For most people, cooking is a chore to be done after work. But for Ebony Haywood, it's a passion that can bring people together. With heat flooding through her kitchen, Haywood prepares a selection of her signature dishes — staples of a traditional soul food meal and the very definition of comfort food.
With a watchful eye, Haywood pulls a piece of fried chicken from a frying pan and checks to see if it is ready. It's not quite there yet.
Helping her in the kitchen is her mother, Janice, who Haywood learned to cook from. Growing up as the second eldest child, with five brothers and a sister, Haywood would watch Janice cook and help her in the kitchen. Although Janice guided her then, and still today, Haywood eventually took over the kitchen.
"I knew she would be tired after work so I'd always want to make things easier for her," Haywood says. "I'd go in there when she was at work and start to cook. Little things here and little things there and I just found out how it was relaxing for me, considering I was raised with five brothers, it was a tranquil thing for me. My relaxation therapy."
Haywood takes pride in her soul food dishes, but she likes diversity in what she cooks and admits she is fond of making Mexican dishes like enchiladas. But on this day, it's soul food and lots of it. On the stove are collard greens, sweet potatoes, and red beans and rice. In the oven corn bread bakes, coleslaw cools in the fridge, and banana pudding is coming together on the table. And, of course, the fried chicken is just about ready.
Soul food has a special place in her heart and a good reason which draws her to it.
"(It's) the love that goes into it," Haywood says. "The love actually, it's not something you can get at an everyday restaurant, and it's something that you can't just go and buy at a store and warm it up and serve it to people. You're actually putting the love into the soul food."
True feel for cooking
And that love can be seen while Haywood is in her kitchen. The first thing to stand out is that she doesn't measure anything. She doesn't keep recipes with exact amounts for each item going into a dish. When Haywood cooks, it's about feeling when each ingredient is just right.
Learning to cook from Janice and spending so much time in the kitchen with her has helped to create a special bond between the two women.
"Yeah, I think I'm her favorite," Haywood says with a laugh. "To this very day I think I have more of a special relationship with mom."
One of Haywood's brothers cooks, but she is the only one who has taken to it with a passion. Haywood grew up in the Sidney P. Osborn Housing in central Phoenix, moved to the Buckeye area and later to Gilbert. Nine years ago she bought a house in Arivaca, and three years ago she moved to the town permanently. Last November, Haywood put her passion to work when she opened Arivaca Soul, a restaurant off of Universal Ranch Road.
With Janice helping in the kitchen and her daughter Takoya helping in the front, it's a family operation and, whether cooking at home or at work, it's all the same to Haywood.
While she may have learned from Janice, she has taken some of the dishes she watched her mother make growing up and put her own spin on it. With a full spread of food across the table, it's easy to see she has made the different dishes her own. The red beans and rice have their own distinct flavor. She admits she adds a little extra to make them stand out. People always ask what gives them that flavor, but it's not something she shares easily, she says.
Perhaps that's because Haywood's cooking is more than a business venture or just a way to relax. It's a way to bring family together and a means of enticing them to come to Arivaca for visits, she says.
"For me to have people in the kitchen watch me and then they try to duplicate, it is a really good feeling," Haywood says. "I'm hoping that some of these recipes will continue to be passed on.
“On Christmas, I do things with all my nieces and nephews to where they're all in the kitchen and they all want to watch and they all want to do something. They all have their parts to do in the kitchen."