I follow the aroma that seems to come from the top floor in the Bedford Stuyvesant fourth-story walk-up. Fifty-eight-year-old Linda Owens has already started cooking. Each turn in the winding staircase draws me closer to what smells like a stew of some kind. Onions, carrots, peppers—these are all familiar to me, but there is something else, too.
As I reach the top floor, I see that Owen’s door is being held open with an old book that looks as if it had been given that assignment years ago, and I realize why I can smell everything downstairs. “Mrs. Owens?” I call out. I didn’t feel comfortable walking in her home even if the door was wide open. “Mrs. Owens?” I peak down a long hallway cluttered with bikes, scooters, and assorted stuff. “Who’s that calling me Mrs. Owens? It’s Linda! Come in!”
It is hot inside, hotter than it is outside. I hesitate, planning my course, and then carefully maneuver through the hallway to enter an even more cluttered living room. Blocking my path is an awkwardly positioned oversized sectional in the middle of the room. Positioned directly in front of the sofa is a gigantic plasma TV. Sunlight beams through the plant-filled picture window. There is the sound of a large fan struggling to blow warm air into the room. It is obvious that Owens likes things big. “Come in,” Owens’ equally big voice says.
“I’m cooking chicken feet.”
“I’m sorry, did you say feet…chicken feet?
“Yes, chicken feet, that’s what I’m cooking!”
Owens says she learned everything about cooking from her mother, Hattie, who grew up in Aiken, South Carolina as a single working mother with five children. Making sure they had food was important to her, and it is obviously important to Owens as well. Her kitchen cabinets are exploding with cans and seasonings and cartons. Assorted cereal boxes in size order line the top of her refrigerator and a rainbow of three-liter sodas trim the wall of the room. Linda has a stockpile that would last her several months.
Sweat dripping down her face and slightly bent over, Linda stirs the pot quickly, almost annoyed that it’s not ready. Her mother cooked chicken feet with cornbread, but Linda takes it to another level. “I cook mine with dumplings and meatballs. I put a spin on it. I put a spin on everything I cook.” On the stove sits a surprisingly small pot filled with ingredients: carrots, onions, peppers, dumplings, meatballs, gravy, and chicken feet, “I’m not going to tell you all the ingredients. I have to keep some things a secret.”
I knew chicken feet as an Asian cuisine, not a southern dish. Linda educates me: “People think you eat chicken feet because you’re poor. That’s not true at all.” Linda says a couple of pounds at the supermarket can run you around $30. “Instead, I go to the meat market and get about 10 lbs for $50. Chicken feet is a delicacy; People don’t know that.”
Linda tells me she has scoliosis and can’t stand for long periods of time. She invites me to have a seat on the sectional with her as the pot simmers. “I can’t cook as much as I use to.” I squeeze sideways past a massive scratched and dented deep freezer (the size that you would normally see in supermarkets). “It’s The Grandmother!” Who knew freezers had names? “I do exactly what my mother did. My mother had a freezer, so I have a freezer.” Linda explained how she really wanted to buy “the grandfather,” but she listened to The Voice of Reason, her girlfriend Debra who lives across the hall.
Seemingly on queue, Debra enters the apartment and joins the conversation as if we’ve already met. “Yes, I told her she didn’t have room for ‘The Grandfather.’” Seeing Linda on the couch, Debra goes in the kitchen and checks on the pot. They are good friends, the kind that finishes each other’s sentences and talk at the same time. They met as young women, 25 years ago when they moved into the building. Now they’re both grandmothers. “I try to teach my children and grandchildren to cook, but I put love in the pot,” Linda continues. “It’s never going to be the same, if they don’t add love to it.”
Debra says the stew is ready, but Linda jumps up to confirm. She wants to make sure I get a good picture of it. “You have to try some! You can’t write about it without tasting it!” I looked around the room for the dining room table, but there is none. They both walk back to the sectional with steaming bowls in their hands. Linda smiles at me in anticipation. “When you got a lot of kids you have to feed them and try new things,” she says.