Saturday, January 31, 2009
And okra is just scrumptious. Gently steamed on top of a pot of field peas with a big hunk of ham or bacon, the tiny pods tender and melty to the tongue, with some of the flavor of that smoky pot of peas. Wheeled and fried in either meal or flour, a mixture of both, or even one of those fishfry mixes in a pinch (or in someone else's kitchen). Tiny circles afloat in the rich brown-red gumbo, holding their own amongst the sea-tang of the shrimp and crab, adding a deep earthy flourish to the dish.
Or as oddly as my Mammaw cooked it, a strangely concocted dish of pods, stems intact, steamed and THEN meal-rolled and fried and spoked round the plate, the daintily-arranged golden delicacies with their long greeny-brown bodies and tails arrayed like a lizard pinwheel. The outside was crisp, salty, perfect, then the melting, creamy interior richness. Never had it that way before or since. Guess it was her own recipe.
And pickled!!!---salty and crisp and tangy with good vinegar and the snap of red pepper. I watched admiringly once as a lady who was to be our hostess at a cocktail party in her suite at a VERY grand hotel in Washington unpacked a small case. It was red leather with shiny brass fittings, and looked worthy of jewels or State secrets or at least caviar. To go with the lovely spread and bar she had ordered from the hotel, out of the case came three pretty home-canned jars from her own Southern garden. One of thumb-sized baby green eggplants, brined with garlic and herbs, and two pints of pickled okra.
My own great liking for okra (sometimes pronounced okry by some folks in my neck of the woods) was cause for an irate reaction, a considerable grudge against two of my Mother's friends, and the very first lightbulb moment in my love affair with words when I was about six. I made up little poems and stories and scenes, carefully crafting the rhyme and meter and plots, and had been reading avidly since I was four.
That great gift of reading had come to me courtesy of Mrs. Cooley, a lovely woman across the "road" (our smalltown synonym for "street" in my childhood).
She was Mother to four husky, rowdy boys, all yells and fists and elbows, and I think she valued our quiet days of books and words as much as I, in the quiet of her smoky, cluttered living room with all the books stacked round the walls and the dust motes falling like snowflakes in the narrow sunbeams squinting between the musty drapes.
She had introduced me to BOOKS---places and people unknown, and I will bless and value her all my days. I had developed quite a vocabulary, and though I knew not the meaning of syntax and was just grasping the definition of grammar, I had quite a firm standard for my own sentences. Pronunciation, however, was another matter. Just the reading of a word, without having heard it in its proper inflection, can make for some strange syllables.
The two neighbor women were standing beside a flowerbed in one's yard, and I was playing on the lawn with the daughter of the house. We were well-raised children, taught not to interrupt our elders, but when one mentioned okra, I burst in with my own enthusiastic endorsement, "I LOVE okree!!"
They burst out laughing, and I rose, highly insulted, and did my chubby little best to stalk off in righteous indignation, thinking they were making fun of my contribution. Before I could reach the road, one said, "We were just mentioning it's not correct to say you ‘love’ any food."
I wanted so badly to ask them if it wasn’t time to take their brooms in for an oil change. I DID like okra that much. And still do.
Someday, all those people who say eeeeeewwwwwww at the mere mention of okra will wake up and see CNN announcing that scientists have discovered that okra is a combination of Botox, Viagra and SlimFast, and what will they say THEN, HUH? THEN we'll see who's been right all along.
Crispy, crispy little wheeeeels. . . . .
Friday, January 30, 2009
I didn’t tell him until much later that Caro fried that chicken, while I primped for the evening.
Well, I TAUGHT her.
Her own Grandmother---my first Mother-in-Law---taught me to fry chicken---black skillet (she parted with one of her own slow-cured, crusty-bottomed ones in the name of love and authenticity), Crisco from a can, flour, salt and pepper. S&P and a little can of sage, like a captive, mentholated dustbunny in a can---were the ONLY condiments in her quite considerable kitchen cabinets---if you don't count the cinnamon which she saved for sweet potato pie and baked apples.
And she was a GLORIOUS cook. Her chicken was a model, the essence, the very paragon of fried chicken, to be held up as the zenith to which we could all aspire. Her biscuits and cornbread (also black skillet) were tender, crusty marvels of breadhood.
And her desserts!!! She had a way with piecrust and cake batter that would make Betty Crocker hand over her apron. My soul still longs for the long-lost recipe (confiscated by a VERY quick, very sneaky SIL the day before the funeral) for her famous caramel cake---a tendercrumb, buttery, meltingly delicious golden poundcake with a poured icing which, coincidentally, had been cooked ditto black skillet. She could take the last smitch of flour in the bag, the crumbs of sugar left in the bowl, and the paper off a Parkay stick, and turn out a dessert fit for royalty.
One of the funny memories of her wonderful chicken dinners is that the chicken was the STAR, and the rest just add-ons. That platter of golden-brown, crusty delight would be set down before family and company alike, accompanied by the most featherlight rolls, a can of Schoolday English peas, and a can of Pride of Illinois corn---each heated in a little pot just long enough to melt the butter.
I cannot fathom to this day the two Sacred Mysteries of my cooking forebears---Mammaw’s Magical Teapot and Maw’s ability to heat ONE CAN EACH of two things, put them in bowls, and serve a family of five and assorted guests generously. (And don't forget the drained pineapple rings, topped with a coronary-busting tablespoon of Blue Plate and a big pinch of hoopcheese).
The chicken and the dessert---that's what you came for.
So I learned, those days of Delta heat and no A/C, in that kitchen with one window over the sink, 10 square feet of counter space, and a shiny yellow dinette set butt-bumping you every time you moved toward the stove. I sharpened the knife, washed the carcass, cut it into fourteen pieces, (count 'em---2 legs, 2 thighs, pulley bone, two breasts, stripped of two small sections of boneless meat, neck, back-cut-in-two, 2 wings). I don’t count the liver and gizzard---you never count them when you’re figuring pieces to go around. If they don’t get lost on the platter, somebody will have scarfed them up before the tea’s on the table.
I soaked, I carefully measured quantities and seasonings, I shook that big brown sack. I heated the pan of shortening til it "browned a cube of bread" and laid in the carefully floured pieces (always the dark meat first, legs turned to fit against each other "saves space," with the bony tent of of the back in the same pan, liver tucked carefully beneath---livers have a way of choosing their moment, and will blow skyhigh at the exact minute you take off the lid if you don't capture them under that handy ribcage).
White meat came next, and was lidded, turned, uncovered, crispened, and set on a great mattress of "Scotch towls" to drain. It was wonderful chicken, tender and crisp and salty and just right. And I still cook it just like that, same skillet, same method, in a place faraway and a time so different.
We’ve graduated from the can of big ole mooshy peas to a bowlful of tiny tender frozen ones, microwaved under Saran for three minutes, and still a lovely emerald, with the whiff of green gardens when the covering’s whisked off.
Occasionally I DO open a can of that thick, sweeter-than-sweet corn and cook it like pudding in a tiny skillet with butter. And again, we occasionally have a Pineapple Salad, ditto Blue Plate and some extra-sharp Kraft. It’s like going Home.
