Lisa Gay: “I’m staying in this house until I can get ready to buy or open up a café or something."
“I thought you were going to bring your wife!" says Lisa as I arrive at the front door of her Spring Valley.
“I wanted to meet her! This is a family thing.” “This” is Sunday dinner at Lisa’s, the continuation of a tradition she learned from her grandmother, Gladys Walker Gay. “My grandmother was from Nashville. She lived in a little red house at Imperial Avenue and 61st Street,” recalls Lisa. “We used to go over there every Sunday and every holiday. It had to be at least 30, 35 people, because it wouldn’t just be family. Everybody’s friends wanted to come and have her food. Gosh, that woman could cook! She was the traditional older Southern woman. It was always Southern food. She would throw in an occasional change — instead of turkey or ham, we’d have fried rabbit or frogs’ legs — but it was always pretty much the same thing. But we loved it; it was fun. Mainly, we were just all together. We’d sit and play cards, the kids running around, everybody eating and cooking and food all day.”
After a greeting like that, there is nothing for it but to turn around, head home, gather the wife and kids, and head back for a family thing. By the time I arrive again, Lisa’s cousin Ebony is there with her hus band Cecil. They’ve been driving all day from Ari zona, but they overshot their home in Alpine to join us for dinner.
“Are you here every Sunday?”
“Every time she cooks,” says Cecil with a grin.
Their daughter Brandy joins my kids in the bedroom belonging to Lisa’s daughter Britany to watch cartoons. Britany, who is 13, will not be joining us this evening. “We spent the entire day together yesterday, from about 10 o’clock in the morning until about 7 o’clock. We went to two or three different malls, we hit the grocery stores, and then Wal-Mart. I think I blew it for her yesterday, so that’s why she’s out with all her buddies tonight. She was, like, ‘I can only deal with you so long.’ She had some girlfriends spend the night, and then the mom took them to the movies. They’ll see two or three different movies.” Lisa’s other child — 17-year-old Brandon — is at a birthday party. “There’s usually different groups here. My mom may not be able to come. I may have my sister and her three kids and her husband or some other friends.” But though her attendance was in doubt, it isn’t long before Mom arrives, just in from Ohio and doing valiant battle with jet lag.
“She actually cooks better than I did,” attests Mom, “because she likes to experiment. I’m more, ‘This is good; I’ll do this.’ But she’ll try new things. She’s actually a better cook than I am, except for homemade rolls. That’s my mother’s recipe.”
“You make them, but your mom makes them better,” says Cecil to Lisa.
“Mine are flatter, not as fluffy,” admits Lisa.
“What did you teach your daughter to make?” I ask.
“I’m trying to think...”
“Just showed her where the kitchen was,” suggests Cecil.
“My cooking is a combination of the way my mother cooks and the way my dad cooked. He did Cajun and Creole, deep down-South Southern Creole. Daddy used to make the best greens. When I first started out, I was 18 years old, and I called my dad in San Bernardino and asked him how to make greens. He said, ‘Salt pork. You use some seasonings; put a little of this in there, a little of that.’ So I put salt pork in, and I used some salt, and I put in some onions and nothing else. It was like somebody took a cup of water and dumped a whole thing of salt in there; it was awful. My friends were trying to be so nice; we ended up trying to rinse them off.”
Now, her greens are her pride. “My mother makes me make the greens now. She says she doesn’t know what I do to them. I once had an elderly person come up to me and say, ‘I have never in my life had greens like this before. I thought my family could make greens.’”
Southern Mixed Greens
- 6 bunches mixed greens: collard, mustard, turnip, and turnip roots
- 1 small head cabbage
- a smoked turkey leg and wing
- 2 turnips, cut up
- 2 chopped white onions
- 2 chopped jalapeños
- 2 packages dried, minced garlic
- garlic powder
- Lawry’s seasoning pepper
- ½ cup used cooking oil water
The first thing you do is put the smoked turkey in a pot or a pressure cooker half-filled with water. Add turnip roots, half an onion, and salt and pepper. Cook until meat is tender and falling off the bone. It should only take 20 minutes in a pressure cooker. Remove meat from the pot and let it cool; then pick the meat off the bone. To the water, add the remaining onions and the jalapeños.
Clean the greens well, making sure to remove all dirt. Do not use a colander, because the grit just lies at the bottom. Chop greens and cabbage, dis carding the stems. Add greens to water a little at a time, covering the pot and waiting until the greens wilt. After all greens have been added, return meat to the pot, add garlic and seasonings. Stir well, cover and let greens come to a boil. After about 30 minutes, add oil and let cook for 15 minutes, then lower heat. Cook for another one and a half hours. If you need to add more water, do so, but just a little at a time. Greens should be good and tender.
