Marie Gaston still remembers all the food her parents cooked when she was growing up. The aromas of fried chicken, green beans, cabbage, candied yams and fried potatoes often floated from the kitchen. Gaston said her parents cooked full meals like this nearly every day.
Among the youngest of her three sisters and five brothers, Gaston, a Water Valley native, said her parents cooked not only for her and her eight siblings, they also cooked for other families in their tight-knit neighborhood.
“We were in a subdivision with five other houses, and it was more like with our big family, everybody else came,” Gaston said. “So Mama always cooked this big ol’ pot of different foods. It was something.”
As she grew older, Gaston, like many children, eagerly joined her parents in the kitchen, helping prepare the food. Often she was tasked with peeling potatoes and cleaning chitterlings.
Today, this is what Gaston does for a living — preparing, cooking and serving soul food — at her restaurant Table 6-4-72 in Water Valley.
“It was something I wanted to do from watching my mom,” Gaston said.
Table 6-4-72, named in honor of Gaston’s birthday, opened last year at its current location next to Larson’s Cash Saver on South Main Street. She arrives at her restaurant every morning at 7 a.m. to prepare for a busy day serving a lunch buffet, to-go plates and dinner from a rotating menu lined with soul food favorites like barbecue chicken, pork steak, green beans, macaroni and cheese, baked beans, potato salad, cornbread and a variety of pies and cakes.
“I just wanted something fulfilling, and that’s why I went into soul food,” Gaston said. “I want to cook food that’s going to stick to your ribs.”
The term “soul food” originally came to be in the civil rights era, during the Black freedom struggle in the United States and the Caribbean. The food itself can be connected to the period of chattel slavery in the U.S., with roots stemming to West Africa, where many enslaved Africans were brought to the U.S., according to Catarina Passidomo, a University of Mississippi professor of anthropology and Southern studies.
Soul food as cuisine is rooted in the creative ways enslaved African Americans in the Deep South pulled together meager food rations to create a delicious, home-cooked meal. Much of what we know today as soul food — rice, beans, greens and pork — are a direct reflection of this.
“Soul food as an idea has held particular significance for the descendents of enslaved people, for whom it signified physical and cultural survival, creative autonomy and resistance in the face of oppression,” Passidomo said.
Coffeeville native Katherine Pollard, 65, grew up surrounded by family, who, like Gaston’s, would share food with the community. Coffeeville was a segregated town for the majority of Pollard’s childhood, until she was about 14 years old, and without easy access to transportation and big box grocery stores like today, sharing food was not just a generous gesture. It was a necessity for survival.
“Everybody took care of everybody. If somebody killed a hog, everybody in the community got meat,” Pollard said in a 2019 oral history interview. “They just did everything. That’s probably the only thing mom would go to the store and buy was flour because at one time they made their own meal.”
Similar to Pollard, James Wright’s family relied on the land to survive, growing crops like corn and cotton to sell and to eat. Wright, now 60, grew up in Water Valley seeing his father work as a sharecropper while also sustaining the family farm to provide for the family of 13 — a mother, a father and 11 children.
“We grew a garden because we were self-sufficient. Everything that we ate and we used, we raised,” Wright said in a 2019 oral history interview. “And I hear people talk about being hungry, not having. I have never gone to bed, might not have had an extravagant meal, but I always had food.”
Passidomo said the clear connection between food, land and labor have been largely lost in today’s society.
Although food plays a fundamental role between community and culture, in today’s society, people are seeing less and less the direct relationship between food systems and the land and labor used to produce it, Passidomo said. Yalobusha County natives Wright, Pollard and Gaston say they all grew up knowing the value of soul food’s importance to Black culture and its connection to the land.
However, families, friends and communities can’t join together and share food and culture as they once were able safely do so before COVID-19.
“The pandemic has reminded many of us how much we value sharing meals with friends and family,” Passidomo said.
That’s part of what Gaston loves about being a restaurant owner — the power food has to bring people together. For her, it reminds her of her childhood, when her eight siblings, two parents and the families from the neighborhood would gather at the dining room table to share a meal. She said now many of her customers have become like family, regularly dining in, ordering takeout and making conversation.
“Sometimes now, I still have to tell myself ‘it’s COVID’ because I love to embrace people, love to show the love,” Gaston said.
Editor’s note: A full archive of photos and additional oral history interviews, like the ones mentioned in this article, are available online in The Black Families of Yalobusha County Oral History Project Archive, which emerged after Dottie Chapman Reed, Water Valley native, and author of the column and book “Outstanding Black Women of Yalobusha County” in the North Mississippi Herald, and Jessica Wilkerson, a former history and Southern Studies professor at the University of Mississippi, collaborated. In the spring 2020, Dr. B. Brian Foster, a sociology and Southern Studies professor at the University of Mississippi, took over as director of the project and will collaborate with UM students and Reed on its expansion in the next phase of the project known as the Mississippi Hill Country Oral History Collective.