Remembering Mine: Giovanni's Legacies

There was one poem that I kept thinking about as I helped my mother-in-law make pasteles for the first time before Christmas, also known as “Noche Buena.” While growing up, my grandmother made collard greens, cornbread, glazed ham sweetened with pineapple circles and cherries, and turkey. She prepared these meals until she could no long stand in the kitchen herself. My brother Marcel learned some of her recipes, and my youngest brother Chris has mastered some of my mother’s recipes, but I have had to find my own way.

Getting married to a Puerto Rican/Cuban husband meant us experiencing food that was familiar to him and new to me. I loved pegao, the hard, flavorful rice at the bottom of the pot. I enjoyed bacalao, but I don’t eat pernil since I haven’t eaten pork since my teens. The one thing that I had no idea where to begin was pasteles, and I knew I wanted to learn how to make this dish, not just for me, but if I am a mother, my children will be a part of their father and grandparents’ varied cultures.

I know how to make greens, cornbread, and I can make vegan soul food too, but I sat with my mother-in-law chopping calabasa, peeling yautía, and watching her stir achiotina into the filling. I know that she cannot make the pasteles forever. I was surprised to learn during Noche Buena this year that my husband’s sister didn’t know how to make pasteles either.

All I could think of was Nikki Giovanni’s poem “Legacies” originally from My House. The poem is easier to find in The Selected Poems of Nikki Giovanni (William Morrow, 1996). This poem is also set in the kitchen where an elder is insisting that a young person acquire the skills of a tradition rooted in sustenance. Food is a sensory experience that digs deep into our memory, and Giovanni shows that in this poem.

her grandmother called her from the playground
         “yes, ma’am,” said the little girl
        “i want chu to learn how to make rolls” said the old
woman proudly
but the little girl didn’t want
to learn how because she knew
even if she couldn’t say it that
that would mean when the old one died she would be less
dependent on her spirit so
the little girl said
        “i don’t want to know how to make no rolls”
with her lips poked out
and the old woman wiped her hands on
her apron saying “lord
        these children”
and neither of them ever
said what they meant
and I guess nobody ever does

Tara Betts is the author of Arc & Hue. She teaches creative writing at Rutgers University. She represented Chicago twice in the National Poetry Slam and appeared on HBO's "Def Poetry Jam" and Jessica Care Moore's "SPOKEN." Her work has been published in Essence, Callaloo, PMS, That Takes Ovaries!, Bum Rush the Page, both Spoken Word Revolution anthologies, among other publications. You can find her on twitter as @tarabetts and at

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