Jean Alicia Elster: Memories & flavors from ‘The Colored Car’

(A note from your FeedTheSpirit host Bobbie Lewis) This week’s blog is by guest writer Jean Alicia Elster, whose work as a writer is recommended by our ReadTheSpirit magazine. Our latest coverage of her children’s book The Colored Car was published in Debra Darvick’s column in September.  She is the granddaughter of Douglas and Maber (May) Jackson Ford, whose family story forms the basis of The Colored Car. Her other books include Who’s Jim Hines?—which was selected as a Michigan Notable Book—as well as I’ll Do the Right Thing and I Have a Dream, Too!



I offer this paraphrase of a commonly quoted Biblical passage from 2 Thessalonians 3:10: If you do not work, then you will not eat.

This phrase is often quoted as an admonition against idleness and laziness. I dare say it is the reason that people standing at the corners of well-traveled intersections of our urban centers or even at freeway exits hold up signs saying, “Will work for food.” It is ingrained within our Judeo-Christian notion of ethics that expecting a meal or other form of sustenance without doing something in return to warrant the receipt of that meal is, well, sinful.

That said, while writing my most recently published book, The Colored Car, which takes place in the city of Detroit in 1937, I came to appreciate another take on the 2Thessalonians verse. This second paraphrase embodies the food ethos of that particular era in our American history that is too often lost in our 21st century world of carryout meals and processed food: If you do not work in the preparation of your food or your meal, then you will not eat.

‘The Colored Car’: A novel based on family history

The Colored Car is based upon actual events in my family’s history. And, in the summer of 1937, my grandmother, “May” Ford, put up (canned) fresh fruits and vegetables in the family’s summer kitchen adjacent to the wood yard that was the core of my grandfather’s business. Times were tough, and my grandmother often helped neighborhood families by sharing the food that she preserved.

In Chapter One, I describe my grandmother chopping, grinding, grating, boiling and, not to forget, sweating to make that pungent mixture of cabbage, onions, celery, hot peppers, green tomatoes, vinegar and pickling spices known as piccalilli or cha-cha. That substantial concoction could stand on its own as a side dish or be heaped on a sandwich. The not-even-close approximation we have to that today is the unnaturally green-colored relish found in the condiment section of the grocery store.

Homemade grape jelly

Chapter Six tells how May Ford made jars of grape jelly. She washed and boiled bushels of grapes and then strained them – twice – through a muslin bag. Her hands were, at that point, purple, and she was only half way through the jelly-making process.

No, we will never return to the days when work and food were that closely related. We are firmly in the 21st  century and there is no turning back. But that Biblical admonition at the very least mandates  that we, even occasionally, seek a more direct relationship between work and food. That we feel the satisfaction of making — that is, causing to come into being — what we eat.

Having written those chapters and internalized those processes, I am now ready to more fully embrace the connection between work and food. Piccalilli and grape jelly provide a very good start!