(Recipe taken from Lisa’s Slap Yo’ Mama Hot Wings and Other Recipes, published 2002 by Hats Off Books.)
That’s the official version. At home, however, variation creeps in. “I add apple cider vinegar,” says Lisa. “And I use one little habanero chile; I let it cook in there for a little while, but I take it out before the greens get too hot.” The “used cooking oil” gets a fuller account. “Just like any other country kitchen — Mother, you know, you still have it sitting on the side of the stove — there is a grease pot. We all have it, a little bit of grease — bacon fat or something — that we put in for a little flavor.” And the cooking time gets stretched. “It depends on the culture. Some people may fry their greens; I’ve done it, and it’s okay. Some may cook them for two or three hours, and that’s it. I cook mine for six or seven, to make them really tender.”
Variation is dear to Lisa’s culinary heart. “My big thing is I change people’s recipes around. My sister Diedre used to put cinnamon in the cornbread. I took it a step further and started adding vanilla and a little bit of nutmeg and sugar. People say it isn’t cornbread; they call it ‘cakebread’ or something. I say, ‘No, it’s cornbread. It’s Jiffy right out of the box, just with other stuff added in. You can do just about anything with boxed or canned things, doctor them up and make them taste good.” Or con sider her mac and cheese. “That macaroni and cheese is my grandmother’s original recipe, and I got it from my mother. But she puts in one cheese. I put in Monterey Jack, Velveeta, cheddar, and extra sharp cheddar. I put garlic in; she doesn’t do that.”
And macaroni and cheese has become her second-greatest triumph. The Sunday dinner lineup varies from week to week — maybe Southern, maybe Korean, maybe Filipino, depending on her mood — but everybody always wants the comforting, cheesy pasta. “My girlfriend is moving to Las Vegas on the ninth. She wants chicken adobo, fried cabbage, and macaroni and cheese — one extreme to the other. But this is what she’s asking for, so okay — ‘Whatever you want, I’ll do.’”
Creamy, Cheesy Mac ’n’ Cheese
- 1 lb. small elbow macaroni
- 1 lb. each mild and sharp cheddar and Monterey Jack cheeses, grated
- 4 sticks butter
- ½ to 1 cup flour
- 2 cups milk, more if needed
- 1-½ tsp. garlic powder
- 2 tsp. salt
- 1 tsp. pepper paprika
Cook macaroni noodles accord ing to directions and drain. In a large pot, melt the butter and stir in the flour a little at a time. The mixture should be creamy, not lumpy. Add milk a little at a time, stirring constantly until mixture thickens and becomes creamy. Immediately remove it from the heat, or it will begin to form lumps at the bottom, but continue to stir and add salt, pepper, and garlic powder.
Dot the bottom of a deep dish baking dish with butter. Pour cooked macaroni into pan, and mix grated cheeses with it. Save a little cheese to put on top. Slowly mix cream sauce in with the macaroni and cheese. Sprinkle remain ing cheese on top, dot with butter, and sprinkle with paprika for color.
Bake at 350 degrees for an hour, then remove from oven and let rest for 10 minutes before serving.
However much they are celebrated, these two dishes are merely ensemble players this evening. They play alongside “homemade corn bread-sausage stuffing. You use fresh cornbread, and you get some Jimmy Dean’s sausage and bell peppers and onions and butter and chicken broth. You dice everything really tiny, then you mix it up, and bake it in the oven.” They play along side corn, the “cakebread” cornbread, potato salad, and deviled eggs. “Some people use regular mustard, but I think it has too much vinegar in it. I use Cole man’s powdered mustard and a little bit of sugar.” And they surrender star billing to the proteins: “I’ve got red snapper and catfish. I soak the fish in milk overnight — you can use buttermilk or just plain milk — to make it really tender. That’s from Nashville. I use an egg batter and a combination of Louisiana fish fry, corn starch, and different seasonings.”
And finally, everybody’s favorite: “I do roasted chickens. I use a meat injector. I mix butter, brown sugar, and soy sauce, and a little bit of garlic powder, and inject it into the chicken. I pour the sauce into a bag with the two chickens and let them marinate for at least 24 hours. Then I bake it with all the juice.
“I’ve been injecting my meat for years. I’d go to different places and taste different meats and say, ‘Oh, I want that type of flavor.’ ” She happened to see a Cajun chef using an injector on a televised cooking show and was fascinated. “I couldn’t find one anyplace in San Diego until finally, a friend of mine took me to this little place in Old Town. You had to go through stuff to find it; it was a little plastic injector, 16 bucks.” (She has since upgraded to a much larger metal one ordered from Louisiana over the Internet.) She uses the same solution for her smoked turkey, which has become a Christmas staple.
