Nothing says Christmas like Charles Brown, Sweet Potato pie and a charred smelling Afro.
My earliest memory of Christmas was the smell of Sweet potato pies baking in the oven, Charles Brown bellowing “Please Come Home For Christmas”, grandma in the kitchen, aunts, cousins, friends, and friends of friends all crowding in my grandmother’s 2000 sq. ft. home. This is how we spent Christmas growing up. Those were the good ole days that I thought about while serving overseas in the Navy and what I think of now as I live in North Carolina with my own family. It was always a special time for me and our Everett & Jones Family.
It wasn’t just because of the gathering it was also because the restaurants were closed and that was reason to celebrate. They were only closed two days out of the year-Thanksgiving and Christmas. It was one of two times when we didn’t have to worry about what was going on at the restaurant, or who would go and lock up. We didn’t think about ribs, beef, chicken, or links (nor was it on our Christmas dinner menu). No one had to go and make sauce or get supplies. This was one day we could spend as family, and you could feel the sense of relieve in the air.
But while everyone else was relaxing there were still a faithful few who were busy working away in the kitchen to help prepare the Christmas dinner. Dinner most often consisted of Turkey, Ham, cornbread dressing, gravy, cranberry sauce, yams, green & cabbage, cornbread, Auntie Angie’s Macaroni & Cheese, Auntie Helen or May’s Banana Pudding, grandma’s delicious sweet potato pies, and my little cousin Auzerais’ infamous cookies and cupcakes. Ever since she was little Suzerains started baking cookies and cupcakes to share at Christmas dinner. Let’s just say that they were desserts that only a mother could love–and eat.
I know that every family thinks that theirs is special, but mine really is. I have seven aunts: Virginia, Dorothy, Shirley, Mary, Helen, Katie, Angie, one uncle Allen, my grandmother, and of course my parents Annie Pearl Everett Jones and James Jones, who started the chain of Everett & Jones Barbeque restaurants in 1973 in the middle of a recession. Someone forgot to tell my family that you don’t start businesses in the heart of recession, but they did it anyway and beat the odds. They took the same tenacity to make Christmas a special time for us.
I’m the second oldest grandchild behind my cousin Lamont (Monty), who is only 5 months older and I remember the good ole times around Christmas. When I was younger, I remember going to grandma’s with my family: my mother, father, brother (James Jones Jr. aka Scooter), and little sister LaShaun in our pajamas. The plan was for the entire family to spend the night on grandma’s living room floor, while waiting for Santa Clause to arrive. I could hardly wait until everyone was there because that’s when the real fun began. Every cousin came wearing the same smile-the same twinkling eye- the same excitement. No one ever complained about being there. We’d make bed pallets on the living room floor with our blankets and pillow. The Aunties would hang around with us initially playing games, and making us laugh, but slowly migrate into the kitchen with grandma leaving us grandkids to entertain ourselves. It never failed that a grown up would threaten to light the fireplace so Santa could not come down causing us to sing in unison NOOOOOO!
On a few occasions they would get one of the employees to dress up like Santa and come through the door yelling, “Merry Christmas!” We weren’t fooled though because they always smelled of smoke- like they’d just gotten off work. “That’s Red” someone would yell, or “Russell.” My mother even dressed as Santa one year, I guess she thought she could do a better job than the men, but she didn’t because my sister gave it away when she started crying, “Mama.” But hey, tried.
Right when we were about to fall asleep one of the aunts would come through the door after working the late shift at the restaurant. They would still be wearing a dirty red or black apron, smeared make up and a charred smelling afro. Nothing says Christmas in the Everett & Jones family like Charles Brown, Sweet Potato pie and a charred smelling Afro.
Blues singer, Charles Brown became a part of the family. He’d sing “Please Come Home For Christmas” from Thanksgiving Day throughout Christmas day. If you ask any one of the grandchildren they can sing the entire song including the lead guitar instrumental interlude. It is seared in our brains. There was a time when we’d cover our ears trying to escape; now we can’t wait to hear it played to signify the beginning of the season.
Just like the restaurants, grandma Dorothy Everett Ellington, Head Chief in Charge, also headed this kitchen crew in her home. She was a hard, workingwoman, who never stopped. Grandma could always be found in the kitchen either sitting at the table picking the meat off of cooked chicken necks and gizzards for her homemade dressing, or stirring in one of several pots. By the time we’d arrive she had accosted plenty of help in the kitchen. One was chopping bell peppers, onions, and celery, another peeling mounds of sweet potatoes, while another was trying to stay on top of the dirty dishes that were rapidly piling up. This was often Auntie Katie’s job and she’d fuss the whole time. If you were smart you stayed clear of the kitchen because they would quickly find you something to do.
Grandma had managed to cook about 30 sweet potato pies by Christmas Eve, which were strategically placed throughout the kitchen and dining room so she could watch them. She’d only let us eat the “ugly ones” on Christmas Eve-the ones that were burnt around the edges, or had either gotten damaged during the process.
As some things changed others never did. Someone is always coming through the door with a dirty apron with a smeared smutted faced and charred Afros, jerry curls, or weave in this family. There is always Sweet Potato pies scattered throughout somebody’s kitchen and dining room and The last time at Grandma’s house, Auntie Katie was still fussing about washing dishes, and Auntie Helen still carted away leftovers in Tupperware dishes. However one thing did change, my cousin Auzerais no longer serves us indescribable looking cookies and cupcakes. She went on to culinary school and received a Bachelor of Science degree in culinary science. She now works for Aramark as a pastry chef. We like to remind her that we endured the hard times together with her desserts. Through the process we all smiled and encouraged her all the while inconspicuously discarding them in a napkin. She now has her own web-based pastry business “All From Cupcakes.”
Eventually the family grew too big to sleep on grandma’s floor and she kicked us out to sleep at our own homes and instead come the next day. We got too big to eat around the dining room table, kitchen table, and kids table, so they moved it outside under the extended carport at a 30 ft. long table, which was dressed for the festivities. We didn’t care where we ate, just as long as we ate together. Eventually we outgrew the carport and moved it to Everett & Jones restaurant in Jack London Square because it was the only place big enough to hold us.
Now we’re all grown up with families of our own, and Grandma is no longer with us. Some of us are struggling to recreate the memories of the past, while others are taking on new ones. Let me encourage you to remember family this year. We have everything we need to survive- Jesus Christ, good food, love, and family. Most important let’s remember why we celebrate this season. No it’s not because the restaurants are closed although that’s good too, but it is the fact that God loved us so much that He sent us a Savior that we might be saved. Grandma was good, and did a wonderful job, but it is because of God’s grace and mercy that we are blessed beyond measure. Don’t take it for granted. It’s not just a cliché that He is the reason for the season because He really is. We are family-the Everett & Jones Barbeque family. Merry Christmas family I love you.
Looking for an agent/publisher for a proposed new barbeque book from a Black woman's perspective 50 years in the game.
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