Food Just Makes Everything Better
By Ciera Payton
Food. It is one of the most – if not the most – essential things that we all need in order to live, thrive, and connect. I find food endlessly fascinating, and I'm constantly in search of new ways that food can heal and connect us. As a New Orleanian, partially raised in Mississippi, and a vegan of six years, I can say with confidence that food, identity, and culture have all gone hand in hand throughout my entire life.
We New Orleanians know food, and it is a constant source of decadence and connection for us. We're often known for talking about food around the clock, whether we're pondering and declaring what we'll be eating for breakfast or having lunch while looking forward to our delicious dinner. Then, at dinner, we get back to wondering what amazing breakfast we might have tomorrow. (Beignets, hopefully!)
I recall my upbringing, which took place in both New Orleans and Picayune, Mississippi. In Picayune, I remember sitting in the living room with my black maternal grandma, Sarah Payton. I would help her shell peas and rip up collard greens, all the while being sure to follow her instruction to "leave out the veins, Ciera."
In New Orleans, in the home of my white paternal grandmother, Carol Frosch, I would help look over the stove as my dad cooked red beans and rice. He would always explain to me that it was important to "clean as you go, Ciera." He loved cooking, and still does to this day. While cooking, he would often recount his days as the first Black – and possibly only biracial – manager at a Popeyes Fried Chicken in Slidell, Louisiana.
As a line cook and busboy at numerous French Quarter restaurants, my dad would bring home Tiramisu, filet mignon, and Caesar salad, all of which would be packed up for my school lunches the next day. Imagine being the only kid having gourmet food for lunch in middle school. There was always plenty to go around, so I never minded sharing with my friends.
Years later, as I was just settling into Los Angeles and working at various restaurants, while in the pursuit of an acting career, I received "that" call. My father had again gone to prison for a non-violent drug offense – possession of an illegal substance. He'd be serving eight years.
During his second year of prison, searching for clarity, connection, and healing, I decided it was finally time to visit. He was serving at Avoyelles Correctional Facility in Cottonport, Louisiana. I called to inquire about visitation and, to my surprise, was informed that out-of-towners were allowed a four-hour picnic visit with inmates. It was a prison visit format I'd never heard of and it was a far cry from the usual phone booth visits to which I'd grown accustomed in high school.
I submitted my paperwork for visitation. A week later, I received a letter from my dad. I could feel his excitement through his words; it was even visible in his pencil marks. I quickly wrote back to schedule a call about our visitation and, most importantly, food. What would he like me to bring?
The weekend of the visit found me battling anxiety and nerves. It was just so awkward knowing that I would be having a prison picnic with my father, who I had neither seen nor spoken to for a few years. All of those nerves were tempered once I made my way to the Tchoupitoulas Walmart. Shopping for food has always created an ease within me. I found everything from the list from our phone call, loading up the cart with Barq's Root Beer, strawberry cheesecake, Junior Mints candy, and Zapp's chips.
Last – but not least – was getting a roast beef po' boy. No offense to Wally World, but there's only one place to get a great roast beef po' boy in New Orleans and that's Parasol's. So it was off to the Irish Channel/13th Ward, where I found myself back in Parasol's, a local bar and restaurant located diagonally across the street from my childhood home. They're known for their mouth-watering po' boys and homey vibe. I ordered the biggest roast beef po' boy I could get, and was off to my hotel to carefully pack all of the goodies.
The next day was visitation day. I arrived at the prison after a solitary three-hour drive on the back roads of Louisiana. Making it through the guards' check-in area was a very intimidating process of pat-downs and cross checking, but the air lightened up as the guards inspected the delicious food I had packed. One even joked, saying, "Save some for me, please!" In that moment, food brought some warmth and comfort to an otherwise very uncomfortable process.
Finally, the moment arrived. I was guided to an outdoor area equipped with picnic tables and grills. My dad walked out, and we embraced. We talked about the family and Los Angeles for the first 30-45 minutes – enough conversation to strike up an appetite. I unpacked the styrofoam cooler, and we began to eat.
As we indulged in that sweet silence of food euphoria, I couldn't help but take in the landscape, the nature, and the gentle breeze. My dad was deep in his food indulgence and, after a few chews, would often pause to ask, "Is this from Parasol's?" or "Oh you got that, too?" and then, "This is good. Yeah, Ciera!"
Between each bite, each chew, and our occasional giggles, I felt my heart getting bigger. There I was, enjoying a picnic, behind bars, with my dad. Suddenly, I felt his gaze on me. As I looked up to catch his eyes, I could see tears beginning to well up in them. One softly rolled down his cheek, but he tried to quickly hide it. I gently grabbed his hand and said, "I know, dad. I'm sorry, too."
Silence. Peace. Ease... Then the refreshing Louisiana breeze. We continued chewing and enjoying the picnic, turning our attention to other things. After all, it was a four-hour picnic, and neither of us wanted it to be a sob fest.
As the visitation ended, we hugged and said our goodbyes. Looking back at the picnic table, I noticed there wasn't a single crumb left over. And, so, we departed with our bellies full, our shoulders a little lighter, and our hearts a little bigger. As the guards led me out, I thought to myself, Wow, food did that. That's all it took. Food.
Ciera Payton is a member of the Television Academy. She recently appeared in Lifetime's Wendy Williams: The Movie as the title character, and recurs as Lilly Winthrop in Tyler Perry's The Oval on BET. She currently runs her non-profit organization, The Michael's Daughter Foundation, for families and youth impacted by incarceration. To find out more, please visit MichaelsDaughter.org and CieraPayton.com.
Read about Ciera's experience portraying Wendy Williams in our Online Original article A Gnarly Experience.
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