“Our world is a large quilt and its people are the fabric — colorful swatches of beautifully-woven material — all joined together by these common threads: family and food.” — Art Smith
Chef Art Smith gained fame as Oprah Winfrey’s personal chef, and today he’s teaching kids about healthy eating. Two of his inspirations in the kitchen and in life were his grandmother and his mother, both who died of Alzheimer’s disease.
Art, what are some lessons you learned from your grandmother and your mom?
Both my grandmother and mother were really remarkable, hard working women. One life lesson I carry on from them is this: if you’ve got food, you’ve got life. Food brings people together in the good times and the bad times, and a little food can help in many situations.
For me, food is always appropriate. Life can be tough, so a little sweetness can help to ease that.
What is one of the first dishes you can remember making, and who taught you how to make it?
When I was a little boy, I used to sit and watch my grandmother take out a huge wooden bowl and make her biscuits. She didn’t give me the recipe, but I watched how she handled the ingredients and I kept that memory in a safe place.
To this day, I can make really good biscuits because of her! And a biscuit can do a lot of things, including becoming a substitute for bread in a great sandwich.
What are some of your favorite holiday traditions with your family?
Our traditions lie in the food, and each recipe celebrates family.
My favorite dish around Thanksgiving and Christmas is a great cornbread. I make a dressing — we call it stuffing, because you stuff a turkey, you don’t dress it! — and those recipes are simply part of who we are as people. We also make a 12-layer chocolate cake, which is always appropriate for holiday occasions.
Would you tell us more about your family’s experience with Alzheimer’s?
It all started with my grandmother Georgia. She was an extraordinarily hard working mother who developed Alzheimer’s in her 70s. Back then, people didn’t really understand her behaviors, or know much about the disease. She was forgetful but charming and sweet.
Alzheimer’s seemed to come in the night. It took away so much so quickly, in a moment. She knew who I was, and then she didn’t. I still question the ‘why’ and the ‘how’ of it all.
In her 70s, my mother had similar symptoms. She would say: “At my age, it’s just how it is.” As she grew older, I knew that it was more than being forgetful. She had a disease. A fatal disease.
One thing that was so important to me was continually helping my mom socialize even when she wasn’t fully capable. I kept her engaged, taking her to Oprah Winfrey’s school for girls in Africa, traveling to Europe, China — everywhere I could! When longer trips became a problem, I started taking her on shorter trips. I did what I could and what made the most sense for my mom.
The toughest part about watching both my mother and grandmother go through this is that we all wish to become wiser as we become older. We have all of this knowledge and experience. But as some people progress through the stages of Alzheimer’s, I’ve found that they become the opposite of what they once were. There is nothing tougher than seeing a sweet, kind person become mean or angry and forgetting everything and everyone they know. It’s so challenging. I lost two incredible people to a disease that we still are learning about. It doesn’t discriminate. It doesn’t give up. So we can’t either. We all need to do more so that we can find a cure.
What inspires you to give back through your cooking?
Using food to inspire and connect is very important to me. Since I was a little kid, I was taught to give back. Our family’s way of helping others was by pulling tomatoes from the garden to share with those in need. It all started with these small acts of kindness.
When I went to work for Oprah Winfrey, I got to see philanthropy on a much larger scale. This is when I worked on my book, “Back to Table,” and after the book came out, 9/11 happened. That was the moment when my husband Jesus and I took a step back and asked: “What can WE do?” It was then that I knew that it was more important than ever to bring people around the table.
The result was the creation of the Common Threads organization. The center opened in 2003 to teach cooking and art, bringing health and wellness to families through nutrition education. The mantra behind the program is that the world is a quilt, and people are the fabric, drawn together by common threads. We all have powerful food memories to share from our different cultures and backgrounds.
How did food continue to play a role in your relationship with your mother when she was living with Alzheimer’s?
I continued making memories through food with my mother. When she lost her ability to cook, we cooked for her, and brought her to every family meal. We provoked those memories from the past and kept up our traditions.
When we come together during the holidays, we remember my mom and grandmother. We share. We cook. And we honor the memories of our family who taught us what we know.
This cornbread recipe is attributed to Art's mom, Addie Mae Smith, and his grandmother, Georgia.
Classic Southern Cornbread
2 cups yellow or white cornmeal, preferably stoneground
3/4 cup all-purpose flour
2 tablespoons sugar
2 1/2 teaspoons baking powder
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
1 teaspoon salt
2 cups buttermilk
2 large eggs, beaten
1/4 cup vegetable oil, preferably sunflower, plus additional for the pan
Position a rack in the center of the oven. Generously oil a 9- to 10-inch cast-iron skillet (or a 9-inch cake pan) and place it on the rack. Preheat the oven to 450°F.
Whisk the cornmeal, flour, sugar, baking powder, baking soda and salt together in a large bowl to combine. Make a well in the center. Whisk the buttermilk, eggs and oil in another bowl until the eggs are well combined. Pour into the well and stir just until the batter is moistened — do not overbeat.
Remove the hot skillet from the oven and pour in the batter. Bake until the bread springs back when pressed in the center, 15 to 20 minutes. Let stand five minutes, then turn out onto a plate or serve directly from the skillet. See more variations of the recipe here.
About Art: Art loves bringing people together through food and cooking. He is executive chef and co-owner of Blue Door, Art and Soul, Southern Art and Bourbon Bar and LYFE Kitchen restaurants. He is the author of cookbooks “Back to the Table”; “Kitchen Life: Real Food for Real Families”; “Back to the Family” and “Art Smith’s Healthy Comfort.”
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