An illustration of a white hand and a brown hand coming together over a plate with a knife and fork on, against a multi-coloured background

On love: Emily Bernard on race, family and food

It was a mutual appreciation of home cooking that bound her Italian husband to her Black family, writes Emily Bernard in this extract from her essay collection, Black is the Body.

Emily Bernard

My husband John is of Italian heritage. His father’s family left Italy just as Mussolini rose to power. They emigrated to western Massachusetts, otherwise known as the Berkshires, which is a world away from the South of my childhood. In this chapter, John and I, along with my parents, have made our way to the small, rural town of Hazlehurst, Mississippi, my mother’s birthplace and home to multiple cousins and aunts in my maternal line. I’ve never lived in Hazlehurst for longer than a couple of months, but because so many family stories were born there, I call it home.

Our trip to Hazlehurst was occasioned by a family reunion. About a month before the trip, John and I received a flyer in the mail describing the weekend events. We were living in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, at the time. On the program was a list of all of the meals: a fish fry, country breakfast, and, finally, a barbecue on the family property that we call the Jefferson place, which consists of nearly two hundred acres, eighty-three of which are pristine woodland, save for a few acres cleared for family use. John started dreaming of the feasts long before we arrived in Nashville to join my parents for the drive to Mississippi.

The first event of the reunion, the fish fry on the Jefferson place, is already under way by the time we reach my grandmother’s house. After introductions, John watches as my father sits down in the only easy chair in the room and becomes immediately engrossed in a baseball game. The women gather at the dining room table to trade details about a family squabble concerning reunion business that has soured feelings about the reunion altogether. Hours pass as the house buzzes with female muttering and the incessant droning of the television and air-conditioning unit. We miss the fish fry because the women are talking. We miss the fish fry because my father wants to watch baseball. No one asks John what he wants, not even me, caught up as I am in the savory details of the family feud. Eventually, my aunt Julia emerges with a plate of spaghetti covered with homemade sauce. She and John have enjoyed a warm relationship ever since.

'My mother, who has been watching, is clearly impressed – another story about John for her to tell.'

Ever an optimist, John sets his sights on the country breakfast to be held the next morning, also on the Jefferson property. The family feud has not been resolved by the morning, however, and my father signals his intentions for the day by immediately descending into the overstuffed leather chair in front of the television. John tries to rally the family, but between the feud and my father we are stuck. He appeals to me, but I am riveted by the gossip and too intimidated, as always, by my father’s silence to try to influence the course of the morning.

The final reunion event, a barbecue, is scheduled for the afternoon. John successfully herds my parents, aunt, and grandmother out the door. The heavy, heady smell of grilling meat saturates the air from a hundred yards away. We are spared the wilting sunshine by the awning of a gazebo that has been erected for the reunion. John peers excitedly around the brown bodies in front of him as my curious relatives, one by one, walk over to us and welcome him to the family.

We are near the front of the line when my father approaches, laughing and shaking hands all the way up to our place in line. He takes my elbow and says he wants to make it back in time for the second half of yet another baseball game. My father has ruled the family and we have always done as he pleased. There was never a choice. But now there is a choice. “We are not leaving until I get some of this barbecue,” John says in a voice that is friendlier than the voice he used on the highway, but just as firm. I hold my breath, but my father goes back to glad- handing, ceding to John’s assertion of authority just as easily as he had entrusted to him the steering wheel of his car. My mother, who has been watching, is clearly impressed – another story about John for her to tell.

'He has put up with my passive relationship with food as well as the more obnoxious elements of my personality. As for me, I endure regular critiques of the way I boil eggs.'

John himself has told this story many times. I wince when he does because the family reunion story is a shameful reminder that, when presented early with an opportunity to perform the duties of a good wife-to-be, I failed. But that imaginary wife who wags her finger at me in judgment was not, and never had been, the kind of wife John wanted. At any rate, he has put up with my passive relationship with food as well as the more obnoxious elements of my personality. As for me, I endure regular critiques of the way I boil eggs. “We marry the problems,” said another friend.

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