Von Diaz, author of the new cookbook Coconuts and Collards, recalls how her Mami shaped her into a strong woman—without her even realizing it.
“You’re hungry again?!”
When I remember my childhood, this question from my mother, whom I call Mami, still rings in my ears. Always a very modest eater, I believe she felt she’d given birth to a human trash compactor. Incredulous to how much my belly could hold, our food battle was constant. I wanted to taste everything, and I liked it all. For a family living on a $50 per week grocery budget, as we did during the toughest moments of my childhood, a comelona (or, what we might fondly call a pig in the South), I significantly contributed to our financial strife. But she didn’t make me feel bad. She simply wanted me to be certain that I was making a conscious decision. She was patient.
“Are you sure you want to wear that?”
A question Mami asked me hundreds of times (nearly every time we went out in public). Mami had strict attitudes about how we should present ourselves. No hair out of place, no stains, clean clothes with zero wrinkles, pantyhose and patent leather shoes (if we were going to church). Unfortunately I was a wild, hill-tumbling ragamuffin who literally dug in the dirt. But she wasn’t trying to make me feel bad. She just wanted me to be aware of the face I was putting out in the world. She was patient.
Mami would holler my name in that severe momma tone that must be a gift from the gods of childbirth. There are a few family tales about how I got my name (among them, they got it from a popular Puerto Rican soap opera actress). But I believe Mami was up to something. You see, her name is Yvonne Marie, and so my name is basically Yvonne Jr. She hollered my name often because, although I wasn’t a bad kid, I was ... mischievous. She was patient.
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My mom and I did not always see eye to eye. There were many years where you could not have paid me to write kind words about her. But as they say, hindsight. Today, I celebrate her capacity to turn a binge-eating, dirty, bullheaded child into a cookbook author by simply by imploring me to consider my options, motivations, and actions.
Importantly, there are some standard mama questions she never asked me: When will you get married? Are you ever going to have babies? How will you take care of me when I get old? I believe Mami is a sneaky feminist. I don’t know if she realizes how unusual she is. But she certainly knows that I love her deeply, and I trust her infinitely. I tell her as often as I can. And I heed her advice, and celebrate her every day.
When Von Diaz and her family moved from Puerto Rico to Atlanta, she traded plantains, roast pork, and malta for grits, fried chicken, and sweet tea. And she grew up to be a food writer. Brimming with humor and nostalgia, her book Coconuts and Collards is a recipe-packed memoir of growing up Latina in the Deep South.