy. So I used the opportunity to bake him a big
chocolate cake. There were lots of children at the party, so I made sure that it was on the healthy side, getting much of its sweetness from bananas. He had a big piece all to himself and made sure to get lots of it on his face and in his hair. He looked so pleased with himself by the end.”
[00:34] Hello. My name is Jen Tierney and you’re listening to “How to Make a Memory,” the show that explores the items we make for one another and how they impact our relationships. For this first episode, I’ll be sitting down with my dear friend Aliyah. I met Aliyah in 2013 when we were both working at a start-up together in Boston. She’s a brilliant woman who has a fascinating perspective to share. I hope you enjoy our conversation as much as I did.
[00:51] Jen: Hi Aliyah! Thank you for being my very first guest.
Aliyah: Thank you. I don’t really know what to expect from this.
Jen: Neither do I. Neither do any of us!
Aliyah: Alright. We’ll figure it out as we go along.
Jen: That’s right.
Aliyah: Just let the alcohol course through your veins. Let it loosen your tongue.
Jen: We’ve had a little bit of delightful summer sangria.
Aliyah: Provided by our sound engineer today.
Jen: Yes, our lovely sound engineer Becky Carpenter is manning the laptop for us. I shouldn’t say manning – she’s womaning the laptop for us. And made us some delightful sangria to get us a little bit comfortable since this is, you know, the maiden voyage of this podcast experiment of mine.
Aliyah: So ok, what’s the name of this podcast. Let’s start there.
[1:35] Jen: Okay, great. So the podcast is going to be called “How to Make a Memory.” It’s not going to be called – it is called. This is real. This is happening. So yes, it’s called “How to Make a Memory” and what I’m trying to do is speak with people and collect stories about the things that we make for one another and how that brings us closer to the people that we care about, the people who care about us.
And so, when I was talking to you about this initially, I really thought that your initial reaction of “Oh, I’d love to talk about learning how to make southern food,” I was like “Oh, would you come and be on my podcast because that sounds excellent!” So maybe you can tell everybody a little about yourself and your background and your family and southern food.
[2:15] Aliyah: So, in terms of my background, I come from sort of a multiracial, multicultural background. My mom is from New England. My dad is from South Carolina. And growing up, I felt kind of disconnected from a lot of my extended family. I spent more time with my Mom’s side of the family because both of my parents really missed New England. I grew up in North Carolina. They had lived there previously and my sister grew up there for the first half of her life and then we moved, because the job opportunities were better.
They really missed New England, I think. That’s where they really came of age. That’s where they met. So we spent more time there and since my mom’s family is up in Massachusetts we just spent more time with them. And then on the flip side, my family – I was raised Muslim. So a lot of southern food was kind of inaccessible to a certain degree just because there were things that I couldn’t eat. Also, that side of the family in the south is Southern Baptist. So it was worlds apart [laughter] in terms of religion and everything else.
But yeah, I got to a point when I was about 21. I still remember being – I want to say it was the summer before my senior year of college. I was traveling around Germany and Austria by myself and I just decided, you know, I appreciate Islam for everything it’s given me in terms of a cultural background, but it wasn’t something that I really practiced personally and I was just like, floodgates are open. I love traveling, I’m tired of having certain options in terms of food and experiencing other cultures, you know, cut off from me. I was just like, “you know what? I’m gonna eat pork for the first time ever.” I literally went to a little stand in Berlin and…
[4:30] Jen: You’re in the perfect place to eat pork!
Aliyah: I know seriously! I got currywurst, which is delicious! And that was it! And luckily I didn’t get too sick, so that was great. I still would say I’m not used to it. I feel like it’s one of those tastes that I don’t know about. It’s still kind of unfamiliar. Part of learning how to cook with southern food has been getting used to that.
