We’re pleased to feature selections from Chicago writer Alan Lake’s soon-to-be-published series of personal profiles with esteemed Chicago area home cooks. Home Cookin’ gives a glimpse into your neighbor’s lives (and kitchens) by telling the stories behind their food.
Equal parts elegant and streetwise, Barbara Farmilant is a force of nature with tons of heart that won’t suffer a fool.
We meet for our interview at an opulent hotel, high above Michigan Avenue. Besides the view, there’s hand-sliced smoked salmon (with accoutrements) atop an ornate wood-grain board. A rasher of crisp bacon, some cappuccino in bone china and a New York Times share the table. Pointing to the daily presidential atrocity on the front page, she says, “I can’t keep reading about this thing here. I’ve gotta stop. It makes my head hurt.”
This is going to be good.
A lifelong Chicagoan reflects on growing up in Cabrini-Green, bonding across cultures + the sweet potato pone that Studs Terkel couldn’t get enough of
A family friend I hadn’t seen in over 50 years recommended that I speak with Barbara. We share a bit of small talk before I say, “It’s your story, tell me about yourself.”
I don’t know if we’ve got enough time for that. I was born on the west side of Chicago in 1949, in what was mainly an Italian neighborhood. My parents were from Mississippi and were part of the Great Migration north in the early ’40s.
Living in the Jim Crow South was difficult for blacks. My mom had 11 children; I’m number seven. She worked as a domestic and my father worked in a lumber mill. Both only had sixth grade educations; he was much older than her, though. My great-grandfather was an Irish slave owner. I had my ancestry done. Turns out I’m 38% Irish (laughs).
My other grandmother had 13 children—same thing: some were dark, some were light. The whole color structure was crazy back then. There was the ‘paper bag club,’ or the ‘blue vein club,’ did you ever hear of that? In order to get into certain places you had to be lighter than a paper bag, or be able to see your veins.
I don’t remember much about my father… he left early on. I was seven when he died and went down for his funeral in Demopolis, Alabama. The service was in a little church on the side of a river. We sat on makeshift pews of crossed 2×4’s and it was hot as hell. Throughout the service the preacher kept taking sips from a glass next to a pitcher on the pulpit. I was so hot and thirsty that after the service I went and got some water from the pitcher, but spit it out right away. It was moonshine!
They buried my father on that river bank. A couple years later the river rose, and the casket ended up disinterred, floating downstream. My mother had to go back and deal with it.
In the late ’50s we moved to Cabrini-Green on Chicago’s Near North Side. I spent most of my childhood there. The land it was on was valuable and the developers wanted it, but it was HUD property. Several attempts were made to buy it, but by the late 80’s the whole area was disenfranchised—the schools were closed, the public health clinics, the libraries… They stopped maintaining the buildings and pretty much let the gangs take over.
We watched the transition. The developers won. They’ve got it now.
Summers were spent with my grandmother in Laurel, Mississippi. My job was to help her in the kitchen or garden or the smokehouse. This is where I learned to cook.
We’d all drive down in the car. This one time we were hungry so we stopped at a chicken shack somewhere in Alabama. I’m around nine years old. My brother and I jump out of the car and run ahead into this shack on the side of the road. We’re all excited and the guy behind the counter says, ‘What are y’all doin’ in here?’ and my brother says, ‘We’re gonna get some chicken!’ The counter guy says, ‘We don’t serve niggras around here,’ and I said, ‘We don’t want no niggras, we want some chicken!’ I’d never heard that word before. Niggra? My mother grabbed us and pulled us out, put us in the car and drove us the hell away.
Sometimes we’d stay with my Aunt Emma. She’d talk about the neighbor kids in the worst way because they didn’t have shoes or whatnot. Shoes? Hell, they didn’t even have a sidewalk. I couldn’t believe what was coming out of my aunt’s mouth and said, ‘If they’re n*****s what am I? She said, ‘One day, your mouth is gonna write a check your ass can’t pay.’ She wanted my mother to leave me with her, but I begged her not to.
We’d go to the movie and they’d make us sit in the balcony, but it smelled like pee, so we’d sneak downstairs to the White section. This was during the Civil Rights Era. You could tell by their faces they didn’t like it but they let it pass.