Chris gets out of the car, comes into the house grinning. "I smelled fried chicken all the way out into the yard!!"
This little note in the "comments" section reminded me of a story I've returned to time and time again, in one of those Good Old Days books, for the sheer simple HOME of it, and the wonderful supper created from just a few jars in the pantry and big panfuls of light, homemade biscuits.
It was the early 'teens' of the last century, just before Wartime, and the narrator was a little girl---she and her brother were playing a game on the rug beside the fire. It was already dark on a Sunday evening, and since they'd had a good Sunday dinner right after church, they expected to have the few leftovers for their supper.
Daddy appeared at the door, having walked into town to his store for a while, and with him were four young soldiers, whose train was delayed for several hours. There was nothing open in town at that time of day, and it would be many hours before they could get anywhere that they could buy a meal, so he brought them home.
Mother was dismayed, as they had eaten almost all the roast, and very little of anything else was left, especially not to stretch double with four extra hearty young appetites. She thought for a moment, summoned the two children with her to the kitchen, and got out her biscuit pans.
The picture in the book shows a turned-out pan of a dozen puffed-over-the-top golden rolls or biscuits, standing high and proud, and I could just see that lady getting out the dough-bowl and sifting and working that dough. The little brother loaded up the woodstove to get it "good and hot" and Mother put in pan after pan of the light, airy biscuits.
Then she went into the pantry, stood surveying her jars and cans of possibles, and selected the last two cans of salmon, jars of peaches and home-canned pears and preserves and honey . She made a smooth, velvety "white sauce" to which she added the gently-flaked salmon, making a luscious, savory gravy for ladling onto the biscuits.
She filled the tureen with the sauce, put the preserves and the pears and the butter into pretty glass dishes, and summoned the guests to the table. The child's memory of that wonderful thing---that evening the Mama made do with what was available and made biscuits fit for a king, of how some hungry young men going who-knows-where to serve their country sat down at their table and enjoyed that bountiful basket of wonderful biscuits with the salmon gravy and the home-canned fruits---that was a bright moment for remembering.
And I think that good home dinner of humble, warming food was more than a meal---it was a gesture of kindness, a proffering of hospitality to those who were far from home, and perhaps unlikely to see it again. I'll bet the memory of the warmth of that welcome and that simple, comforting dinner went with every one of those young men to whichever part of the globe they were sent.
And that long-ago child is gone now, but when I remember it, I smile.
I still can't abide eating it, but have turned out countless little paving-stones over the years, starting with about ten crushed Premium crackers, and the clunky cylinder of salmon laid out on a white plate, so as to dissect it from all those pesky little bones (especially the crunchy round ones---they had a fossily look to them, like something in a line-drawing in my sciencebook).
And even after I caught on to the "don't cook fish too long" trick, I marveled at the soft, mushy pinkfleshed fish, and wondered HOW LONG it took to cook those bones to that crumbly, edible stage. My Grandpa would walk up beside Mammaw as she "picked over" the fish for cooking, and pick up every little round cylinder, crunching it between his back teeth with evident enjoyment.
The silver skin had a strong fishy/tincan tang to it, and it was stripped away, leaving just the soft pinkness of the fish itself, which was crumbled into a bowl with a little minced onion, the cracker crumbs, and an egg, as well as the secret--a teaspoon or so of Blue Plate mayonnaise, which lifted the everyday dish from the level of ordinary cooks' efforts to a special flavor known only at our table.
And was there a hierachy in the croquette-cooking set, with some cooks sneering at other cooks' amount of flour paste used to "stretch" the salmon? You gotta know that in the Southern kitchen, you might cut corners and stretch stuff and add an extra can of water to the Minute Maid at HOME, but not for company, and certainly not for taking to someone else's house or to any potluck gathering.
A cook's reputation was ALL, and a cook or two would coyly mention that hers was a "six-cracker" recipe, when the standard per tall can was ten, and I'm sure, though I never heard it, were those of "sleeve a' crackers" reputation, right down there with the trashy in their ways and the all-around stingy.
Tablespoons of the mixture were dropped gently into melted Crisco or oil in the big black skillet; after a good crusting on the bottom, they were flipped, then mashed just a tiny bit flatter with the egg turner to make them solid and well done all through. Onto a plate with paper towels when they were browned on the other side. Ours didn't seem to have any soft center---they looked more like crispy little pancakes with chunky bits of fish and little white or golden shards of fragrant onion.
Tartar sauce was the favored accompaniment, made up cool and tart while the patties were frying---a spoon or so of finely chopped home-canned dill pickle and an equal amount of sweet onion, cut about the size of rice---all stirred into perhaps a half-cup of cold mayo with a dribble of the salty, dilly juice from the pickle jar. I liked the sauce very much, and still follow that exact recipe today, for accompanying all fried seafoods or fish of any sort.
I don't make the patties too often any more---short cans of the candypink "fancy" salmon stand in my own pantry, for Caro's favorite salad, made up like tuna, but with a bit of the tartar sauce stirred into the right-out-of-the-can fish, for a nice cool dinner to take to work, or for Summer lunches. Chris likes little bites of it on crackers as a nibble while supper is cooking.
Chris' children remember their maternal Grandma’s making the salmon patties almost every time they visited her house---her other mainstay was fried chicken tenders, and both dishes are still favorites of them all. She was a lovely woman, slender and spare of aspect and word, but very kind to me, in my role of outsider joining her family. Her soft voice echoed her kindness and generosity of Spirit, and I remember her fondly.
Almost all the women I knew who made those salmon patties spoke in the same soft, gentle tones, and I think perhaps the secret of the flavor and the charm lay in the pronunciation common to all:
"Would Y'all want some sal-mon paddehs for supper?"
Wednesday, January 28, 2009
Scones and biscuits on the same day---what's not to love?
I don't know a lot about anybody else's biscuits, but almost all "Southern Biscuits" or Southern Style Biscuits are made by starting with a shortening---originally lard, and it's still used by purists and a lot of the new gourmet cooks. Now, Crisco is the one of choice mostly, and most cooks use Self Rising flour, even if they do add a little extra salt or leavening.
And Buttermilk is the Southern mixing-liquid, with or without "baking soda"---rare is the kitchen in the South which has not a box of Arm & Hammer in the cupboard, for biscuits and other baking, and for cleaning drains, freshening laundry, and keeping the fridge and freezer fresh and odor-free. Right in there beside the Argo Cornstarch and the can of Clabber Girl.
Grits is a singular food, and I still think and say "Grits are" because of the plural sound. One would never speak of "a grit," but I know it should be followed by "IS," just as you would say, "Molasses is."
There's corn grits, white made with the white center of the corn, or yellow, with the whole kernel, ground more coarsely than cornmeal, which makes such velvety, wonderful cornbread.
And there's HOMINY grits, made with the "lye" or (dictionary word) nixtamalized corn. It's dried, ground, and can be advertised as Hominy Grits, the old fashioned kind.