That’s sort of my background. And then on top of that – so you and I know each other from working for a tech company. But as you know, I left my job a couple of years ago and decided to become a baker. So not only do I love cooking and eating but I also do it professionally. So it’s just been this kind of matrix of learning how to cook and getting used to these kind of new cultural elements that I had never really been exposed to as
So for me, the only time I really got to see my dad’s side of the family was during funerals. Some older relative died that I had no idea who they were. But a big portion of that – I’ve never really been to a funeral on my mother’s side so I don’t really know how to compare and contrast it. On my dad’s side of the family, it’s very much kind of a huge gathering. Everyone gathers in the church – you think of very stereotypical kind of gospel celebrations. Everyone’s hollering and people participate in the service in a way that I wasn’t used to. So that was very foreign. I don’t even know the name of the town that my dad grew up in, it’s so small. It’s on the border of North and South Carolina near the coast. Tiny, tiny, sleepy town. It’s trailers and dirt roads and lots of farms and probably more pigs than people. It was just such an experience, of everyone gathering together, of expressing grief and sympathy and really coming together to celebrate a family member. And a big part of that celebration was food.
Everyone would bring food to the table. It’s just a giant potluck. The way my dad grew up, he grew up relatively poor and in those days, in the mid to late 50s, in that time it was very customary to grow a lot of your own food. To hunt, to fish, to do a lot of those things. And I think southern food has this reputation of being really fatty and really – I guess very decadent.
Jen: Very rich.
[7:20] Aliyah: Yeah, or maybe low-class in some ways. Where people think of lots of canned food and lots of mayonnaise and butter and kind of that stereotypical thing. And you know, there have been a lot of changes in the way people eat because of industrialization. People didn’t really eat canned food. You had to grow your own food. You had to hunt, you had to fish. And of course being black as well. Black and primarily Indian on that side of the family. They didn’t really get access to a lot of that industrialized food because they were so poor.
It was just a very different experience of southern food for me. It was my dad’s brother frying up catfish that he had caught earlier that morning and things like that. And of course soul food is definitely a part of that. That side of the family is primarily black. There’s a lot of soul food involved. But some of my favorite meals are grits, or traditional cornbread, which has no sugar. I have such an issue every time I get cornbread up north. It is so sweet and so flowery. And I’m just like, “Unh-unh, this is not how it’s made.” Or just simple greens that are basically weeds that you foraged.
I have to say, I haven’t seen my dad’s side of the family in a very long time. Probably the last time I really saw them was when my great-grandmother died. Miss Plummy is what I called her and I was terrified of her. I loved her to death, but she was a very traditional southern matriarch. The kind of person that it was always, “no ma’am” or “yes ma’am.” She was very kind but she was very no nonsense. She’d grown up during the Depression. She had seen several of her own children die before her just because of poverty and all these other things. She was the glue, in a sense, that held the family together. Certainly the glue that kept me and my family coming back there.
So the last time I really saw a lot of that side of the family was when she died at the ripe age of 97. That was really the thing that I think, years later, I was wondering about her and her life. It really made me think, “Maybe I should learn how to cook these dishes.” And specifically because my dad at some point kind of looked at me one day and was like, “You know, you really remind me of her.” Which is both a compliment and also maybe a little bit of shade from him, because I can be just as bossy and temperamental as she could be. I think it was kind of a double – you know, a backhanded compliment in that respect. But that’s kind of what started me.
[10:20] Jen: What was the first thing you learned how to make as you were experimenting with making southern food yourself?
Aliyah: I definitely think traditional cornbread. It comes back to a lot of that and kind of going along with the idea of eating pork for the first time and all of those sorts of things. You know, the way my dad ate cornbread as a kid, it was always made in a cast-iron pan and he continued that tradition, even if he varied the ingredients. I still remember him making cornbread with soy milk and blue corn, which he never would have done back in the day. But he was experimenting. He also loves to cook.
So I made it the traditional way. Yellow milled coarse corn, use the bacon drippings as your fat. There’s no flour in it, no sugar. You get the pan hot first and it’s a very thick clumpy batter and you just kind of put it in there. It’s a very rough peasant food really. It’s slightly just a little bit dry. You have that savory flavor – nothing like what you’d get as cornbread up here.
