There is a distinct pleasure—a deep bodily satisfaction—in being comforted by a food from your culture that you have no idea how to make.

For me, that food is greens and corn bread. By "greens" I mean collard greens (a plant that has been part of the African diasporic diet since before enslavement) with stewed smoked meat (usually pork, but my family used smoked turkey leg) and red pepper flakes. It can be eaten as a side to a bigger, meatier dish like fried chicken, or on its own with corn bread. My family prefers hot-water corn bread, which is a Southern, less bready cousin to the corn bread you know and love.

Gramma Louise learned how to make this food at 12 years old, while growing up on a plantation in northern Louisiana. The collard greens she used weren't organic or bought in a store, but plucked right outside her house.

It was "a daily meal," she recalled recently over the phone from her home in Missouri. "My father grew all the greens—collard greens, mustard greens, cabbage. We ate off the land, literally." The 11th of 13 children, Gramma was the daughter of sharecroppers who picked cotton for a living. This meal is hearty enough to nourish a body doing hard labor day in and day out.

Once when Gramma Louise was preparing the dish in our kitchen in Bothell, she commented on how soft the greens were here in Washington, compared to the ones that grew on the plantation. "Must have something to do with the sun," I remember her saying as she washed the chopped greens, bought at Whole Foods, before they went into the boiling broth, the water slowly turning the color of bright-green grass.

This was a dish we never made at home. We ate it only when she visited or when we were visiting her. But recently I've been having what I call "ancestral cravings." Sometimes I'd watch YouTube videos at 3 a.m. of black chefs making greens, hoping my eyes feasting on not-my-gramma's-greens would somehow satisfy my stomach. No dice.

With some guidance from my gramma, I recently decided to try to make greens and corn bread myself. My first attempt was on a weeknight. Big mistake. After a few desperate calls to my mom, she reminded me that this kind of food takes time—it spites you if you try to rush it.

After impatiently boiling the smoked turkey leg to create the broth, painstakingly washing and cutting the greens, and letting the mixture cook for an hour while I fried up some dense, hard, greasy corn bread, it was 10 p.m. I felt defeated by the results, convinced that my gramma's actual bits of skin were what made her version taste so damn good.

But during that process, something truly amazing happened. The smell of the turkey boiling away on the stove and the woodsy smell of the greens brought back memories of Gramma's apartment—the Billie Holiday posters, her African masks and statues, the wooden floors, the porch. All that was missing was the scent of her perfume: Pheromone by Marilyn Miglin. It was as if I conjured my gramma, my whole family, in my cold kitchen in Seattle. I was heartened to try again.

The following weekend, I doubled up on turkey legs—two instead of one—and started to boil them the day before I was planning on eating. That way, the flavors could steep. I carefully cleaned the greens and let them cook for an hour or two longer than before, so they were buttery and tender. Remembering a comment from my call with my gramma, I also whipped up a sweet-potato pie for dessert and some cherry Kool-Aid to sip on.

All that was left was the fickle hot-water corn bread. It's a simple complement to the greens, but also somehow more complicated to make. The end result should be a nice fried-golden-brown color with a crunchy exterior and a soft, pillowy inside that soaks up the juices from the greens. If done wrong, it can be too dense, too greasy, too dry, and unflavorful.

This time, I enlisted my sister Jade for reinforcement. Jade intuitively assembled the corn bread, carefully molding the dough into oblong nuggets. She told me she preferred the ones that had the impressions of Gramma's finger in them, and rolled her own index finger down the middle of each piece, carefully laying it in the hot oil to be fried. Hot-water corn bread follows the Law of Pancakes: The first few look like shit and the last few look godly.

As we settled down at the table with our little feast, we sent pictures to our gramma, proud of our accomplishment. "Omg you did it!!! It looks delicious!!! I'm so proud of you Jasmyne and Jade!" she wrote back. "I want some of those greens n bread!!! Congratulations!!" I took a bite. Still needed some salt.