I hated that place.
One of my brothers went to Vietnam and came back null and void… he was destroyed. Another got shot walking through the projects, and another was a heroin addict. My mother used to let him stay at the apartment. He’d be there, a grown man with a gun, robbing people and coming back to the house to get high… I could never bring anyone home because he could be laying naked on the floor with a gun next to him and a needle in his arm, nodding. That was my reality, and all I could think was, ‘I gotta get the hell outta here.’
Barbara’s Tea-Brined Fried Chicken
• 1/2 c. sweet tea
• 1 tablespoon dried oregano
• 1 tablespoon garlic powder
• 2 tablespoons dried thyme
• 7 tablespoons kosher salt
• 2 tablespoons plus 1 1/2 tsp black pepper
• 2 tablespoons seasoning salt
• 1 teaspoons paprika
• 1 whole chicken, cut up
• 2 cups buttermilk
• 4 cups flour
• 1 tablespoon poultry seasoning
• 1/4 cup cornstarch
• 1 tablespoon paprika
• Vegetable oil
1. Mix sweet tea with 1/2 gallon water, oregano, garlic powder, 1 tablespoon thyme, 6 tablespoons salt and 2 tablespoons black pepper in a large pot. Add chicken and refrigerate for 24 hours or overnight.
Remove chicken from brine and pat dry.
2. Pour buttermilk into a large bowl. In a second bowl combine flour, cornstarch, paprika, seasoned salt, 1 tablespoon kosher salt, 1 1/2 teaspoons black pepper and poultry seasoning.
3. Dredge each piece of chicken in the flour to coat, then shake off excess flour and dip into the buttermilk. Dredge in flour again.
4. Add vegetable oil to a cast iron skillet and heat to 300 degrees F. Carefully place half of the chicken pieces into the pan. Cook for 15-20 minutes until golden brown. Drain on paper towels. Repeat with remaining chicken.
One of my older sisters was illiterate. She’d gone to a little red schoolhouse in Mississippi before my parents moved, but my mother didn’t make her attend. She had such a regal bearing and spoke with the finest diction. People would call our house and ask me who that white lady was that answered the phone… but she couldn’t read. She’d call me and spell things over the phone so I could tell her what it said. She was ashamed, but no one really knew but us. When we’d go to a restaurant, I’d recite the menu out loud so she’d know what they served. ‘Oh, they have some nice chicken, or maybe the pasta with…’
This went on for years. Couldn’t even read her kids a story. When she was in her fifties she went to the library and took a literacy class. She called me one day and read me a passage.
The things she could have been. Never even had a driver’s license… But I’ve made peace with it.
“I was seven when he died and went down for his funeral in Demopolis, Alabama. The service was in a little church on the side of a river. Throughout the service the preacher kept taking sips from a glass next to a pitcher on the pulpit. I was so hot and thirsty that after the service I went and got some water from the pitcher, but spit it out right away. It was moonshine!”
One of the things that saved me is that I’m an avid reader and liked to hang out in the library—and gangbangers don’t go to the library. I was a nerd, an ‘L7,’ teacher’s pet, a Brownie and then a Girl Scout. I was a candy striper, for Christ’s sake! A fool and a sucker, that was me. I missed a lot of things because of that. I fell into it though… it’s not like there were a whole lot of choices. I always had books in my hand.
Sometimes I’d run into this guy and we’d talk about books, he’d ask me what I was reading… turns out he was one of the gang leaders. He later vouched for me, told people to lay off, that I was trying to get an education. Then he got killed.
Someone told me that there’s another way… mentored me, showed it to me. Mrs. Drake, the wife of the reverend at the AME church. Funny thing is, I gave up the Church because of [the reverend]. He was so hypocritical… but his wife helped me. She taught me so many lessons. I was 13 and getting run home from school all the time. I dressed differently, I spoke differently…
“Outside work one day this man with a knife stops me. He asked for my purse but I wouldn’t give it to him. He was too polite. I grew up in Cabrini-Green, and that ain’t how you rob someone.”