Jen: I made cornbread this weekend for a barbecue and it definitely had sugar and flour in it! I was like, “It’s just a little bit of sugar, so it’s kind of like southern!” But as you’re describing it now, I’m like, “This is nothing like southern! What I made was tasty. But not…” [laughter]
Aliyah: Granted, I do have to say that of course it’s like any cuisine where people are like, “No, my way or my family’s way of doing it is the right way. And people will have those arguments, so.
[11:58] Jen: Yeah, you’re talking to an Italian, so I totally understand! Listen, “sauce is sauce and gravy is gravy! There’s the right way to do it and the wrong way to do it.” It’s really incredible.
My husband Joe and I went to Europe – I forget where we were exactly – but I remember going to snack bars. Did you go to any? I think that’s what they called them there, which I thought was really… like, “Really? That’s what you call them?” You’d walk in and it was this little hole-in-the-wall place and they were everywhere. They just sort of had a deli counter and inside of them were breaded meats and they would fry them and hand them to you. And you’d eat them at two in the morning and then go sit in a hookah bar for an hour. The way that they do meat in the Germany area of the world is so different. I think that we, especially in New England now, I think this is one of the more health-conscious areas of the country. And so we’re very, “Only have a piece of meat the size of your palm and it needs to have all the fat taken off of it.” I think that there are a lot of cultures that embrace and use all that good fat. Just, so good.
Aliyah: And every part of the animal. Every. Single. Part.
Jen: I think when you get into traditional cultures, you see – the more traditional food you find in almost any culture – you run into these examples of… You know, maybe they cook with an animal or an item that is uncommon elsewhere. But they use everything from it.
Aliyah: You have to, you know? If all you have is the one pig to lasting through the winter, you’ve got to make everything!
[13:38] Jen: It’s interesting, I just happened to be listening to an episode of a podcast the other day called “Reveal” where they talked about a black man from North Carolina who is a pig farmer and how difficult it’s been for him since 1991, when he tried to open the farm, up until now. Last year his farm was foreclosed on, because of all of the systemic racism that goes on in the loan industry – the government loan industry. I think that it’s heartbreaking to listen to his story. It’s incredible to me that your father grew up in that environment but extricated himself from it because it seems like so many people get trapped in it.
Aliyah: Yeah, I know for one thing my dad is quite light-skinned. I’m not sure that a lot of people would necessarily think he’s black when they first meet him. He gets Arab or Latino quite a lot. Occasionally Asian, which I guess I can kind of see. But I think that was part of it. Also, his family came into a little bit of money and they shipped him off. He went away to military school and then he ended up at Andover. You know, Philip’s Andover. And then ended up at Harvard med school, did his residency at MGH.
So he came up from that background for sure. And other members of my family have done pretty well for themselves as well. I think they were just lucky in that regard and I think there’s a tradition in the south of having a very, I guess, “respectable” – and I’m using air quotes for that not necessarily because it’s not true but just because it’s a very particular mentality among certain classes of black people. Of you know, “I don’t want to be that kind of black person.” You know what I mean? Among certain generations there’s a very big cultural and class-based divide. Where it’s sort of like, “I’m not associated with you know maybe more seemingly ‘negative’ (and again negative is in air quotes) aspects of black culture.” And I think both of my parents are steeped in a lot of that. Certainly my
mother is. She’s probably rolling her eyes if she ever hears this. Please don’t let my parents know that I said this about them!
My mother grew up in Boston. A lot of her friends and a lot of the people that she knew were Boston Brahmin. She grew up in a very – I think Bostonians in general, we’re very class conscious. I think that’s very engrained into New England. You know, the New England part I think is very true, where we got some of those cultural elements. You know, like, “Oh, I’m upper class,” and of course the Andover connection, and all of those other things, it just makes it ten times worse.
