by Atlee Webber
Mozell Booker grew up in Fork Union, a small town in Fluvanna County, Virginia. She worked in education for thirty-three years, including being a teacher, principal, and assistant superintendent. Currently, she is on the Fluvanna County Board of Supervisors.
Mozell was raised in an African American family during the 1940s, when schools were segregated, and the civil rights movement had not yet come into full force. World War II was raging overseas, and the country was still pulling itself of the Great Depression. Yet Mozell primarily described her childhood as a time of abundance.
Mozell’s father worked as a bus driver for Fluvanna County Schools (and as a pastor), but after he got home each day, he would work in the vegetable garden. At the time, Mozell was the youngest of five children and couldn’t help out much with the heavy plowing or hoeing. She really enjoyed white potato season, though, because she was delegated the task of gathering the potatoes her father hoed. “We always had fresh vegetables,” she recalls, which included kale, collards, corn, and tomatoes. In the summertime, Mozell remembers wandering barefoot through the tomato garden, saltshaker in hand. She would pluck a ripe tomato and eat it right off of the vine, with just a sprinkle of salt. Nearby, berry patches grew wild, where she and her siblings would fill up buckets of strawberries, blueberries, and blackberries. Any produce her family didn’t eat, her mother took to the cannery.
Going to the cannery was a “social time.” Mozell recalls that there were two canneries in Fluvanna. “All the local women would go,” Mozell said, and they would swap stories while they helped each other preserve food for the winter. In general, there was a very strong sense of community in Fork Union. For Christmas and Thanksgiving, Mozell’s mother would cook for days, because “you had to have plenty of food for anyone who walked in the door— that was the tradition.” People travelled from house to house, enjoying the holiday and breaking bread with their neighbors. In the summer, Mozell’s her mother would send extra greens from the garden to her neighbors, with a little piece of ham for seasoning. “We fed each other,” Mozell said with a smile. Her family itself was also close, and they had a big meal every Sunday together. During the week, they always had set times for meals. When her children were young, Mozell kept up the tradition. Now, her busy weeks of meetings and talks make it hard to keep up a routine, but she tries to make it a priority.
Much of the food Mozell and her family enjoyed was African American southern cooking—soul food. She remembers that her mother made the “best greens.” She also enjoyed her family’s fried chicken, homemade biscuits, fried apples, and country ham. Mozell still makes her mother’s traditional Christmas breakfast, which included oysters, salmon cakes, bacon, eggs, fried apples, and grits.
In contrast, Mozell was also concerned about the health consequences of eating lots of fried foods and adding animal fat to every dish. “We ate healthy foods, but cooked them in an unhealthy way,” she said. Mozell bemoaned the detrimental impacts on health in the African American community, particularly the disproportionate levels of diabetes and high blood pressure. Her community has taken steps to be more health conscious, though. At revivals, where about 200 people gather in the church, they have started serving healthier options. They put broiled chicken next to the fried chicken, in addition plates of raw vegetables. “But,” Mozell said with a twinkle in her eye, “if you just put the broiled chicken out, people will ask, where’s the fried chicken?”
Although Gordonsville (Orange County, Virginia) claims itself to be the home of the best fried chicken, Mozell would beg to differ. The Fluvanna County fried chicken is her favorite. It brings back memories of when her mother or her neighbors used to make it, and the smells would waft down the street. “If anyone was frying chicken, you knew it!” she exclaimed. She noted that chickens then were fed natural feed and weren’t injected with any hormones. All you needed was a little salt and pepper to season the breading, and “the meat just tasted better” in those days.