Ruth Rayford was a fantastic cook and human being who also raised nine kids and always looked great doing it. I, by contrast, would have looked like a wet dishrag, cooking and yelling at kids all day long. Not Aunt Ruth. She was the kind of gorgeous that was cool, calm and collected, and she looked good in anything, anywhere. And even with a large brood of her own, she and my Uncle John and her kitchen always made room for one more – me.
Aunt Ruth was the kind of aunt that everyone gathered around. We often spent holidays and weekend days at her home uptown on Milan Street or in later years on Wentworth in New Orleans East. And nine times out of ten, there was something good to eat. Savory or sweet, if Aunt Ruth made it, it was good.
In November and December of 2015, I had the opportunity to cook and reminisce with her daughters, Kaye and Deadra. The recurring themes of family, togetherness and affection were ever-present throughout our talks and it was as if Auntie was right there in the room with us, quietly frying chicken or boiling rice. Both Kaye and Deadra are great cooks in their own right, but they constantly gave credit to their mother for giving them a firm foundation in the kitchen.
I always thought of my Aunt Ruth as a magician, whipping up really good food for eleven (11!) on a daily basis from some of the humblest of ingredients. Whether it was chicken livers or steak, it was going to be delicious. I can see her well-seasoned cast iron skillet in my mind’s eye, filled to the brim with smothered chicken, hamburger patties or pork chops.
She had a way of simply saying your name that made you feel like somebody, and I always felt loved and cherished in her presence. Her laughter was infectious, and she held a glass of bourbon and coke in her hand like a queen. But for all that, she was one of the most down-to-earth persons I’ve ever known. She was soul and sophistication in one beautiful package, and I miss her terribly.
My project SoulCreole: The Cookbook is in part an homage to my Aunt Ruth and several other relatives whose cooking and character fortified our family and whose memories and legacies keep us close to this day.