OH, and beaten biscuits---I've made them. Once. Just as an experiment on a lazy Saturday morning. They're like a cross amongst a Ritz cracker and a dog biscuit and a Communion Wafer---the really hard, tough kind found in Baptist churches, which, if they weren't tiny enough to get back there and crunch between your back teeth, would do some serious dental damage. Or hang out like a mint until they melt sometime between Lord's Supper and "Just As I Am."
I had a recipe once for a cake, from way in the day before mixers. You were supposed to beat it for six hours. Unh unh. Not me. Just smacking that biscuit dough "til elastic" with the rolling pin one time was enough for me. And nobody would eat 'em, anyway.
Grits and how to eat them have caused more family dis-harmony than politics---butter or not; sugar or not; gravy or shrimp or syrup on top.
I cook the plain old Quaker, right off the grocery shelf in the round cardboard cylinder---the cook-it kind. Those packets which dump powder in the bowl and change to part-mush, part-crunch under the boiling water---not spoken of in polite company.
The pot simmers for a bit whilst the bacon and eggs cook; a big pat of butter is scraped off the knife into the pot, left to melt, and stirred in just before ladling a good hot serving onto everybody's plate. Then it's every man for himself---treat 'em as you will. No censure from me.
Be sure and run an inch or two of warm water into the empty pot and replace the lid til time to do the dishes, or you'll be chipping spackle off that thing for a week.
Jeff Foxworthy says that every single garbage can in the South has one fork with white stone between the tines, that somebody gave up on. And if the Egyptians had had grits instead of mortar, there'd be a whole townful of pyramids.
He gets out there and throws great showers and fountains of the stuff, his cheeks getting red with the cold, and his whole body encased in layers of POUUUUUFy clothes: shirts and long underwear tucked into thick, thick socks, and then jeans tucked into high-laced black boots, with a Michelin-Man jacket like a little kid's snowsuit, only in gray.
He wears a balaclava AND earmuffs (so as not to hear me calling from the back door that THAT'S ENOUGH!! Come in here and get warrrrrmmm! Don't OVERDO IT!!!) and of course, his big ole sinister black fedora. I kinda like sinister, too, sometimes.
And we've just BEEN here, all of us, together all day. DS and DDIL were told not to come in to work today if the roads were bad (they are) and so they and our littlest are at their house. Caro is upstairs, serendipitously having days-off-not-her-own because she filled in over the weekend, else she'd have been out in it last night, and have to go tonight, as well.
We had scones for breakfast---an odd, quick thought as I perused the shelves for something kinda special for all-at-home-on-a-cold-morning. We had Bisquick, which we never seem to have, but this was left from making the sausage balls for Christmas morning. And I'd been telling myself to try out making muffins to use up that quart jug of "boiled custard" that Chris bought this year in lieu of his usual eggnog (which I would have used, as well, though I don't like to drink either one).
So that's what I did; I measured out the Bisquick and threw in two teaspoons of sugar, then the custard, and stirred it all together. A handful of dried cranberries, and dropped from two spoons onto the silpat---a scatter of Turbinado sugar sparkles, then oven 425 for 20 minutes. A quick brush with melted butter, a few slices of bacon out of the microwave, and we sat down. It was lovely and different---I DID sprinkle a bit of cinnamon over the last two bits of dough in the bowl before I dropped them, just to try the different taste, and they were quite nice.
We spent the morning teaching me to post pictures---I filled three pages of my new journal with "R click on C-Drive" and "hit Browse" and all sorts of arcanities of the genre, and I enjoyed learning all the new stuff. (I DID, however, get a CRAM course---he wants to tell me not only what I need to know, but all HE knows, and I have to sift out the extras before I write it down).
I made us a late lunch of grilled Jack cheese-and-ham sandwiches while he peeled and cut up a plateful of crisp cold apple slices, and of course, we had frosty big glasses of iced tea. It's the LAW. A cold beverage with lunch and supper; hot for breakfast, or cold if you want. And no amount of snow on the ground will keep me away from that ice-machine.
I DID take a picture of the scones, but I got to thinking. Scones aren't SOUTHERN, no matter what kinda tea parties and lawn doings and fancy gatherings at Tara might feature them as refreshments.
Biscuits are Southern, even though, as my Alabama BIL says: "Scones is just biscuits with raisins in 'em." (Of course, he also LOVES the pate a choux puffs filled with chicken salad that I make for parties, and lives in hope---when I enter with a tray of anything, he'll ask, "Did you make them lil' biskits?).
So, in honor of my VERY first picture I ever posted on here, I'm doing the Southern thing, with a Black Skillet of Biscuits. Not quite Catheads, but 'twill serve.
Several years ago, I had bought some of those pastel flower-shaped marshmallows for the older granddaughters' Easter box, since they wouldn't be here that year. They were pretty little things, pale pink ruffly "petals" around a creamy yellow center circle. They even had little center dots---to represent stamen, I suppose, and they tasted just like regular marshmallows---one of those "cute" things the candymakers burst forth with all the time.
So I thought they might be pretty on the sweet potato casserole for Easter lunch.
A few nights before the holiday, we shared a baked sweet potato, taken out of the shell and mashed with brown sugar/butter/vanilla, then topped with a few of the marshmallows and baked in a little gratin dish.
Glad I made them for an early trial---they were AWFUL. They lay atop the creamy potato mixture in the heat of the oven, gently spreading a bit as they softened. Next peek in the door revealed blobs of pink goo, with clops of yellow bubbling in the center, bits of browned marshmallow appearing as it crisped a bit.
I said "Oh, Well, they'll taste OK," and set them aside for a few minutes while serving up the dinner. The scoop of the spoon down through the potatoes disarranged all the colors, spreading a strange rainbow amongst the deep rust/orange, and when served upon the plate, the stuff was NOT attractive. Chris looked at his plate, said a few complimentary words about the chicken livers and other dishes, then said, "What is THAT?"
I told him, and asked "What did you think it was?"
He said the first and only uncomplimentary thing about my cooking that he's EVER said in all our twenty-some-odd years: "Looks like a doll died in a pile of poop."
I took a look, and we both fell out laughing. There was the little ruffly petal-bonnet surrounding a small pale face, with strands and streamers of pink circled all through, little speckles of burnt sugar, and the contrast to the deep gold potatoes---well, it was just too much.
THEN, he capped it all by saying of the browned bits, "I can see its little eyes!"
Monday, January 26, 2009
We lived four houses down from a railroad track---my most delightful time of day was when the City of New Orleans stopped to take on fuel. I would run down the block, climb the enormous, swooping trails of wisteria vine in the last neighbor's yard, and peer into the dining cars, all alight and bright with white napery, ladies in their nicest hats, and the coats of the smiling waiters.
I can still feel the crisp Autumn air on my face and arms, the rough wood of the huge old wisteria vine, big as tree limbs, that swooped in sways and drapes at the corner of the block. I'd climb up six or eight feet and stand watching, as the train just sat there, all the wisps and blasts of the steam streaming into the twilight air, with the stars punching their way through the darkest-of-blue sky. I always remember those years of train-watching as in Fall, mostly because it was much easier to see into the windows on those cool, early-dark nights, than in the still-light of Summer.
