|About Lalita Tademy|
Writing is a new interest for Lalita Tademy. After working for 20 years at Sun Microsystems, she left corporate America--not for writing, but for a break.
"I needed to stop for a while," she said.
She began a search into her family history that led to two years of research, culminating in a compelling desire to write it all down. "The Cooking Lesson" is an excerpt from the beginning of a book Tademy has been writing for the last year about four generations of Creole women born into slavery in Louisiana, her ancestors. Tademy hopes to have the first draft finished by the first few months of 1998.
Well, not hopes. Will.
"I'm a very disciplined person," she said, explaining how she rises each morning, exercises and then puts on her lucky shoes and begins to write, not stopping until she fills the quota of words she has set for that day.
She admits that writing has been a challenge. Although a 10-hour workday was considered short at Sun, writing is "exhausting," Tademy said.
"The best thing will be the finished product, because this is the hardest thing I've ever done," she said.
The book won't only be a reward for Tademy, but also for her family, who Tademy said are "perplexed, but very supportive" about her obsession with their ancestry.
Because relatives only knew a few family stories hinting at their background prior to Tademy's research, they are definitely interested that their French and Creole history can now be traced back as far as the 1400s.
One motivation for writing the book was that Tademy wanted her nieces and nephews to be able to have their entire genealogy at their fingertips--all the characters in Tademy's book bear the real names of her ancestors.
The story is the result of reading slave narratives, studying the buying and selling of slaves and the daily affairs of a plantation, and visiting Louisiana to talk to people about history and locate documents, many of which were read for Tademy from the French by a translator. Their most incredible find: the original 18th century bill of sale for Elisabeth and Suzette, the main characters in "The Cooking Lesson."
The cooking lessonby Lalita Tademy
Suzette, the cook's youngest daughter, watched as her mother Elisabeth's strong, quick hands pulled the gray-white doughball toward her, kneading air into biscuits for the Master's noonday table. The cookhouse had been built detached from the Big House because of the risk of fire, and belonged to the Derbannes, along with the cotton and corn fields, the row of slave cabins, the swamplands and every other living thing on their plantation along Bayou Derbanne. But although the Derbanne's owned the building, the cookhouse was Elisabeth's domain, her kingdom, and within its walls she ruled. Beneath her madras head scarf, Elisabeth's broad dark face was streaked with a mixture of sweat from the heat of the cookhouse fires and a film of fine white flour from her baking that morning. The sleeves on her long calico summer dress were pushed up above her elbows, and Suzette could see the old leathery burn marks on the brown skin of Elisabeth's arms. There were two dark spots on her left arm, and one on her right. They were from years of boiling kettles and the big smoky fireplace and sizzling skillets, and Elisabeth wore them as badges of honor to her craft.
Suzette delighted in the activity and purpose of the cookhouse, and loved nothing better than to be sent on an errand, speeding off to do her mother's bidding. She always ran rather than walked, with the rich Louisiana soil under her feet and between her toes, whether the task was to bring back a pail of fresh cow's milk, or track down the perfect sprig of fresh rosemary, or gather green beans from the Big House garden she would string and snap later. She was small for seven years old, but she made up for her size with her energy. Suzette was allowed in the Big Garden, the fruits of which were only for the Master and his family and guests, because she was the cook's daughter, her mother's helpmate, a cook in training.
Suzette's main job on the plantation was as the personal maid of Oreline Derbanne, who was also seven, and that gave her special privileges. She slept in the Big House, on a pallet on the floor of Oreline's room in case she needed anything in the night. She was as much a playmate and pet to Oreline as her servant. Her small size meant she sometimes got Oreline's clothes even before they were used up, as the bigger girl grew out of them, and she dressed better than any of her brothers or sisters who wore standard issue homespun when they went to the fields. But none of the benefits of living in the Big House was as important to her as her specialness as the cook's daughter. No other slave ate as well, or learned how to coax an unforgettable meal from simple ingredients, or had the run of the Big Garden. Not that Suzette would ever abuse the Garden privilege. She only took exactly what her mother asked for, leaving the other seductively ripe fruits and vegetables alone.
