by Malinda Fillingim
Back in 1972, when I first moved to my step-father’s hometown of Walnut Cove, I was a lonely 13 year old surrounded by people who had grown up together and whose families had lived in the same community for generations. I had to find my own path and create my own sense of place, which can be a hard thing to do when some kids, like a boy I’ll call Phyllis, constantly told me I didn’t belong and should run away.
I had no plans on running away, but I did have a plan to help me adjust to this new part of the blue sky. My plan involved food.
My happy memories of a life where I felt more connected and known all included food. I remembered the times when various relatives made certain signature dishes and we’d gather around eating, talking, and laughing, building a sense of belonging one dish at a time. I missed that feeling and wanted to replicate it somehow to help me forge a new welcome table where there was a place for a rarity, a new girl like me.
So, as a creative girl longing to feel at home in a new land, I sought out recipes from relatives whom I no longer lived near. These recipes brought me comfort and sweet memories from days of my early childhood. I pasted each one in a blank book and created my own cookbook of food memories. Maternal aunts, cousins, great aunts, grandmothers, and various others mailed me favorite recipes and I gingerly held them dear, remembering with love shared times at the table when I didn’t feel so alone.
Funny thing is, as I began to talk to people in Stokes County about their recipes, what they liked to eat and cook, I began feeling a part of this community, this place at the foot of the Sauratown Mountains. My step-father’s sisters showed me how to cook certain foods they enjoyed, recipes I had not known before, like vinegar pie. Mama Dunlap gave me old recipes she painstakingly wrote down with arthritic hands and assured me one day I too would cook each one as well as she. I learned to like new dishes, developed new tastes, and realized how food brought me a new sense of place, a new sense of belonging no matter what Phyllis said.
I started collecting recipes from magazines and the Winston-Salem Journal, whose food editor Beth Tartan amazed me with her recipes like persimmon pudding, something I had never eaten before. I read her recipes like she was my compass rose. I was amazed by the great diversity of recipes and the way certain food combinations created dishes unknown to me before. I found a venue to connect, a way to feed myself by communicating about food, my great bridge to others. I soon realized a girl could belong to more than one place, feel at home wherever she went as long as she had the right ingredients of belief in herself and love for diversity in others.
Sometimes I look at my old homemade cookbook and see the names of loved ones who have died and I remember them fondly. I see the grease stains on Mama Dunlap’s Dutch Pound Cake recipe and laugh at how she rarely measured anything, but had exact measurements for the pound cake, telling me it would take me years to figure out what a cup of flour felt like in my hands. I see Big Mama’s Bible Cake recipe and remember how we used to listen to the obituaries as we cooked with her reminders to live my life so my obituary would point to heaven. I remember my step-dad’s sister, Aunt Betty, my new aunt, reminding me I was at home with her and there was no such thing as a step-aunt or niece. I read these recipes and realize that cooking is more than about making a meal; it’s about making a soul feel welcomed.
Malinda Dunlap Fillingim had the good fortune to move to her step-father’s hometown, Walnut Cove, NC when she was in eighth grade. Curious by nature, Malinda asked Mama Dunlap so many questions about her cooking that she finally gave up some of the old recipes she carried in her head. Malinda is an ESL teacher at Cape Fear Community College and lives in Leland with her husband.