I thought it the most wonderful, the most romantic, the most elegant thing in the world to be able to sit there in that small space, with lovely shining silverware and china, and be one of those happy, beautifully-dressed passengers enjoying their meal. I never saw beneath shoulder-height, but having seen train dining cars in the movies, my child’s mind converted those images into glorious colors and gleams, with flowers in vases and a silvery coffeepot wielded by the white-coated waiter.
So our closeness to the railroad made us a haven for the far-from-home-and-hungry. The first three houses were that fake-brick-siding brown, all railroad houses where the workers lived, with our little white one on the end a beacon to all travelers. I truly believe there WAS a mark somewhere on our property, because seldom did a week go by without a shabby, polite man or two appearing at the screendoor, hat in hand, asking if he could "do some work" for a meal.
My Mother always cooked a big Southern noon dinner, and the leftovers were warmed over for our supper, along with any added dishes we might prepare. So when one of the men would ask in his polite code for something to eat, Mother would dish him up a plate, add a hunk of cornbread or two slices of lightbread, along with a big dollop of homemade preserves or jelly for dessert. Beverage was a quart jar brimming with strong iced tea.
On the occasions when she felt that the dinner might not stretch into extra meals for unexpected guests and our evening meal as well, she would get out a small skillet and fry up two big eggs, straight from my Mammaw's henhouse. Four slices of Wonder Bread this time, spread with Blue Plate mayonnaise, the hot buttery eggs slid between, a good sprinkle of salt and pepper. That and the requisite scoop of home-canned preserves made a fine meal for a man needing a bit of help to get him to wherever he was headed. For several years in my early childhood, we also had gallons of free milk from Mammaw's cow, along with fresh-churned butter, so a quart jar of cold milk would serve nicely to wash down those hot egg sandwiches, and add extra nourishment, besides.
A couple of times when she was out for the afternoon, and the knock came on the door, I bade them to wash up at the backyard faucet and sit down out in the shade at the picnic table, while I cooked the egg sandwiches and poured the tea or milk. We had very close neighbors and everyone looked out for all the children, so I never had one moment's fear of walking out that back door with the food and drink.
I guess I've fed half the world by now---lots of teenagers and hundreds of young soldiers, thousands at parties and weddings and dinners we've catered, but none have been quite as satisfying, somehow, as being ten and walking out that dusty screen door, hearing it slam shut behind me as I used both hands to balance and navigate down the steps to the backyard, carrying a plate of warm, greasy egg sandwiches and a quart of iced tea to a hungry man far from home.
Sunday, January 25, 2009
And in addition to the bright of bottles in the Summer sun, perhaps a bit of fun for a change:
SQUIRRELS I HAVE KNOWN
The first was "Squirrely Boy," a backyard companion of my parents, with his own little picnic table and chair secured to the limb of a huge pecan tree on their lawn. He was waiting every morning for his ration of nuts, usually pecans---in the shell most of the time, but Winter days brought him great fortune in the form of already-shelled ones from the freezer, microwaved warm on the plastic lid from a Folger's can.
He’d climb down into reaching distance for the first bite, and eat it upside down. Having broken his fast, he took his seat in the wee chair and ate his breakfast al fresco, ignoring any watchers or bystanders unless they approached too close. He would then gather up all he could carry, stuff his cheeks full, and retreat a few feet up the tree to finish his meal.
Once when they went on vacation, I was enlisted for feeding chores. I went by before work, put out the pecans, and he arrived right on time. I availed myself of Mother’s clothesline by hanging several large spreads and blankets to sun before storing them for the Summer. At lunchtime, I ran back to the house to take them down for folding.
As I was reaching up to undo the clothespins, I felt a gentle tug on my pantsleg, down in the vicinity of my ankle. I looked down to find him holding on to the fabric like a child holding his Mother's hand. I walked slowly toward the house with him still holding on, just walking along on two legs like a tiny man in furry trousers. He let go when we got to the back steps, and started up on his own. Mother and Daddy let him come in occasionally, but he didn't KNOW me, and all I needed was for them to come home to find the damage done by a rampaging, captive squirrel.
I sat on the lawn, he walked up into my lap and ate his lunch, and for always after that, he came to my call when I visited. They never DID figure out how I tamed him so well, and it stayed a secret between Squirrely Boy and me.
#2 was the little fellow who came to our apartment door several times a day with the huge flock of ducks we fed. We started out with a nice married couple of the lake mallards, named them Maurice and Velveeta, and then the crowds started to increase with every meal, so the time for individual naming was past. They brought their little parades of yellow fluff, standing around the yard and muttering to themselves like crowds at Six Flags, til we rolled back the patio door and Frisbeed out slice after slice of bread.
We became a fixture at the "used bread store" and bought several 45-lb. bags a week. Chris could compress 40 loaves into a grocery-store baggie. I was in the habit of setting out a folded-over peanut butter sandwich for the little brown squirrel who stood observing in the tree every day. One busy afternoon, I forgot about him in the melee of ducks and bread, and here he came across the lawn like a little Western gunslinger, elbowing ducks out of the way right and left. He picked up slice after slice of bread, sniffed it, then flung it away in disgust. He marched up to my feet and looked up with a frowny face, telegraphing quite plainly that I was to go put the good stuff on his.
#3: The fluffy brown squirrel which was a fixture of our second-floor deck in our first house here. I'd see the pine tree swaying, then he'd step off onto the deck railing to see what goodies I had put there. I would lay a dozen peanuts in a line, and he would walk the 2x4, picking them up one at a time, sometimes loading his cheeks and going back up the tree to stash his haul. I put out various treats from time to time---peanut butter on a cracker, a few raisins, an orange section.
He seemed to welcome them all, and one day I peeled the foil off a Hershey's kiss and set it in a line of peanuts on the rail. He sniffed it, picked it up, took an experimental nibble. I swear his eyes crossed and he almost swooned with pleasure---the expression on his little face was positively orgasmic.
He was a regular visitor thereafter, hoping for more of that magical manna, but seldom was there ever another bit of chocolate. I didn't want to be responsible for his demise, but he'd probably have deemed it a wonderful way to go.
#4: We have quite a few regular visitors in our backyard here, with trusting forays up to the back door…I toss out peanuts, filberts, parrot food, crackers---they accept it all. The only mishap we’ve experienced is the patio pillows which suddenly began to look as if they’d been in for liposuction---they deflated slowly over the Summer, and when Autumn bared the trees, great floofs of white stuffing sprouted in several places, standing up from the far upper tree limbs like Don King’s hair.
And our flowerbeds have mysteriously given hatch to two appletrees, a patch of peanut plants, and quite a nice stand of corn. This last gift is exceeded only by the head of broccoli which disappeared from the top of a nice plant in the garden, to be replaced by a perfectly-balanced empty corncob in exchange.
I need a hobby.
