Cooking With Ree Ree: 5 of Aretha Franklin's Best Cooking Moments

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As we dust off our BeBe and CeCe Christmas cassettes and unfurl The Matching Kwanzaa Skort Sets to commemorate yet another year of post-Teen Summit life, let us pause to raise a celebratory smoked turkey leg in remembrance of a beloved icon who spent decades cultivating her genius and sharing pot liquor-soaked soul, from down in her honey-glazed diaphragm, with the world.

Much has been said and many good and flimsy tributes speak to the magnitude of Freakum Pantsuit Hall of Famer Aretha Louise Franklin’s brilliance and musical mastery. But forget ye not her culinary offerings. As impassioned as she was in her vocal wizardry, so, too, was she in her love of a good gravy.

With holiday gathering season upon us, courtesy of the queen, if you haven’t had a collard green-inspired restraining order filed against you or been demoted to napkin duty for Six Major Holidays for shameful macaroni and cheese, here are some soulful delights guaranteed to make you the best +1 since Big Boi.

Ree Ree’s Christmas New Bethel Ham with Michael Strahan and that Kelly Woman

First of all, watching Aretha dive right in and score the shit out of a ham before Michael Strahan stuffed cloves inside excited me in a way I wasn’t ready for. That I replayed the clove-stuffing a few times is my business, thank you. He has such big hands. Anyhow, it was the weekend self-care I didn’t know I needed.

To make your ham feel like a natural woman, gather:

  • 5 cups of brown sugar,

  • 5 tablespoons of yellow mustard,

  • 1 cup of pineapple juice, and

  • 1 cup of Vernor’s Ginger Ale (trip to Michigan required)

I’ve never had a ham glaze that involved ginger ale, but if Aretha says it’s the key to a happy and hater-free holiday then I reckon we should believe her. I had Vernor’s for the first time recently after a bartender at the National Black MBAA Conference in Detroit reception INSISTED I have this local treasure by itself before he would add any whiskey. I can both confirm its goodasshitness and echo Aretha’s enthusiasm. They skipped the part when they sweat the ham per her instructions, but as Michael Strahan and Not Michael Strahan bumbled about awkwardly, Aretha adorned her Christmas New Bethel Ham with sliced pineapple rings, cherries, and shredded coconut.

Now, I don’t know about that motherfucking coconut, but I respect her commitment to tradition and merriment. When Not Michael Strahan asked if Mother Aretha wanted to try her work, she read my mind:

“I do. I’d like a nice ham sandwich.”

Me, too, Aretha. Me, too. Not Michael Strahan sliced cornbread and made it happen.

And shoutout to Michael’s brown sugar lump-mashing bicep. Serve this before serving your Kwanzaa Cake.

Yum Yum Yummy Banana Pudding and healthy boundaries with Mother Oprah

Once upon a time in 1999, Aretha and her one-woman hair show stopped by Oprah’s place to discuss her career and autobiography, Aretha: From These Roots, and bless the crowd with a performance of “Think.” And to bless me with yet another chance to watch Oprah enthusiastically mouth the words she doesn’t know to songs she loves.

While ‘twas lovely to watch Aretha blush recounting how her season of romance and boot knocking with Dennis Edwards from The Temptations inspired "Day Dreaming,” my soul shone bright like a diamunn watching Mother Franklin coach Oprah through proper banana pudding layering technique. That’s what really matters.

With the Christmas Bow of Life anchored upon her head with the strength of 1001 Sister Soulja side ponytails, Aretha gave us a quick and easy dessert for your next trap vision board potluck baby shower brunch, fingerwave reveal party, or divorce bonanza.

To set it off, assemble:

  • prepared banana flavored JELLO pudding, (“Naturally it would be nice and hot.” -Aretha to Oprah, 1999)

  • sliced bananas

  • vanilla wafers

  • a bowl, obviously

And in that bowl, you alternate layers of wafers, bananas, and HOT banana pudding. And there you have it. It’s basic but the hair makes it gourmet. Aretha also admitted that, like me, when it comes to food, "for the most part, I like everything that’s fattening. Including men."


Ree Ree's Peanut Butter Mmmm Mmmm Mmmm Mmmm Shrimp on the Today Show

Back in the Age of Obama, Aretha heel-toed over to the Today Show to share some news about some jazzy phatness on the horizon involving her son and to share a recipe “for the working woman who don’t have much time when she gets home if she really wants to kick back and relax.”

Enter Ree Ree’s Peanut Butter Mmmm Mmmm Mmmm Mmmm Shrimp. We are so special. The recipe starts with a collect call straight to my heart: “I have already two pats of butter in here.”

You gon’ need:

  • minced garlic

  • smooth peanut butter

  • Splenda (??)