This morning, the cookhouse had a predictable intruder. Mistress Francoise Derbanne's pale green silk visiting dress rustled as she swept into the cookhouse. She was heavily corseted, her mousy brown hair upswept in calculated curls, pointy nose and chin inclined slightly, feet nestled in her little black hightop shoes with covered leather buttons. She usually had Elisabeth come to her in the dark back room of the Big House to decide on the menus for the week. But sometimes, just to make sure it was clear who was really running the household, she appeared in the cookhouse unannounced, being careful not to let anything touch her or her fine clothes. It was an old ceremony between the Mistress and her slave, and they had been acting it out since Elisabeth had come to the plantation 15 years before. Elisabeth had proven long ago to be much more capable than her mistress in managing the day-to-day affairs of plantation household life. In the background, of course.
"Elisabeth," the Mistress said, crinkling her nose as if she had caught wind of something slightly foul, "Monsieur Derbanne's sister and her family are coming today so we can celebrate Oreline's birthday. I've promised her a birthday treat of all of her favorites. There will be ten of us in all."
"Yessum, Mistress Derbanne," said Elisabeth obediently, eyes still on her work table.
Suzette tried not to smile as she watched the two women, one tall and pale, the other short and dark. Since this was her birthday month too, she and Oreline had decided together what the birthday menu would be up in Oreline's room just yesterday, and she had already told her mother each of their choices.
"We will have smoked ham, candied sweet potatoes, rice and gravy, green beans, biscuits with the gooseberry preserves we put up last year, fresh churned butter, and peach cobbler," Francoise instructed.
Suzette's stomach was jumping, and she had to turn her face away so Mistress wouldn't see her laughing. She had already picked eight big peaches that morning for her mother, so ripe they were barely able to hold their juice inside. Suzette was surprised Mistress Derbanne could not smell them, even though they were hidden in the pantry. Their aroma still lingered in the air of the cookhouse.
"I give you my permission to go to the smokehouse and get the ham and the preserves," Mistress Derbanne said, with a slight nod of her head.
Suzette could hardly resist the urge to dance and clap her hands and run around the cookhouse two or three times. Elisabeth had been entrusted with the keys to both the smokehouse and the pantry years before, and Suzette had already heard her mother give the command to old Bertram to escort her and carry back the meat and jars of preserves when she was ready for them.
Mistress Derbanne turned to go. She walked a few steps, and then turned back.
"One more thing, Elisabeth. You got heavy handed with the sugar the last time you made a peach cobbler, and Monsieur Derbanne got an upset stomach. Let's use a little less sugar this time."
Happiness abandoned Suzette. The last time Suzette had served her mother's peach cobbler, she had spent half the night cleaning up after Louis Derbanne. Elisabeth herself had told Suzette that the reason he was so sick was that he had drunk too much bourbon. He had upset his own stomach. It had nothing to do with the sugar. Her mother had done nothing wrong. Anger filled her in all the places where excitement used to be. It was too unfair.
Suzette reared back, putting her hands on the hips she soon hoped to have, and said loudly to Francoise Derbanne, "My mama is the boss of this cookhouse, and she knows how to make a peach cobbler better than you."
The words fell into the dead air and hung there. Each of the three females stood rooted in the cookhouse, the white woman's thin lips drawing tighter, the black woman's face turning in on itself, eyes closing briefly, and the little cocoa-colored girl letting her arms fall limply and uncertainly to her side. A fly buzzed sluggishly toward the open doorway.
Francoise Derbanne finally recovered her command of the situation. She took three quick steps toward Suzette and slapped her hard with her green-gloved hand across the right side of her face, fingers spread wide. She did not look at Suzette at all, but squinted through narrow eyes at Elisabeth.