Mammaw B (to distinguish her from just Mammaw, who was my Mother's Mother), was a tiny woman whose children numbered seven, two of whom died in the Great Flu Epidemic of ’18, before Daddy was born---my mind won't wrap around such devastation and sorrow. All of the family but Daddy moved to Memphis; all prospered and had families and visited seldom---the youngest sister still lives in Memphis.
When Daddy was in his teens, Mammaw was bitten by a rattlesnake in the pea-patch, and he drove the nine miles into town to the doctor as fast as he could make the old Ford go, while his sisters held Mammaw through her convulsions in the back seat. She swoll up fit to pop, but she lived, and was a tough little nut, because of or in spite of.
And Daddy had two more sisters, from his Daddy’s first marriage, but unknown to him until one of them came and introduced herself to him at his workplace one day after I was almost grown. Mammaw had made Grampa promise never to mention his “other family” after they married. I have more regret and embarrassment for coming from that kind of people, than I do for the Grand-Dam who killed a marauder in a hideously vengeful fashion. But I cannot countenance or respect a wife who would demand that, or a husband who would just slough off a family like dandruff. I’m glad I didn’t know until later in life, when I was far away and visits few.
After Aunt Margie’s death so soon after Grampa’s, Mammaw made the rounds of the four other households, living three months with one, then moving on to the next. She tried to stay out of Mother's way, and it was never enough---Mother treated her shabbily and resented her from the moment she set foot in the house til she left.
Mammaw mostly read (I still have the crumbly-paged Perry Masons that we both read over and over) and did a little housework and crocheted to make you weep. She’d go up to the drugstore, get over in behind the big rack of magazines and comic books, look at the pictures in the crochet magazines, then come home and turn out a pineapple doily or stole by suppertime.
And Mammaw B. dipped, carrying that shiny little Garrett can in her apron pocket at all times, getting up from time to time to go into the bathroom to spit into the toilet. I still have yards of her lovely needlework, now outlasted possibly five pillowslips apiece, wound and put away safe for stitching onto new pairs for the Grandchildren’s wedding gifts. Thread and a needle and the knowing hands that created such lovely work---those are worth remembering.
Both Mammaw B and her own Mother, an even tinier woman who was part Mississippi Choctaw (and not, like the antecedents of most who claim them, a Chief’s Daughter) each lived to within a few weeks of their ninety-ninth birthdays. I did not get the crochet gene, though I tried valiantly; my touch is too tight. I can do you up a dozen Barbie hats, but then I’m done. I give up and never go further---I’ve entertained the notion that if I did, the product would probably make an excellent cigar cozy, should there be a need.
Of Mammaw B.: I remember her cooking twice in all the time she stayed with us: Once a dish of whole, peeled carrots, cooked in their tender youngness to a sumptuous creamy texture, with all the first-from-the-garden flavor. Mother was out for the afternoon; the bountiful garden was RIGHT THERE, and Mammaw picked and cooked stuff for supper.
Mother believed in getting the most go for her money out of a seed---our usual dish of carrots was of big checker-sized slices, so overgrown and woody in the middles that the outsides began to melt away into the boiling water before the corky insides were tender. Our carrots were “creamed” with a big glug of Pet Milk, and the showerings of pepper from the big old McCormick can made the whole bowlful gray, with an unpleasant throat-blast of heat. Perhaps that's why I especially remember that lovely plate of tender golden cylinders, a little glisten of butter shining their lengths---Miss Marthy would have gladly sat down to a dish of those.
The other dish was a “dirty rice” into which she tucked an entire head of shredded lettuce, to wilt in the under-lid heat and add texture to the dish. That one was not particularly memorable, except I'd never seen anyone "cook" lettuce before.
Mammaw was the nurse present in the delivery room at my own birth; she “holped” at home births as well, going to stay with the prospective mothers days before due date, and staying several days after to look after mother and baby til the mom was back on her feet.
Of Grampa, I remember only his one rusty-black suit, worn with the vest over an equally-dingy white shirt. I never saw him once without that vest, the scallop of a watch-chain draped across the expanse of his old-man belly. I was standing in his hospital room on the day he died, and was scurried out when the time came---I suppose he was wearing a hospital gown then. I'd broken my wrist some time earlier, and happened to be there because I'd just been upstairs to get the cast off. I remember leaning against the green wall with my arm behind my back, and being amazed at the cool of it, and the odd feeling that something was missing as my long-covered skin made elbow-to-wrist contact with the smooth plaster.
I do not remember their ever having a home, a car, a family meal or holiday at their house. They did live in the house catty-corner to ours when Daddy was a boy and when “our” lots were still the vacant space of ground where all the neighborhood kids gathered for ball games and tree-climbing and mumbly-peg.
One tree in our yard bore testament to the childhood years of many a local Tom Sawyer and Tarzan and Robinson Crusoe---way high over my rope-swing on a lower limb, there were four moss-verdigrised planks, the last vestiges of Daddy’s tree-house, with the limbs grown tight around the edges like clutching fingers. I looked up through the tinted window of the “family car” as we passed in Daddy’s funeral procession---not at the house where I'd lived for so long, but for one last glimpse of those old boards through the the Winter-bare limbs.
I did not know that side of my family very well; they did not visit much and we went to see them seldom. I regret that, and have a gentle dolor for what we all missed.
Saturday, January 24, 2009
I’ve spent waaaay too much time on old-time Family stuff lately; there are more and more times and people to speak of, but that’s for another time. I SO appreciate your comments and e-mails on all the posts. I’ve been asked by e-mail about what constitutes trashy, and I think I’d have to say that the nit-pickiest of all the criteria is the one that she puts dark meat in her chicken salad.You know, my only forebear who thought like that was my mother, who based every opinion she ever had on what would people think?---especially the few outspoken mesdames (Yes, nobody had a name of her own---they were listed as "Mesdames John Doe and BooRay Pendleton motored to Greenville on Wednesday of last week for Mrs. Doe's appointment with the Eye Doctor”---And woe betide the hostess who addressed even a widow's correspondence to Mrs JANE Doe---hubby's name lived FOREVER, bless his heart). I always found the Mesdames thing amusingly affected, but practical, as well---it would be hard to keep up with the plural of all those Mizzeses.
Those Mesdames and their doings were prominently featured in the little local paper. They motored to Memphis, they had their sister-and-HER-husband over for coffee, their daughter attended a dance---whatever it was, our little hometown conduit sniffed it out and printed it in the paper.
Our own reporter Mrs. Allman was an elderly, soft-spoken widow lady, of demure dark shirtwaists and garters-below-the-knee, mother of one daughter, always spoken of by her entire name, as were legion of us---Anne Rivers was smart and pretty and quiet and married well, I think; I lost track of her social career when her mother went into a nursing home in another town. I shopped for groceries there every week or so, and lots of times I'd run by to say hello to several of the old dears from our town.
Mrs. Allman was always out in the common room, and she would start standing up as soon as she saw me pass reception---knowing it was just HER that I was coming to see---her little flat slippers skritching along behind the clunk of her rigidly-dutiful walker as she approached. Evelyn and Mrs. Threadgoode mirrored much of my visitation with Mrs. A, whose phone conversations of her reporter days were abrupt for such a kind, soft woman.
