Like many, I awoke today to the MLK Doodle on my Google search page. I took a few moments to reflect on the slain civil rights torch bearer, his contributions, his leadership, his sacrifice.
I thought about the relations we share as Southerners, about the camaraderie I share with my team in the kitchen, the sarcastic discourse of line cooks. I thought about the conversations we have, and the elephant in the room that is so frequently avoided- an open, honest and candid discussion of race.
I thought about the events of the last year, about Walter Scott, about Emanuel. A lump rose in my throat and I got angry. I did a search for images of the Civil Rights struggle and came up with some real humdingers. I started to get hot. But then, I came across images of a very human Dr. King, with his family, at supper. This, to me, is the Dr. King I’d like to think on- focused on the common table we all share. Or lunch counter, at any rate.
So thinking on this, I did a brief search for what Dr. King’s favorite foods were. Not surprisingly, the Nobel Peace Prize laureate was a vocal advocate for Southern foods. I came across an account by Rev. Samuel “Billy” Kyles, pastor at Monumental Baptist Church.
“‘Kyles planned to take King to dinner at his home on April 4, 1968, when the civil rights leader was shot on the balcony of the Lorraine Motel. The meal, which had been cooked at the church by a number of female members , included many of King’s favorite dishes: fried chicken, ham, sweet potatoes, two kinds of greens, crowder peas, sweet potato pie.
“I got there about 5 to pick him up, but in reality, dinner was at 6, ” Kyles said. “He said he was in no hurry. I had the great privilege of spending that last hour with him.”
“He wanted to know what was for dinner, ” Kyles said. “He knew I had just bought a new house and he told me how he had been to dinner at this preacher’s house in Atlanta… he said, they couldn’t afford furniture after buying that house so they ate on card tables and the ham was cold, the Kool-Aid was hot and the biscuits were hard. He teased me, saying that if I had bought a new house and couldn’t afford a proper dinner that he was going to broadcast that on the radio.”
Virginia Boyland was one of the women who had helped cook the lavish spread. “I remember we wanted everything to be perfect, ” she said.
She spent hours washing greens and cutting up and frying chicken. “It was well known that he loved food, ” said Boyland, who remembered macaroni and cheese as another favorite.
Kyles referred to that meal as “the dinner that never was.” “I told those ladies they had the privilege of cooking the last meal for Dr. King. It was never eaten, but it was prepared.'”
So I thought back on the year and acknowledged our shared tragedies, but noting the presence of crowder peas on that last menu, thought also of our successes and shared meals- of Nat Fuller, of George Washington Carver and of that monumental tasting of crowder peas we did with Kevin, BJ, Chad, David, Brian & Glenn. The usual suspects.
So frequently we like to congratulate ourselves on how far we’ve come since the days of our backwards cousins, but then something or other happens to remind us all how very real that struggle remains for us all.