“If I can find a 30-pound turkey, I’ll buy it. I’ll do a roast and the biggest ham I can find. [She finds that a Coca-Cola marinade will help draw the saltiness out of the ham.] I do mac and cheese, of course, and oyster dressing. I’ve had so many people here. I’ll normally have several tables of food; we have to move stuff around. I work at Balboa Hospital, so I work around a lot of military. I know what it’s like to be in the military, to be away from home and be lonely. So every year, I send out an e-mail, and I tell them, ‘You’re more than welcome to come to my home.’ And people come, on top of my family and my friends. It’s standing room on ly; we’re all over the place. I’ve got two patio tables. My daughter and all her friends go in her room; I let my kids invite their friends and their friends’ parents. Everybody always knows it’s Christmastime in Lisa’s house. Everything’s all lit up; you could prob bly spot my house a block away, because I’ve got lights and bows and ribbons and candy canes.”
Tonight, there is only one food table, albeit a stuffed one, set up in the corner of the small, square dining room. Next to it is a high black bar table and stools with chrome legs. The din ing room serves as a pass way between the kitchen and living room, where trays have been set up in front of the couch. Anaheim is play ing Boston on the big TV with the volume turned low. “Normally, if I was at home by myself, I’d be down on the floor. I sit on the floor and watch TV while we eat, my self and my daughter. I cook two or three nights a week for the two of us. ‘Oh, Mo m, fry some fish,’ or, ‘Make some wings.’ Just really whatever she wants.
“Sunday is the day that I go all out. Once my grand mother got too old to cook, we
started going to my mother’s for a little while. I think that once I got my ow n place and people said, ‘Okay, she can cook, too,’ that’s when they started co ming over for Christmastime. And a couple of years ago, my mother was, like, ‘We will get together on Sundays. We will do this and we will do that, and you all will be there.’ So we did exactly what she told us to do. After a while, it kind of shifted from her place to mine. I don’t know how that happened, but they’ve been coming to me ever since. I don’t mind. We don’t see a lot of each other during the week. I like see ing everybody, and every body can get together. That’s all that matters.”
Conversation reveals one possible reason for the change of venue. Lisa washes dishes as she goes, partly out of a need to preserve prep space, partly out of fear of an after-dinner disaster area. “I’m not looking at stacks and stacks of dishes, saying, ‘I’m too tired to clean this.’ My mother, whenever we come to her house, she makes us all clean before we leave. Somebody will wash the first portion of dishes, then somebody will do the second part, then somebody will dry and put away.”
“That’s right,” chimes in Mom. “I’m old.” “They come over here to eat because I don’t make them clean up.”
“We don’t go to Grandma’s house,” says Cecil.
Ebony adds, “Me and Brandy got stuck washing dishes so many times; I hate going over there.”
“I got stuck on Thanks giving,” shudders Cecil.
“And she doesn’t discriminate,” warns Lisa.
“You come over to my house,” Mom says to me, “I’ll have you do dishes, too. Everybody does the dishes.”
“See, that’s what Britany’s for,” explains Lisa. “W hen she gets home, she’s going to clean the kitchen. She’s responsible for Monday through Friday, and I do them on the weekends. But sometimes I’ll clean up during the week, and she has to do one of the weekends. I usually make her do it on Sundays, because I hate to clean up afterwards. She’s a typical teenager. She’ll come in and say, ‘I’m starving; where’s the food?’ She’ll go into her room and close the door and pig out, and then she’ll clean the kitchen and get herself ready for school.”
Beyond the actual dishes and silverware, it’s hard to see what Britany will have to do to clean up. The kitchen is immaculate, if well-used and stuffed to the point of overflow. It is not a large room. “I’m rent ing this place, waiting until I get the chance to use my VA and buy something. I could use this entire space” — she gestures to the dining room — “for a kitchen, with an island in the middle. I would love to do that.” For now, she man ages to produce these gargantuan meals from about six linear feet of counter space, a sink, and a stove top. She covers the burners with jelly-roll pans when not in use to create more storage, and a stand at the counters’ edge holds a microwave and a small tele vision. The ’40s-plaster walls and cabinets are painted with cream-colored indus trial-strength paint; the floor is pale vinyl or maybe linoleum. The big fridge in the corner is flanked by a two-door stand-alone pantry, its top lined with cereal boxes. The fridge top is home to her two pressure cookers — the big one for rice when company comes, the little one for when it’s just her and Britany. Down on the floor by the pantry is her rice cooker, “straight from Japan. It measures out the rice for you in cups; I always keep 20 pounds of rice in there. I make a good fried rice. The bamboo basket I use for my sticky rice I actually got from Thailand.”