You'd say "Hello?" and you'd hear a gentle "Got any news?"
You'd report that you'd had the Goodpastures over to dinner on Friday (she'd take down the menu if you'd give it) and that you'd heard that Miss Eller Duncan was in the hospital. If you ventured past that into the weather or the children, you'd hear, "Well, Bye," and she was gone.
And if you've read Fried Green Tomatoes you know exactly what I'm talking about---their own Society Reporter Dot Weems is the embodiment of half the Southern women I've known---grimly tolerant of a slightly no-count husband, a fond Mother, fierce friend, jealously possessive of her standing appointment at the beauty shop, and nosy-as-all-getout. The little asides between chapters of the book, the little "articles" from the local paper are chillingly and charmingly true to all the little unimportances so vital to the gossip and commerce and manners of a small Southern town.
And chicken salad figured prominently in most of those social occasions which were so unerringly reported, down to the color of hat and shoes of the guest of honor. (Evening occasions of a widely-social nature were prone to feature "Chicken Spaghetti," made with the same broth and bird, but with the inclusion of a pound of soft-cooked spaghetti and a can of Schoolday English peas---don't ask). Whole menus were lovingly enunciated in all their glory, (lots with the originator's name appended, which is only right and proper) and the elaboration on wedding decor and collation---well, the day the paper arrived, you could settle in with a whole percolator, to soak up all the atmosphere and Alencon you could stand.
But my forebears were hardy, hard-working folk, lucky sometimes to have the peas and cornbread on the table, let alone something so dainty and frivolous as a salad with mannaze in it. (story of my Daddy and his love of mannaze for another time). No real social set for them, save for the folks they knew at church, spoke to in the store, waved "Hay" to from the rickety porch, passed by on those rutty gumbo roads.
So---I don't think we had a single chicken salad snob in our bunch, though it's mighty important to some people---believe me. I've catered for the Country-Club set, the Plaaaaanters’ daughters, the wanna-bes, and for some so humbly grateful that they remain sweetly in my memory, like the sweet young bride whose parents owned one tablecloth, and it a red-checked oilcloth, eternally set with salt, pepper, a bottle of peppersauce, and a clean coffeecan holding a bouquet of silverware washed and replaced after every meal.
But everybody wanted Chicken Salad---we’ve probably made enough over the years to fill the beds of several BIG pickups.
So, as an afterthought---here it is—full circle to Chicken Salad. It's Southern all the way, and may not appeal to folks in other areas of the country---indeed, my mention of powdered sugar elicited more gasps from eGullet folks than the Paminna Cheese made with Miracle Whip and set down on the Church Supper table like the REAL food did at Third-Sunday Gathering.
Makes a big bowl:
6 chicken breast halves, skin and bone still on (roast them like Miss Ina if you like---they are rich and savory, but the original has them simmered at a mere shimmer-in-the-pan, with a big handful of celery, tops and all, a few carrot slices or a handful of the babies, and a large cut-up onion. Salt and pepper as everything goes in; give it about thirty minutes at a not-quite-bubble, then cool it in the liquid. Or if you're in a hurry, take them out to a platter til you can handle them.) Broth and veggies make splendid soup, and the creamy-tender veggies are the ulitimate "cook's treat."
Bone and shred or chop meat and put into a large bowl. Sprinkle on several tablespoons of special syrup, toss, then leave to absorb.
1 apple (Gala or Fuji or some such nice sweet snappy one), peeled and chopped
About a cup of celery, cut in thin slices for sandwiches, or wider for salad plate
3 to 6 boiled eggs, peeled and chopped, depending on how much you like
A coupla big handfuls of red seedless grapes, halved (omit for dainty sandwiches)
2 cups good Mayo---Kraft is fine, but we use Duke's or Blue Plate---they both have a good Southern tang like homemade.
1/2 cup toasted pecans (halves for salad, chopped for sandwiches or choux puffs
3 Tablespoons powdered sugar
Fresh-ground black pepper
Special Syrup, below
Toss everything well with chicken in bowl, put into Tupperware to chill. Keeps in fridge three days from the moment you took the chicken off the fire (Mammaw's standard, and she'd toss out half a bowl after the time expired---life in a hot climate, I guess).
THE BEST TOASTED PECANS: 200 degrees for one hour---cookie sheet. Then toss with a bit of butter, sprinkle any kind of salt.
Special Syrup---this is essential to the final dish---make the day before and keep in fridge in a jar---we're never without it. This makes a scant cup:
In a small saucepan, put 1 cup sugar, 1/2 cup cider vinegar, five or six cloves. Simmer like simple syrup just til sugar dissolves, then put into a small jar and chill.
This is also the secret of the potato salad, and I've never before parted with either recipe this thoroughly. (And a confession from my TRASHY heart: I LIKE dark meat included---it's richer, somehow).
Pickup loads, I tell you. Pickup loads.
Friday, January 23, 2009
She loved and was loved by all of us, her sweet ways and her kind words and that wonderful food she seemed to provide so effortlessly. Her house was drafty and a bit shabby, with creaky old wood plank floors and a porch with a “swang” that called out hospitality and ease and comfort.
She belonged to “Club” and Eastern Star and hosted both organizations off and on throughout the year---in fact, my last memory of her is at a Saturday wedding reception, a really fancy one. We sat amongst the arrangements of flowers we could not name, and she told me of the refreshments she was preparing for Club, which would meet on Monday at her house. She told of the little sandwiches, the fruit punch, the moving of several pieces of furniture from the living room to accommodate all the brought-in chairs.
We chatted amidst a great crowd of beautifully-dressed people, she and I in our “best” dresses, and I wondered then if all those city folk come to the country could imagine the bright rustic frivolity of her lawn and porch---the old black-wood square logs and time-dulled planking of her house the mere backdrop for all the gewgaws scattered around her yard. There were gazing balls and Uncle Sam whirlies and lots of pans in trees and on the ground for feeding all the little creatures that depended on her.
She had a great flock of bright green ducks suspended from poles, fishlines in trees, porch eaves, clothesline poles, and any other elevated spot that she could string up a Sprite bottle. She had a pattern for cutting a 2-or-3-liter Sprite bottle so that the wings spun and the head nodded. The wings were cut from the sides and re-attached with those little two-pronged file buttons, so the whirring and the spinning were phenomenal, all that rush of noise, and the clashy green reflecting the sun in great sparkles as the breeze blew.
Man, those things could FLY---they’d get up a good headwind, and try to scoot right off their tethers. They looked for all the world like the last two geese in a V, beating their wings madly to catch up and ride the draft.
The shine and the glitter and the spray-painted flowerpots and birdbaths and Little Dutch Couple and Wishing Well and many-times-painted Grecian goddess with no arms and half a nose---those just couldn’t hold a candle to the spinning ducks.
I found a delightful site just this week, one of several I’ve found from WAY BACK HOME, and it was so captivating and day-brightening that I had to share. This man has devoted his life to prettifying the world, and I cannot tell you how much I’ve enjoyed these Bottle Trees. I spent a whole morning just mesmerized, and I thought it ought to be spread around even more.