There is that kind of, I guess, respectability politics that are involved and I think for me, and talking to my sister, I think both of us have – and again partially it’s because of my religious background and my mother’s own cultural affinity is more towards the South Asian kind of Middle Eastern elements of our family. So I’ve grown up around a lot of that where it’s just been ingrained in me: going over to my Pakistani friend’s house for iftar during Ramadan and going to the Lebanese market and getting Jordan almonds after Sunday school and having to memorize portions of the Quran. That’s so ingrained in me and so I think it’s just such a part of my cultural identity in a way that being black is not.
I still feel this kind of tension – how do I explore this in a way that feels authentic and still keeps in mind that I do have these other cultural elements? I was raised Muslim. I can’t get away from that. That is a huge portion of my childhood and my identity but at the same time there’s this entire other world that I really haven’t been exposed to and in many respects has been talked down on because of the kind of negative associations. Like, “No, I’m not black. I’m really Arab.” But, I can be both.
I know a lot of kids that either are adopted by people who are not the same race or who are multiracial/biracial have these similar elements of like, “How do I combine all these elements of myself?” But I feel like if you are black there is an added element of anti-blackness and colorism and all of these kinds of issues just within the black community. Not even talking about all of the other racism you might experience outside it. I don’t know how to reconcile that and I think food was a way of safely exploring that. I love food. I love to eat. It felt authentic in a way that doing more stereotypical things
didn’t really gel.
[19:20] Jen: Yeah, when I was initially thinking about doing a podcast, I had thought very seriously about having it be completely focused on food. I think that what you’ve touched
on is that food is sort of like this thing that everyone can participate in.
Aliyah: Everyone has an opinion about it.
Jen: And every culture has a food, has a cuisine, has a way that they approach food. And so, if you come from two different worlds, you can explore those two different foods and still be authentic. You can combine those foods. I think that that’s where some of the best cooking comes from. From people who are biracial or multi-ethnic and they say, “I love these two sides of my history and I want to combine them.” And some of the most amazing food experiments have come out of that.
Aliyah: And food is so visceral, both literally and figuratively. I feel like it can just transport you – smell and taste can just transport you to a place, a time. It can remind you of a particular person and the feeling is so intense sometimes – how it relates to all of these issues and ideas. And forget the cultural aspects, the aspects of your own body become very very intense.
Jen: Food is – the way that we use it in the mechanical sense – there’s this emotional aspect right but as it travels through you it makes you physically feel things that sometimes are very pleasant and sometimes very unpleasant, you know?
[21:12] Aliyah: The funny, well maybe the ironic thing, is if my dad had eaten and had continued to eat in a more traditional manner he might actually be better off. Looking at his diet or the kinds of things he said he ate as a kid, he really didn’t eat a lot of meat because if you have chickens and other animals you want their eggs. You want to keep them around for as long as possible. Maybe you’d kill one hog but you don’t want to kill all of them. And he had a lot of greens, again. He grew up and near the coast, so a lot of seafood and a lot of beans. It’s kind of a typical peasanty kind of poor people diet. A very rural diet. And I sometimes wonder if maybe the shift over the years of starting out eating one way and then eating vastly differently when he was older and wealthier and had less time on his hands, made a big impact on his health. Maybe it would have actually benefited him to get more in touch with that side of his background.
Jen: Let’s say you were to go down and visit your family. Is there anything that you feel like next time you go down you want to make for people and share with them?
[22:30] Aliyah: I feel like all of my aunties probably have that covered. I think it would be more of a matter of learning. Actually, one of the big things for me, and especially now working in the food industry and kind of seeing how all of these various parts work together and seeing how much food is wasted, I have a huge interest in the way that food is produced. I think part of that again is the influence of my dad. He’s always been a huge gardener. I think that feeling of growing your own food never really left him. We always had a little vegetable garden or herbs or something. Something tangible to hold on to in terms of cooking and eating and all these other things.