The attachment to Asian food came partly through a Korean aunt-by marriage, but more through several years spent in Korea with the Army. “I was 17; I wanted to see things.” She saw Texas, South Carolina, and Georgia on her way to becoming a satellite communications operator, but the best and longest stint was overseas.
The women busy them selves making plates for the kids — “We always serve the children first” — and pouring them drinks from one of the five bottles of soda on the counter. The children take their plates back into the bedroom, and then the grownups dish up and dig in. There is some talk, some laughter, but mostly quiet consumption. The guests have been traveling all day; hunger and exhaustion are having their way.
“You look like you’re kind of full,” observes Lisa.
“I’m slowing down,” I admit, admiring the remain ing mac and cheese on my plate.
“Take a deep breath, push down the food, and dive right back in,” says Lisa with a laugh. “Relax for a minute.”
“Ooooh, I’m full,” moans Ebony, wandering over from the bar table. “I wanted to eat more, but I just couldn’t.”
Cecil does not speak, just moseys over and col lapses onto the love seat, smiling. “That’s what every body does,” says Lisa. “They lay around and fall asleep.” But sleep must wait; dinner is not over. There is still dessert to come. “There’ll always be room for that,” she says as Cecil rouses him self for the final round.
Dessert is called Not Quite Better than Sex. It arrives from the fridge in a deep stainless-steel casserole pan. Four layers: a cookie-crust bottom, then a layer of cheesecake, then a layer of creamy chocolate pudding, then a blanket of Cool Whip over everything else. Sometimes, Lisa will substitute banana pudding and sliced bananas for the third layer, a particular favorite of her son’s.
Not Quite Better than Sex, together with her turkey, greens, and mac and cheese, is what convinced Lisa to start her catering business, B and B’s Country Cooking. She used to work at North Island, and “Whenever we did potlucks, I made the bulk of the stuff, and every body else brought the lit tle sides. When I left that job and went to Balboa, the North Island people would call me during the holidays and say, ‘We want to hire you!’”
Business has come by word of (happy) mouth. Clients have ranged from elderly couples celebrating anniversaries to ministers’ gatherings to political fetes, and at least one has picked her up as a regular vendor.
The gentleman pictured on her business card is ministering to burgers and dogs on a grill, and it seems clear that Lisa’s culinary roots tend in that direction. Her stand-up freezer is packed with meat. “I probably have 11 slabs of ribs in there. I like them smoked. I don’t put a sauce on; I’ll do a dry rub or I’ll just marinate it really well and let it smoke until it’s pink on the inside — cooked pink. If you want sauce, it’s right there. I’ll make a home made sauce — a little spicy and kind of sweet. If you want it, then you put it on there, but you can taste it and tell that it doesn’t really need anything.”
But she has also made extensive forays into various Asian cuisines and prides herself on her versatility. “I keep my menu on my computer at work, and I fax it to people. I say, ‘This is just a few things. If there’s some thing you want that’s not on here, tell me what it is. If I don’t know how to fix it, I’ll learn how to fix it, or I’ll get somebody who does know how to fix it. What ever you want is what I’ll do.’ Cooking for her family has prepared her for the experience. “My daughter just had her birthday last week. She loves Mexican food, and we had the whole spread: Homemade guacamole, homemade salsa, tomatillo sauce, fried tacos, cheese enchiladas.” Her son gets lasagna, “Seven layers. Five types of meat, every cheese I can think of.”
That versatility shows in her cookbook, Lisa’s Slap Yo’ Mama Hot Wings. The small book is a sprawling collection, taking in recipes from family, friends, neighbors, and far-off places. In the Appetizer section alone, Hush Puppies bump up against Chinese Pot Stickers, which bump up against Tortilla Rolls, which bump up against Longaniza Lumpia. Many recipes give credit to the source, but many have been altered slightly according to Lisa’s wont and custom. She’ll play with recipes she pulls off the Food Network web site. She’ll dissect restaurant dishes, and if she can’t figure them out, she’ll badger them for the secret. “There’s this one restaurant in Point Loma that makes this white jalapeño cheese sauce for their chips. They finally printed it out for me. I’m not going to use it just for chips; I’m going to make some kind of pasta and chicken — something.”
The cookbook grew out of an attempt to answer friends who asked, “How do you make that?”