I love the LOOK of them, the symmetry, the sun-sparkled and the weather-crazed; the colors and the shapes and the angles and the light---it's art in its purest, most humbly engaging form. I've been saving our few wine-bottles for a friend who paints them for dish-soap containers, but I'm gonna keep some of the good ones for myself. And someday in Spring, I'll get out there and tackle one of those errant catalpa trees or maybe a big old woody Viburnum bush, trimming it to the heavy stems, to make my own bright Tree of Glass.I loved this, and Aint Bessie would have bowed down and called him Sensei.
Just keep scrolling til you look your eyes full. It'll do you good and help you, too.
Thursday, January 22, 2009
And in the ensuing years, my parents were subject to any and all of Rodie's bits and bobs of arcane culinary history. She prepared odd breads and custards and five hundred ways to cook greens and/or grits. And one day, Mother was interrupted at work by a call: "I'm making a cobbler; do you want sankers in it?"
A quick mental inventory of the pantry and freezer contents turned up no fruit or other ingredient that would serve to be called by that name. Mother then asked, "I never heard of that, Rodie; what IS it?"
The reply, in a tone of careful consideration for the feelings and the ignorance of the questioner, was, "You know--SANKERS. You can make cobbler some several ways---you can put the crust on top. You can put strips on top. You can drop dumplin's on top. Or you can put the strips on, let 'em cook a little bit, then you push 'em under and put some more strips on top. That's a cobbler with sankers."
And they were quite tasty, as well. Rodie and my parents muddled through several years before my Mom's retirement and permanent reclaiming of her own kitchen. I have several memories relating to Ro’s tenure in the kitchen I grew up in, though many years separated our use of it. There was the daughter-in-law who worked for Mother previously, whose homecoming call from her husband on the day he was released from prison resulted in a childhood memory for me that has lasted indelibly all these years.
We were eating our noon dinner, and the phone rang. "It's for you, Margaret," Mother said. Margaret talked for a moment, returned to the table, and picked up her plate. She went over to the drawer where we kept the folded grocery bags, retrieved a small one, and began to scrape the contents of her plate into it. We looked at her for a moment, then Mother asked, "Do you have to leave right now?" and she said yes she'd better go on.
Mother said, "Let me get you a plate you can take your dinner home on and eat it later...we'll fix you another plate---that's all jumbled up now." Margaret continued to scrape macaroni and cheese, ham, and field peas into the bag, which immediately bloomed a huge grease stain on the bottom. It began to spread up the sides, clearing as it went, so that the pinks and yellows of the food were outlined against the golden-greased paper like watercolor flowers.
"No, thanks. I'm not hungry right now. He can have this for his supper."
And she went out the door with her purse on her arm, supporting that small bag filled with the still-warm food, one hand beneath the sag of its greasy burden. I watched her walk off down the gravel in the posture of some ancient maiden carrying the sacrificial amphora, going to a homecoming and a reunion, both to be meagerly celebrated with a supper of other folks’ jumbled leftovers.
Even as a child, my dismay at the innocence and the hardship of that small offering was something to remember. I could only think what MUST have been in her own larder, how little those sparse shelves had to offer, that a bag of thrown-in food from someone else's dinnerplate would seem like a good homecoming. That moment of sacrifice and making-do has haunted me for years.
Another daughter-in-law (wife of a son who moved away and prospered, marrying that lovely young woman who was a college professor) surprised and startled me one day as I went in the back door to cook for Mother's expected houseguests. Rodie was unable to come to work, so the dear, multi-degreed, multi-lingual DIL was standing there in a puddle, manning the mopbucket FAR FAR from her home and her university life, mopping a stranger's kitchen in order to help out her husband's mother.
And when Daddy closed out our family home after Mother passed on, and we all gathered to help move and to carry home the things of our childhoods and fondest memories, there was a tiny inscription inside a cabinet door in Rodie's shaky hand: "When mint hand get on 11, put potace on."
I almost dismantled the door and brought it with me...I'd proudly hang it in MY kitchen, testament to two women, two good cooks, separated by the customs of their time, but united in a strange sort of friendship and their love of cooking.
And some nights, when it’s quiet and the world is still save for memories floating like fireflies in the dark, I can still hear the big brown fieldpeas rattling into that greasy paper bag.
Wednesday, January 21, 2009
It’s that exact spot in the old blacktopped parking lot of Piggly Wiggly where Evelyn Couch repeatedly rammed her old brown Ford land-yacht into the bright red VW whose impudent young blonde driver and her equally-sassy, smug friend had stolen her parking spot and flipped, "Face it, Lady---this is what happens when you're younger and faster!" back over their jaunty shoulders as they walked away laughing.
It's where the phrase "This is what happens when you're older and have more insurance," was born, the place on the map in which anyone, male or female, young or old, decides ENOUGH.
It’s where you take a stand and actually STAND there and stand UP for something, to right it or redress it or comfort or even AVENGE if the occasion merits.
It’s the place in all of us that we’d like to live IN and live UP TO, where we’re the best of ourselves and the person we’d like to be remembered as. It’s the place that we know we’re in when we dream of flying.
It’s that scene in The Magnificent Seven when the townsfolk all emerged with weapons and a firm resolve to take back their own---the moment in Dances With Wolves that the peaceful villagers rose up and took on those cruel marauders---the rally in Revenge of the Nerds when everyone rose from the bleachers and came down front to gather around Louis and Gilbert and Booger, to acknowledge that no matter who we are, we MATTER.
It's a place where you can just BE, and that's OK, and you can be more than yourself, as well. And words heard often are, "Nope. Not here. Not on MY watch."
Towandaland has lots of citizens---a brave woman on a Sixties bus, a pilot who wrestles an enormous plane to a safe landing in an icy river, a generation of young people who stand up and call out their own parents for their bigotry and hatreds. I like to think that a group of brave passengers on a flight called Ninety-Three felt the surge of Rightness and Courage and Honor they brought to their own place on the map.
Towanda was some sort of mythical avenging goddess, Hero of Idgie Threadgoode and others in Fried Green Tomatoes. And we Southern Girls all know who she is. And when the moment comes to stand UP or stand UP FOR or stand up and be counted---there will be a lot of them, and we'll know when they are---we'll whisper or say or shout "TOWANDA!" as we do our part to do the right thing.
Towandaland---you have to find it for yourself, and it’s all in the outlook. It's situated somewhere between Plumb Nigh and Mought Near, and you can always walk in the soft Summer rain.
Our little one came early today, having risen shortly after five and rousing the house with her---she was ready to play, then, and now, after a dawnish breakfast of donut holes, fresh from her Aunt Caro's bakery, and soft, skillet warmed little flicks of tender pink ham, she, too is in that lazy spot, singing to herself upstairs in her big white bed.
And I just went to a wonderful place, of music and beautiful colors and a tender story. It's to be seen on the blog of a new friend, amongst all the bright of his gardens and the old touches of home. And there's enough bright to fill your eyes for days.
