My grandmother, Ida Boyette, died early this morning. She was 84, and had heart disease, and more recently suffered a series of strokes. She was tired. A few hours before she left this world I kissed her forehead, told her I loved her, and left her room for the final time.
She indeed lived a full life, raised six children, and is one of the main reasons I cook. For many years we visited papa and grandma in Savannah, at least once a year, and my memories of those visits are primarily of her kitchen, whose door we most often used to enter and leave the house. The door took us to the backyard, and its window held an amazing view of a giant oak tree, full of Spanish moss. (If I was not in the kitchen, I was in that yard, which was also graced with a beautiful old magnolia tree, my grandfather’s garden, and the healthiest azaleas I have ever seen.)
Back in that kitchen, my grandmother was probably breaking down a chicken or two, preparing to fry them for a hungry crowd. (My grandfather, James Calvin Boyette, was a hunter and a fisherman, and at one time even raised quail in that yard, so there was always something that needed attention, from dove to squirrel to bass to cobia and everything in between. And more often than not, his wife was left with the task of cleaning what he and his sons and friends brought home.)
I did not know it was happening, but what Ida was doing in that kitchen in Savannah entered into me, slowly and surely. She was, of course, taking care of her family, feeding a husband and children and visiting relatives. But she was also thinking diligently about what she was preparing, and I remember many moments when the joy she was feeling erupted in the kitchen: laughter as blue crabs scampered on the counter near the sink, when shrimp flipped in cold water. I smell still the ingredients she used in her mincemeat pies, the raisin and spices.
There was a large table in the dining room, and we all gathered there. In that kitchen, and around that table, I developed, over the years, a passion for working with food, for cooking, for taking ingredients and transforming them into something that made people smile. I learned from her, in short, how to create.
Thank you, Ida. You’ll be in my kitchen forever.