When she spoke at last, Mistress Derbanne said in a tight controlled voice that wavered at the edges, "This has gone on for too long. You need to teach her her place. She is nothing more than my slave." And she wheeled around and walked deliberately out of the cookhouse.
Everything had moved too fast for Suzette to capture. Francoise Derbanne had never slapped her in the face before. But to be slapped so hard, and made to feel so small produced a flow of startled tears that she had to struggle to stop. "Come on over here, Suzette," Elisabeth said softly.
Suzette obeyed, slowly, sniffling.
"Why you let her talk to you like that, mama? Why you let her hit me?"
A single plump tear stood perched on the high ridge of Suzette's cheek, refusing to drop to the red outline below where the Mistress had slapped her. Elisabeth reached over and with her broad thumb gently pushed the wetness away, leaving a thin trace of white flour in its place.
Elisabeth had returned to her dough, humming a slow lullaby as she worked. Suzette couldn't tell if the glistening track on her mother's face was from the heat or if she was crying too. The thumping in Suzette's chest was slowing down, even as she became more aware of the stinging on her face, and she just wanted to reach out and touch the burn spot shaped like a moon on the inside of her mother's right arm.
"You can't be a little girl anymore," Elisabeth said wearily.
Suzette didn't really understand. She was angry at her mother, but at the same time, she wanted more than anything to please her.
"Before you know it, you'll be the one doing the cooking," Elisabeth said.
This seemed like safer ground to Suzette. "Mama, do you think I'll ever be able to cook like you?"
"You just have to watch and learn. I'll teach you whatever I can."
"How did you learn to cook so good?"
"I learned some from my mama. Some ways of putting things together you have to figure out on your own. You make some mistakes. It's better to make them early on when a big meal isn't depending on you."
"Can my Daddy cook?"
"We all know enough to get us by. He can fry up some corn mush."
Suzette just listened for a while to her mother hum, rocking herself where she stood. Her face had settled into a dull ache.
"Suzette honey, come close here right by me and watch. This is how you learn to cook. One of the most important things to know is how much to work the dough. You don't mix the flour and lard and milk too much, even though you need them all to make good biscuits. Just enough to blend them together. Now, when you roll the dough out, if you press too hard, you have a mess on your hands you can't go back and fix. It's tricky. You have to feel your way, but you'll get the hang of it. And you can't tell how the biscuits are going to taste by how they look on the outside. That's all some folks look at, but it's the inside that makes the difference."
Suzette thought about the birthday dinner tonight.
"Can I help you cook? Miss Oreline doesn't need me yet. She's with the tutor."
Elisabeth smiled. "I'd like for you to help."
"Should I run and get some more peaches?"
"First use those young legs to go get me some more sugar. One extra cup of sugar and we'll make sure this peach cobbler bubbles up nice and sweet for Miss Oreline."
"The Cooking Lesson" is a winner because of its ambitious subject matter, the sureness of its prose and the confidence of its movement. Borrowing from history, it has the compelling drive and feel of accomplished fiction.
"The Cooking Lesson" shows mastery over the form of the short story itself: a vivid depiction of time, place, and the emotional development of its characters through a steady point of view and a strong authorial voice. Though its primary plot point--when the young slave comes to her mother's defense and confronts their mistress--perhaps indicates a certain naivete on the author's part regarding the possibility of a plantation slave speaking out so freely at that historical moment in the deep South, I found the story's fine workmanship carried it past this flaw.
In this fine story about sabotage, such perfect details as hidden peaches deftly evoke the life of a slave cook's daughter. This child's simple, contemporary assumptions about injustice may seem slightly jarring against the complex cruelties of her slave upbringing, but the story has an admirable scope, and beautifully conveys a child's delight in uncovering the wiles of her mother.
Get the day's top headlines from Palo Alto Online sent to your inbox in the Express newsletter.