I used to volunteer for everything—go to the store for old people or read to the blind… One Sunday at church I was helping the treasurer record receipts. Reverend Drake must have passed the basket 6 or 7 times for this, that and the other, when this woman came in. We all knew her. In the last week her son had been murdered by gangbangers, her nephew was killed, and her husband had died. All in one week! She was overwrought, didn’t know what to do. Reverend Drake said, ‘God don’t give you any more than you can stand.’
I’m listening to this and said, ‘That’s it? What are you going to do to help her, you pass the basket for this, that, and everything else and you’re not going to pass it for her? That’s all you’re going to do?’ He says, ‘You need to keep doing what you’re doing, this is grown folks’ business.’
Once again, my mouth is writing a check my ass can’t pay. I got up and left, and never went back.
I’ve had some bad experiences. I saw a 16-year-old girl toss her baby over the balcony, shootings, a rape… nobody even called it in. During the riots they beat our mailman up. Everyone knew him and liked him, but he was white… A couple of us were able to get them to stop so we grabbed him and threw him in our apartment until the police came and escorted him out.
The 1968 riots were in response to Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s assassination. From April 4—13, snipers on top of the buildings in Cabrini-Green wreaked havoc at the housing project. Nine people died throughout the city.
I used to cry so much… I can’t watch man’s inhumanity to man. I just can’t do it. I married young to get out of it and had a couple kids. He hit me once and I told him he had to go.
You’ve got to understand, when I get full, I push away from the table.
By this time I was a nurse working on my masters in counseling, but I needed a part-time job and ended up working at a nursing home. I’d come from a hospital situation where there were procedures for procedures and everything had its place. This wasn’t anything like that… I thought I’d gone to nursing hell. Day two, I’m insisting on seeing the owner.
When we meet I tell him some of the things I’d seen and the color leaves his face. He didn’t know what was going on. I told him I can’t work under these circumstances, put my name on or be attached to anything like this. He says ‘You can’t leave, if you do, how will I ever fix it?’ So I stayed, like an idiot.
I became Director of Nursing. There were 150 health code violations when I got there. Over the next few years we got rid of them all. 450 rooms, over 200 staff… towards the end we had to search for violations to give to the inspectors so they wouldn’t look bad coming back with nothing.
Outside work one day this man with a knife stops me. He asked for my purse but I wouldn’t give it to him. He was too polite. I grew up in Cabrini Green, and that ain’t how you rob someone. ‘I said, give me your purse!’ and I said, ‘I’m not going to give it to you. Does your mother know you’re out here doing this?’
‘I need the money.’
‘You need a job, put that knife away. You don’t want to go to jail over this. You’re not even a good thief, look how you’re screwing this up! You see that building over there? You get dressed and come over there tomorrow and I’ll get you a job.’
I reached into my purse and gave him $20 but told him I want it back out of his first paycheck. Human Resources wasn’t thrilled but we hired him, and on his first payday he came into my office and paid me back.
I’d taken it as far as I could, I’d plateaued. I knew someone with more experience would be best, so I found an old teacher of mine and offered him my job. This was around 1991.
There was a community center at Cabrini I went to as a child that I went back and worked at while I was nursing, as sort of a tenant activist. I went back because they really needed people that wanted to be there. It was hard to get others to come though. I know, I tried.
Most people that lived it want to forget it, and most people that haven’t, don’t have a clue.
After I left the nursing home I joined the board there. One of my first tasks was to try and get the gangs to move out. I went over and talked to them. Some I knew from when I lived there; some, I knew their parents. I said, ‘You’ve got this whole territory but these kids need this space. You must understand how important it is to feel safe. You’ve got other places you can go… this is not the place. Please give this back to the children.’
I started a parenting class at the center for young women. I understand how they got treated and that it’s the only thing they knew, but you’ve got to break the cycle. The abuser abuses. Then there’s the men that get them pregnant and walk away… These conversations were heavy. They’d talk about their parents, their environment, the abuse, the men. All of them had different baby daddies and horror stories… They asked me about my experiences growing up, and I told them it could have happened to me, but this is what I chose to do, and this is how I did it.
