April is an iffy month around here. For a few days at a time sun and warmth appears, fanning our hopes for the ultimate end of winter-like weather. Then, rain and coolness show up again, underscoring the basic changeable nature of our existence.
That was the case a couple of weeks ago when I was driving down to Seattle with my husband and son. About 30 miles south, as we entered Skagit County, we headed straight into a storm. Ice pounded the top of our truck. Our windshield vibrated as it repelled angry chunks of hail. We watched cars in front of us skidding off the ice-covered road, a State patrol officer standing just beyond his vehicle to the side, as if waiting for the inevitable.
When we arrived in the Emerald City, the sky was almost cloudless, blue. The city was warm, filled with sunlight.
Strange, but the person who popped into my head in the middle of that ice storm wasn't my mother, my brother, or any of my good friends. It wasn't a version of what one might call God. Instead, it was a teenaged girl from South Central.
I met Della about an eon ago, at my first paying job out of grad school, when I was just emerging from a dark time in my personal life. The job I got was as a mental health therapist in a Level-12 residential facility for pregnant and parenting teens in the middle of Los Angeles. At any given time, there were 60 adolescent girls and 30 babies and infants. The girls were monitored 24 hours a day.
As you might imagine, this was a recipe for frequent chaos, including nightly "incidents" forming a long list that was read to us by the Mental Health Director each morning. Sometimes girls would barricade themselves in their rooms, threatening to smash any remaining furniture not already pushed against the door. Or, they declared that they were planning to hurt themselves, maybe with a razor blade, a knife, whatever it took.
Other times, the disturbances were more along the lines of teenage pranks, such as when two of the residents collected enough packets of ketchup and mustard from the cafeteria to spell out "FUCK YOU" in huge letters across the door and window of the Facility Director's office.
I got to hear the girls' stories, either directly from them, reading their case files or talking to their social workers. Unsurprisingly, most of them had been abused, sexually and otherwise, sometimes by people they should have been able to trust, other times by strangers.
No matter what they had been through, they mostly acted tough as Teflon, even as they begged us to take them for walks off campus (they could only leave with a staff member) to the closest shopping destination, Smart & Final. There, still dressed in their usual pajama pants and slippers, they would buy oversized packages of Hot Cheetos and massive tubs of Red Vines. No matter what they'd been through, in some basic ways, they were still just teens.
Della was a lot like the other girls. She had landed in foster care when her grandmother, who had been her caregiver, went to prison for shooting her husband after he'd beaten her for years. When Della became pregnant at the age of fifteen, she was placed in our facility.
As her assigned therapist, I would go to see Della in her room, which she shared with her daughter, Soraya. Sometimes we folded clothes together, picked things up off the floor, and listened to music. For much of the time at the beginning of our relationship though, we hardly spoke at all. I would show up several times a week, rapping lightly on her door. She put up with my presence, even if it was one of silence. That was part of the deal with living there; they all had to tolerate such visits.
I kept showing up because it was my job, but in time I also grew to respect the gentle way Della spoke to her daughter, the patience with which she would work a small comb through Soraya's hair, even when she squirmed and squirmed. One day, while quietly dabbing Vaseline onto Soraya's scalp, Della suddenly turned and asked me if I wanted to learn how to braid hair. She meant black hair. I said yes and settled in next to them. From that day on, the bouts of silence between us began to lessen.
During each of the Director's morning recitations of the previous night's chaotic events, Della's name rarely came up. She tended to stick to herself and focus on taking care of her daughter.
Then one morning I walked into our morning meeting to hear Della being discussed. She had been passing a petition around to demand a change in the cafeteria's food. We all happened to eat there, since it was difficult to leave the grounds for lunch. Our work days also typically ran well past dinnertime, so we usually just ate dinner with the girls in the cafeteria.
Della had spoken to the others. Her petition argued that the food being served was "too white" and that change was necessary. Most of the girls in the residence were either African-American or Hispanic and Della believed the food should reflect that. The menu should include things such as the sweet potatoes and collard greens her grandmother cooked for her and burritos, tacos and other more familiar items for the Hispanic residents.
We therapists were impressed by Della's efforts and in the end, the cafeteria menu was changed to reflect the demands of the petition (signed by nearly all of the girls).
Della's petition might seem like a small thing. It wasn't. For someone who was used to being treated as less than, making a demand such as this took courage and some understanding that food provides us with much more than physical sustenance. It can also be a forceful signifier of who we are, where we come from and where we have been.
I'm still not entirely sure why I thought of Della that day, but I am glad that I did. She taught me a lot about what it takes to be a mother, especially under extremely difficult circumstances. Perhaps an image of her was etched long ago, deep within my brain, as a symbol of what it means to survive and continue on.
I don't know where Della is anymore. But, I made this dish just for her.
Smoked Sweet Potato, Collard and Cheddar Pancakes (for Della)
Makes about 10 3-inch pancakes
1 small sweet potato, cut into ribbons with a peeler or on a mandolin
1 bunch collard greens, tough stems removed, leaves rolled up and sliced into thin ribbons
1/4 head of a small green cabbage, core removed finely shredded
2 scallions, thinly sliced on the diagonal
1/2 cup flour (all-purpose or brown rice flour, for a gluten-free product)
1/2 cup aged cheddar, grated
1 teaspoon smoked paprika
1/2 teaspoon (regular) paprika
1/2 teaspoon sea salt
1/8 teaspoon cayenne
1 large egg
1/4 cup water
Olive oil, for cooking the pancakes
Additional salt, to taste
Pepper, to taste
Finely chopped chives or scallions
Combine prepped sweet potato, collard greens, cabbage, scallions and cheddar in a large bowl. Set aside. In another bowl, combine flour, both types of paprika, salt and cayenne. Add flour mixture to the vegetables, and combine gently with your hands or a pair of tongs. You want to work the mixture through all of the vegetables. Beat eggs in a small bowl then add water. Add egg mixture to the vegetables and mix gently but well. Again, hands or tongs work well for this task. Allow mixture to sit for 5 or 10 minutes.
In the meantime, heat a skillet over medium heat (if you're in a hurry, or just more efficient than I am, use two skillets, dividing the veggie mixture). Add a teaspoon of oil to the heated pan and swirl. Add spoonfuls of the vegetable mixture to the pan, forming approximately 3-inch pancakes. Don't overcrowd them. Cook the first side for 6 minutes, flip and cook the other side an additional 6 minutes. Each side should be well browned. Continue doing this with the remaining veggie mixture until you have cooked it all.
Serve pancakes with any additional salt (if you feel it needs it), pepper, and if you like, a dollop of crème fraiche followed by an enthusiastic sprinkling of chives or scallions.
*Note: These pancakes do not crisp up all the way through, but remain (pleasingly) soft-ish in center.
Adapted from Marc Masumoto's Okonomiyaki recipe.