  • butter

  • soy sauce

  • cayenne pepper

  • medium shrimp

  • lemon

  • crushed red pepper

  • a pan and heating source, naturally

What I love most is that she was determined to actually finish the shrimp and cook everything down to completion, upcoming commercials and attempted pivots to pre-cooked food be damned. You can’t just be wasting shrimp. Sautée your shrimp in butter until they’re pink. Stir in peanut butter and add soy sauce, cayenne & red pepper. Cook it “until it looks like you have a soul gravy.” If you know, you know. Queen Franklin recommends this served with “your favorite carb: potato salad, spaghetti, mac and cheese, rice...”

A common thread in many of Aretha’s televised cooking segments is not having enough of some vital ingredient within the Queen’s reach.

This time, there wasn’t enough time.

Miss Aretha Franklin’s Peach Cobbler on Emeril Live

Emeril made veal chops and prosciutto-wrapped asparagus for Aretha and judging by how she wore that chop the fuck out, I reckon it tasted as good as it looked. Pulling her away mid-chew from such veal splendor (to cook) is certainly a hex-worthy offense, but life is unfair. This time, there weren’t enough peaches for her to double the recipe, but they made it work.

To make some respectful peach cobbler, gather:

  • Pie crust

    • Extra dough for “The Betty Crocker Strips”

  • Mostly drained sliced peaches (“Because we don’t want it to be too juicy...but leave a little juice so it’s not...too dry.”)

  • 2 sticks of butter, sliced into dainty slivers

  • Sugar, to taste

  • Cinnamon

  • Nutmeg

  • Flour

  • Breadcrumbs

    • (”How much, Aretha?” “Okay, um...that looks good. Just enough to kind of fill up the juicy spots, but not really. Just enough to hold it together.”)

  • Oven (Easy Bake or otherwise)

Cook peaches, a stick of butter, sugar, cinnamon, and nutmeg in a pan just enough to make us forget who originally sang the song. Dump everything into your sugar covered pie crust, whether store-bought or freshly rolled out. Drop in a few pieces of butter and top with the “Betty Crocker Strips” because you love yourself. Slide it in your Easy Bake oven and taddow! No need to get too decadent with your toppings, because “You gon’ mess up everything with that whipped cream.”

Keep it simple, plair.

Aretha’s Shrimp a la Ree with Rolonda Watts

This time, there wasn’t enough butter. (“Well, somebody just won’t get enough sauce.” The horror.) While Ree Ree whipped that work in the skillet, Rolonda asked whether she was buttering biscuits and shucking peas for anybody special and Ree Ree was like, "Enough about me. The fuck you got going on?" And like any good messy auntie worth their weight in peppermints, she wound up spilling Rolanda’s tea. (Hey, Al B. Sure.)

To keep your skrimps rockin’ steady:

  • Garlic salt

  • Cayenne pepper

  • 2 Bags of large frozen shrimp

  • Fresh chopped garlic (4 cloves)

  • Margarine (if you’re into that sort of thing)

  • Lemons

  • Your starch of choice

Copper pot enthusiast Aretha Franklin has her own concept of “a little cayenne” that differs from my reality based concept of “a little cayenne.” After sautéing the shit out of and removing those poor shrimp from the skillet, she let the garlic butter fire sauce “as we say, cook to a low gravy.”

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“Ooooohs” from the audience. Be still my heart.

Rolonda squoze some lemons pon the resting skrimps. She tossed the skrimps in the sauce and cascaded it upon a bed of rice.

And then they started making plates for the audience. Sammy Davis, Jr.’s mama got the first plate. Historic shrimp in the dancerie. As Rolonda scooped added more sauce to a plate of rice, a bowl-holding Aretha stepped back to examine her Prosperity Green jacket, and advised:

“Watch my jacket, girlfriend.”

I wouldn’t want to be the one splashing sauce on Montgomery Ward’s finest. So Rolanda’s running back and forth slinging paper plates of Aretha’s Shrimp a la Ree to the waiting folks and letting the front row grab shrimp from a communal plate. Nodding heads and mass satisfaction. Except the woman Rolonda left hanging without a plastic fork who opted against using her hands, as I would’ve done. Amateur. Eventually, some brothers from the audience joined in to relay plates, and by the time they went to commercial break, worshipers were lining up for rations. All that was missing was The Electric Slide. If only I were of talk show audience-sitting age at the height of The Jiggy Era. Next time.

Alexander Hardy

New York City-based food-lover Alexander Hardy is the dance captain for Saint Damita Jo Jackson’s royal army and co-host of The Extraordinary Negroes podcast. He is an essayist, freelance copywriter, cultural critic, chicken enthusiast, lupus survivor, mental health advocate and educator who has written for, Eater, Courvoisier, Esquire, The Root, CNN, Gawker, The Huffington Post, Saint Heron, and Very Smart Brothas, among other wonderful outlets. When not writing on, he enjoys cheese grits, power naps, sweet tea, and all things chicken-related. Alexander does not believe in snow or Delaware.