This is how you make change. You help someone to see that there’s a another way.
Spicy Stewed Greens
• 1 lb collard greens
• 1 lb kale
• 1 lb turnip greens
• 1 lb mustard greens
• 1 medium onion, chopped
• 1/4 cup olive oil
• 1 1/2 lb smoked turkey wings or leg
• seasoned salt
• black pepper
• 2 jalapeños, seeded and chopped (optional)
1. Wash and clean the greens well; pat dry. Tear into small pieces and discard stems. Place greens in a large bowl.
2. In a large pot combine the onion, oil, 2 cups of water and jalapenos if desired. Bring to a boil.
3. Gradually add the greens and let them cook down, then add the turkey. Season with salt and pepper to taste,
4. Cover and reduce heat to med low. Cook until greens are tender, stirring occasionally.
5. Remove turkey. Discard skin, chop the meat and add back into the greens before serving.
On the west side, I had different types of friends. Mexicans, Italians… Have a few meals with someone if you want to get to know them. Then we moved to Cabrini. For most of the people living there, the only time they came in contact with a white person, they were someone holding power over their lives: the police or a social worker, maybe DCFS…
It’s all about jobs and opportunity. The hardest thing to overcome is loss of hope. If you have no dreams, no vision, you have no hope and you don’t care, and you don’t escape.
After a long friendship, in 1982 I married Ed, the owner of the nursing homes. His people were Ashkenazi Jews and left-of-center politically. We moved to Castlewood Terrace, which was a nice neighborhood.
Studs Terkel was our neighbor. He’d be out there in his red socks, smoking a cigar… He’d take the bus everywhere, talk to everyone on the street. He loved to hear stories but was nearly deaf. You could hear the Cubs games blasting on his TV all down the street.
Once he got locked out of his house so Ed climbed through his second-floor window to let him back in. They came over for dinner once and I made chicken, cornbread stuffing and some sweet potato pone. A real Southern meal. Studs really liked the pone and asked about its story. It was my grandmother’s recipe, she taught me how to make it. You remind me of him.” I was flattered indeed.
“One of my first tasks was to get the gangs to move out. Some I knew from when I lived there; some, I knew their parents. I said, ‘You’ve got this whole territory but these kids need this space. You’ve got other places you can go… this is not the place. Please give this back to the children.’”
So we’re living on Castlewood and my kids would be playing outside, but the cops would hassle them. They didn’t believe they lived there. Once they picked my youngest son up, threw him in the cruiser, took him to gang territory and let him out. Besides my kids, my husband was also getting a lesson on what it’s like to be black. Ed had bought me a nice car, and I’m driving it one day when someone yells out ‘n****r,’ and I say ‘Really? Shame on you.’ I didn’t let it in.
I’m scared for my kids and told them early on that as black men they’re going to have to use their wits and intelligence to get themselves out of situations where they have no power. Think you’re going to win against the police? Opportunity, education and culture is the way out. In the hood, it’s mainly gang culture. It’s easier to sell dope than work at McDonalds, and when you’re living it, this is what you assimilate to.
I went to school once to demand that a teacher lower my kid’s grade.
I’d seen the work he was turning in and it was terrible. The teacher liked him, he’s so polite, he helps you out—’Well he should, but he should have failed. You need to give him the grade he deserves. You’ve got to understand, this is a black man in America and what you’re teaching him is that he can get by on his charm, but that won’t get him through life. Please don’t do that. You need to think about your actions.’ She thought she was doing him a favor.
When Obama was elected I cried. I cried for my mother, I cried for my mother-in-law, they would have loved to have seen that. I went to the first inauguration, it was freezing but there was history being made. Being in that crowd… there was not one incident, nothing. People talking, helping each other out. If anyone got the least bit rowdy, me or someone else would say, ‘Oh we’re not having that today, this is going to be peaceful,’ and they’d stop. I was so full of emotion, I wrote something on the plane to commemorate the moment for my kids. When I see Trump throwing paper towels to flood victims, I’m just appalled.
I know we’re supposed to be talking about food. For me, it’s the ultimate socializer. There’s many similarities in black and Jewish culture around the sharing and giving of food.