“Every single thing I knew was in my head. I don’t measure anything; I just pour and taste. By the time people sit down, I’m usually too full to eat, because I sample while I’m cook ing. But I kept telling this one friend, ‘I’m going to write these down for you.’ Finally, I sat down at my computer. I would cook something and say, ‘I’ve got to go write that down!’ It took me two years to put together.”
She sent it to an editor in Arizona, and he thought it might be good enough to publish. “He asked if it would be okay to forward it over to Wheatmark Press, and the next thing I knew, everything just kind of started rolling. In two or three months, the book was out. It doesn’t seem real. I haven’t even done a book signing yet. I’m going to do one, but I want to cook some of the food when I do the signing, have people sam ple it so they’ll know it tastes okay.” For now, it’s avail able through Amazon.com, bn.com, and Borders.com, where its title, taken from a man’s reaction to the heat on Lisa’s chicken wings, has attracted the attention of at least one curious Web surfer. “One of the doctors at the hospital saw the book and thought it sounded interesting.” The book, together with her fledgling business, her graduation from the University of Phoenix with a degree in business management, and her volunteer work with several organizations earned her the San Diego Urban League’s award for Young Professional of the Year for 2002. She is proud of the recognition.
Mom and Ebony and Cecil are stuffed and sleepy. Lisa fetches polystyrene trays and begins loading them with leftovers for everyone to take home. “My daughter and I can only eat so much.” They say their thank yous and their goodbyes and head off into the early evening. Ebony and Cecil have to head out to Alpine, but Mom does not have far to go. “I’ve always lived around the corner from my mother; we can’t seem to get away from each other. At one point, we lived practically across the street from each other. I moved away, and she sold her house and bought one over by the reservoir — by the swap meet. So I’m thinking I’ll probably end up buying some thing right over there. It’s nice, having all my family around.”
Just now, Lisa’s son is living with her mom — “You know, mother and son butt heads. I said, ‘Okay, go stay with your grandma for a little while.’ But he’s almost 18; he’s talking about getting a place with his friends. Me and my mom are already thinking, ‘Okay, we’re going to have to cosign for it. We’re picking out furniture; I’ve got a garage full of stuff he’s going to need: dishes and a television and all this stuff.’ He plans to enroll in City College in the fall. He wants to take classes in computers, and his dad builds them. His dad thought it would be nice — ‘Oh, we can go into business together or some thing.’ I’m thinking, ‘Yeah, right, that’s if you guys move out here. I don’t think he’s going to want to be in Ohio, where it snows.’ But he wants to go to college, and that’s good.”
Except for her stint in the Army, Lisa has lived in Spring Valley all her life. “My mother thought about Temecula, but I told her, ‘If you move up to Temecula, you won’t be seeing me too much.’” Sister Brandy bought a house up there. “They stayed for six months, then they sold it and moved back down here. She worked in La Jolla and he worked in El Cajon, and he was spending $350 to $400 a month on gas — just for him. It was just too much.” Two sisters have, however, moved to Atlanta, and Mom makes noises about joining them when she retires in six years. “She’s just put a bedroom and a bathroom and a hallway on her house. She says that when she sells, the equity will be out standing, and when she moves there, we’re going to move, too. I said, ‘Oh, am I?’ And she said, ‘Yes, you are. All my girls will be with me when I retire.’ I said, ‘Well, you can always come and visit here.’ She said, ‘No, my girls will be with me.’ ‘Okay, we’ll see about that.’”
She does not deny the possibility of the move, but for now, her heart and her plans are here. “I’m staying in this house until I can get ready to buy or open up a café or something. It would be nice to find a house that had a little something added onto the side, where I could live in one area and work in the other. It could be just six tables as long as the kitchen was big enough. There’s a good Jamaican restaurant over on Market; they’ve got their kitchen, and they’ve got six tables, and people wait around the corner to get the food. That’s what I want. Union Bank told me that whenever I’m ready to come and sit with them, they’ll see what they can do as far as a minority female small-business loan. But financial-wise, it’s really difficult.” She says she would take the leap only if her catering business had enough regular customers that she could do better than she does in her cur rent job at Balboa.
If that day comes, she’ll be ready. “I’ve been doing some homework, studying location.” Spring Valley has seen too many places come and go. “They had a Barnes Barbecue over in the Casa de Oro area, and it closed. I’ve seen too many places open up and close over there.” Lemon Grove, which gets trolley service, seems more promising. “People will eat good Southern food,” she says.“If the food is good enough, people will come. I drive to Kearny Mesa to this one Vietnamese restaurant, because they have this soup and these rolls. I would love it. But in the meantime, I’m just, ‘Whatever comes my way, I’m blessed.’ I’ve been given, I think, a really good gift of cooking. Some people can’t stand to get in the kitchen.”