Caroline Randall Williams

Credit: Philip Murphy Photography

Credit: Philip Murphy Photography

I was raised to go to well-stocked specialty grocery stores, farmers’ markets, even the farms themselves. My world turned upside down in 2010, when I moved to the Mississippi Delta to teach school for two years. In the Delta, almost without exception, the best groceries—the only groceries—come from Walmart. They have the widest selection, with the freshest vegetables, and the consistency isn’t matched anywhere else in the region. With their produce aisle as my only grocery store, I learned how to eat healthfully and soulfully, day in and day out, on a teacher’s budget.

 Growing up, most of my family was large. My mother, who called me Baby Girl, thought I was perfect just the way I was and let me eat whatever I wanted. I watched her become heavier and heavier without any real concern—she was just following the model of the many women who came before her. It wasn’t until my mom reached her largest, and I watched how hard it was for her to try to do something about it, that I really began to worry.

One day a co-worker of mine shared a conversation she’d had with her mother-in-law, and what she told me changed how I looked at my own family’s foodways. My friend said that she used to bake a pound cake once a week, until her mother-in-law criticized her for it, saying that when she was young, they had a pound cake at holidays, yes, but not every week! That was too much! It made the cake less special. That’s when I had my little revelation: We’ve begun to mistake celebration food for everyday food.

When I think about what the future of food looks like, I find myself thinking that it looks like the past of my friend’s mother-in-law more than it looks like the past of my grandmothers. My friend’s mother-in-law knew that excess every day would spoil the real pleasures of a meaningful feast. And now I know it too.

The foods we now think of as “soul food” are not the ones our families were eating day in and day out; they are the celebration foods that have claimed our attention over time. All that extra sugar, the flour, the cream—those things were luxuries. The food at the soul of our community, the food that kept us on our feet and marching forward, was clean and delicious.

My future children are going to eat differently than I did as a kid. I ate out; my kids will eat in. I thought cooking was for special occasions; my kids will know cooking is for every day. I thought “soul food” was a guilty pleasure. My kids will know “soul food” is a healthy truth.

But I’m not a mama yet.

For now, standing on the shoulders of these brilliant, big, black women, I go on ahead and feed my friends from my small kitchen. I feed them from my history, fromour history, our past, our present, and from the fresh start of what I hope our future looks like. And that, as we like to say in my family, is how you entertain like Mama and stay healthy like Baby Girl.

 Caroline Randall Williams May 2015

Caroline, a Harvard (B.A., 2010) and Ole Miss (MFA, 2015 ) graduate, is currently the Writer In Residence at Fisk University in Nashville, TN.

Places where Caroline has lived:

  • Oxford, Mississippi
  • Greenwood, Mississippi
  • The Delta
  • The Mississippi Delta
  • Nashville, Tennessee
  • Oxford, England
  • Concord, New Hampshire
  • Cambridge, Massachusetts
  • Los Angeles, California
  • New York, New York
  • Sorde L’Abbey, France