I’m fascinated by the way that food is produced. I really do want to try hunting and fishing. I’ve done a little bit. Part of your culinary school education is that you do have to butcher meats and you have to gut fish, scale it, do all of that. You’re usually coming from a smaller hunk of the animal. At least I did in my class. I didn’t have the whole hog. But I would love to do that. It’s a very different experience of say eating wild fowl versus something farmed.
Again, learning from my aunties and my uncles and collecting as much information. Because, I’m at the point – my parents are in their 60s and so they have health issues. I was too young to really understand the significance of someone like my great grandmother passing or even of living that long, to be honest. She was history – she was living history in terms of actual American history. My entire family has been influenced by slavery, by the Trail of Tears, by Loving v Virginia. She was such an embodiment of American history, but she was also an embodiment of family history and a lot of that is gone with her. I realize that there’s a lot of things that I really don’t know about my parents – I don’t know about my family. And as I get older, and as they get older, I’m just like, “wow, I’m going to lose that.”
[24:50] Jen: Yeah, I went through an exercise a few years ago when my brother got married. I wanted to give him something that was unique that – you know I like to make unique gifts for weddings. So for him, what I did was I contacted his fiance’s family and I got in touch with all of my relatives and I found all of the family recipes and asked everybody to give me a little paragraph about each recipe and where it came from. And then I put together a book that I gave to him. Lord knows if he uses it or not. I sure hope he does. It was made with a lot of love.
Aliyah: It’s good to have a record of those things.
Jen: Yeah, that’s why I think if you go down and or even just email people and say, “I’m looking to put together a collection of the history of our family through food.” You put it together and then send everybody a copy for a holiday or in like May, who knows. And you say, “I put this together and if you have any other stories, send them to me.” I think that people in general have this real desire for their stories to be told and for their stories to outlive them.
I remember when my son was born, my mom came up and I said, “Hey, I really don’t know very much about your childhood and about your mother and your father. I would love that information or love that knowledge. We sat down and she just told me, like four hours of family history. I kick myself that I didn’t record it in any way because now I forget all of it because I had just had a baby! I remember just having rapt attention. I thought, “All this information is wonderful. All this information about my grandmother and who she was and my grandfather and the dark side of them, which I had never heard about.” All I ever knew was that they had a beautiful grape trellis in their backyard and they used to make me jam and we did puzzles together. That’s my understanding of them. But my mom has this totally different history and these different memories. A lot of them are very food based too. I think that cataloging that is our job. I think part of me wanted to create a podcast to capture those stories, but from lots and lots of different people –
[27:25] Aliyah: I think it’s nice to have a sense of your place in the grand scheme of things. I think it’s easy as a human being to feel isolated from others. Even from other people in your family. But again, there’s something about those stories. You’re a part of something. You’re a part of history. Even if it’s just your local traditions. It’s about where you come from, where you’re going, where your children (if you choose to have them) might end up. You have a place in the world.
[28:05] I’m so pleased that Aliyah could join me as my first guest. She has a kind and open nature that came through so well as we spoke.
Before I wrap up, I’d like to tell you a little bit about something I made this week. A few days ago, my son turned one and we had a barbecue for family and friends to celebrate. I love making food for my family, especially my children. Watching them enjoy something that I’ve created for them gives me so much joy. So I used the opportunity to bake him a big chocolate cake. There were lots of children at the party, so I made sure that it was on the healthy side, getting much of its sweetness from bananas. He had a big piece all to himself and made sure to get lots of it on his face and in his hair. He looked so pleased with himself by the end.
That brings us to the end of our first episode. Thanks again to Aliya for being my first guest. Thank you to Chuck Salamone for composing our theme music, our system admin Greg Thole for hosting us, and Becky Carpenter for designing our logo and helping to record this first episode. Thank you to my husband Joe for encouraging me to take this journey. And most importantly: thank you, for listening (reading!).
Now, go make something for someone you love.