No one in my family ever made a little bit of anything. We always had enough to share.
“Honey, remember this. The time to cry is when someone comes into the world, not when they leave it. The end of life should be a celebration. He left the world a better place. There’s nothing to cry about.”
When we lived in the projects, sometimes the meal was just beans and rice. I’d cook because my sister could mess up a bowl of cornflakes. I was finishing the cornbread when one of my brother’s friends knocked on the door. My brother grabbed the plates and hid them. He was ashamed. But his friend smelled the food and said he was hungry, so my brother goes, ‘Oh yeah, Barbara just made some beans and rice, why don’t we have some?’ and pulls the plates back out. It was a good lesson. My brother was embarrassed, but his friend was so happy… He had nothing in his refrigerator and this was a feast to him.
These are the lessons I carry through life.
Another is, when my grandfather died and we went back down for the funeral… this is a black Southern church so you know they’re wailing their asses off. Everyone’s crying but me and my grandma. I said ‘Grandma, aren’t you sad?’ She said, ‘No baby, I’ll see him soon.
‘Honey, remember this. The time to cry is when someone comes into the world, not when they leave it. The end of life should be a celebration. He left the world a better place. There’s nothing to cry about.’ There’s so much truth to that.
Thanksgiving is my favorite holiday. It’s about sharing and caring, being thankful for what you’ve got… and gratitude, which these days, we’re missing a lot. Everyone comes, and everyone brings a dish. We’ll have 85 people at our house this year. It’s a real spread with all the usual suspects plus mac & cheese, spinach pie, enchiladas with mole… and the pone—that’s come down from my family to our family of Ashkenazi Jews. You know, ‘from the ghetto to the shtetl.’ They love their greens too, they’re like black Jews.”
Sweet Potato Pone
Barbara learned this recipe while cooking at her grandmother’s side as a young girl in Laurel, Mississippi. Its fans include her former neighbor Studs Terkel, who enjoyed it over Barbara and Ed’s dining table.
• 9 medium yams or sweet potatoes
• 1/4 cup butter
• 1/2 cup granulated sugar
• 1/2 cup packed light brown sugar
• 1/4 teaspoon cinnamon
• 1/2 tablespoon nutmeg
• 1 tablespoon coconut flour (or 1/2 sup shredded coconut)
• 3 eggs, beaten
• 2 cups evaporated milk
• 1 tablespoon vanilla
• 1 cup pecans, halved
• 1/2 stick butter
• 1 cup flour
• 1 cup brown sugar
• 1/4 teaspoon nutmeg
1. Peel and cube potatoes. Boil until tender.
2. Blend potatoes and remaining ingredients (except pecans and topping) at medium speed until smooth.
3. Blend together with a fork all the crust topping ingredients.
4. Pour into a lightly greased baking dish. Top with pecans and crust mix.
5. Bake at 350 degrees for approximately 1 hour. Cover with foil for the last 15 minutes of baking. Serve warm or at room temperature.
Barbara and Ed moved to Tucson a while back but maintained a presence here in Chicago because of their family. Laughing at the mention of retirement, Barbara makes jewelry and has adopted an agency that works with victims of domestic violence, helping them however she can.
Ed, who passed away in February, was the founder of the PRIME School of Music, which provided music and performing arts education for underprivileged youth, with classes taught by professionals on a pay-as-you-can basis. The Farmilants are also known for their commitment to providing college funding for minority students.
In the course of doing these profiles I’ve found extraordinary ordinary people everywhere. I believe the more that people can know other people’s stories—the trials and tribulations or the accomplishments, or potential being wasted—that empathy and compassion are likely to emerge. When you can’t just dismiss someone because you’ve felt the same way or had the same experience, you relate to them differently. And that, for me, would be mission accomplished.
Alan Lake is an award-winning chef / percussionist / writer / reprobate and lover of all things beautiful and delicious. Born and raised in Chicago, Alan’s spent just enough time away to appreciate it even more. He speaks fluent Chicagoan and invites you to meet his extraordinary neighbors in his soon-to-be-published Home Cookin’ series. Follow him on Instagram or Twitter.