I know he won't mind if I share---it's peaceful and soothing and evocative of so many things and feelings---just right for a just-before-sleep lulling, or a morning like today.
Scroll all the way to the bottom of the first page. It's Don McLean and Van Gogh---the very soul of both.
Tuesday, January 20, 2009
Monday, January 19, 2009
She raised glorious flowers, including dinner-plate dahlias and wonderful roses. She was also a musician, a gifted mandolin player, who once played along with Ira and Charlie Louvin and their band on her front porch.
She and all her nine brothers and sisters had played one instrument or another, mostly homemade---a washtub bass, a rub-board, several jugs of different sizes and pitch, but hers was a REAL mandolin, with a lovely golden-tan melon-shell, like a medieval minstrel’s lute. I don’t remember where it came from, or how on Earth they afforded the thing, but she and the brothers who played guitar and the sisters with “harps”---I never asked if they were like auto-harps, or mouth-harps (harmonicas)---all learned by themselves, and none of them could actually read music, save for the “shape” notes in the hymnbook.
They played for barn dances, reunions, parties, barn-raisings, barbecues, and any other gatherings of celebration. Electricity had not come to the countryside of her childhood yet, so occasionally someone would call up their house on the telephone, and who-all was at home would get together and play the folks a tune over the party line.
The Louvins were on the same tour as Aunt Lo’s BIL one Summer, and they all stopped on their way from one show-date to another. He’d told them all what a good cook his Sister-in-Law was (meaning Mammaw) and she gave the dozen or so men a good country noon dinner, with me helping in the kitchen. Then they all gathered on the porch and in the frontyard shade, and started to play and sing.
She was in Heaven with all those famous people at HER table and on HER porch making their music that we had heard only on the Grand Ole Opry. The uncle had also mentioned that she “played,” so they invited her to join in, and she did, those knobby old garden-tough fingers holding that little worn-thin teardrop pick and dancing along the strings to Redwing and several of their own recordings.
I remember the heat and the music, how it felt to stand in the middle of all that harmony and wangawang and thump and wail and thrill of sound---I could FEEL in my chest the throb of the tall bass, like an enormous fiddle stood on a stick. I’d been in the kitchen when they set up, and hadn’t seen them unpack, so I had the absurd notion that the deep curves in the sides were so that he could carry it. And now that picture of him, waddling along with that huge bass like dancing with a giant woman, obscuring his vision and tripping his feet---it makes me smile every time at the image and at the silliness of my childish assumption.
I remember how all the neighbors started to gather in their own yards and up and down the street, whispering at first, then as recognition and amazement of this so foreign a thing---familiar, but not of that place---set down on their doorsteps dawned, a lot of singing along and applause. Mammaw never forgot that special time of joining together with fellow musicians, sending those beautiful notes up into the bright heat of the Summer afternoon.
Sunday, January 18, 2009
Indeed, her love of beautiful dolls was such, with her telling about homemade ones that she and her sisters played with, and her dismay that I---and by extension, she---were not to receive that collection of satin-clad beauties from Jenny, and instead got books---it was a sad thing for her to remember.
Over the years, I gave her a few “bed” dolls---the Madame Alexanders and others of that sort, with all the satins and laces and furbelows of their eras. They all lay in pomp on her “spare room” bed, moved only for company to spend the night, when they stood arrayed against the dresser, their weighted eyes staring blinkless through the dark at the folks usurping their rightful place.
So, I have no idea what the little wisp of whimsy is in her lap. She seems to be probably twelve, but with her hair already “up” in the picture, and with a grave expression on the little face belonging to a later me, and to my sister, and to one of our girl cousins. It’s unmistakable.
Mammaw married my Grandpa and they had one tiny premature daughter whom they buried out in the far edge of the garden, her little stone greened with the turn of time, and where Mammaw once bent and picked up a silver dollar with her own birth year engraved on it. She took that as a “sign” of some sort, and told the tale as often as any other of her family sagas.
They had Mother and one son, and all lived in that tiny three-room shotgun house until both of the children married. I STILL don’t know where they all slept. Then, when I was a teenager, Daddy and some friends who owed him BIG favors for helping build their houses tore down the old one and built a small ranch-with-porch. Mammaw and Granpa moved into other half of his shop for a month, and I spent every morning with her, cooking a big dinner for the work crew. They’d come and eat, then after the cleanup, I’d go over to the house site and “help.”
I DID “do” the windows---I think I counted eight times round and round the house, inside and then outside-on-a-ladder, to get those things perfect. It was two coats of white on those tiny pane-dividers outside, two coats of varnish on the inside, then a trip each around for scraping off any leftovers, and then one each side to clean and Windex---yep---eight times. I was SO proud of those things, and Mammaw bragged on them as if I'd done roof and rafters, as well.
And when the house was finished, all eight of the surviving siblings gathered there for a reunion. I wish I had those Kodak moments---I guess Daddy had them in some album or another, and maybe Sis saw fit to keep them. She’s the keeper of the records and photographs; I, of the memories.
Mammaw herself never turned the key in a car, never wore a pair of pants, never rode farther from home than Memphis, ate perhaps twice in a restaurant, wrote probably five letters each and every day, and "lived by the clock and calendar and the time for mail to be up." She raised prize-winning flowers and vegetables, had nine white Persian cats, each with one green eye and one blue, could play the heck out of a mandolin, and once danced with Lawrence Welk.
They moved about three steps in the aisle before another lady cut in, but that was as good as wearing those glass slippers. She talked about that trip til her dying day---how Mother and Daddy got the tickets, and surprised her with the show, and how bright it was, and how beautiful to see all the COLORS, though there were all those cameras blocking some of the view, and the Lennon Sisters WERE just the prettiest, sweetest things.
She’d worn a black silk dress with taffeta on the collar and cuffs, and a sparkly pin, the whole ensemble ordered from Sears Roebuck, and a far departure from her usual cotton wardrobe. Years after, she’d just go to the closet and feel that dress, loving its rustly sound as she stroked the sleeves and skirt. She always said she wanted to be buried in it, and so I was horrified to see her in her casket, wearing a bright pink blouse---I’d never seen her in anything but a dress, and the only explanation for running out to Penney and buying that strange outfit was that Mother and her brother knew “she liked pink.” Too late to remedy, too strange to forget. And it's the last casket I ever looked into.
But while she lived, she enriched all our lives---with her stories, her flowers, the cakes and pies and casseroles she carried to the sick and the lonely and the bereaved. We’ll remember the huge meals around her table, the Magical Teapot, the recipes and her laughter and HER memories, as well. That’s why I write about so many of them---they’ve been such a great part of my life and who I am.
Saturday, January 17, 2009
GG Roma, beholden by her poverty to both couples, would get up before daylight to do all the cooking, knowing that nearly every Sunday, one SIL or the other would sidle up to her after church, duck her head coyly, and ask, “What’s for dinner at YOUR house?”
I try to imagine the sheer logistics of those coerced meals, knowing that she couldn’t demur or outright refuse, and was bound to those people for her livelihood and the food in her children’s mouths. I, who have cooked for hundreds-at-a-time right out of my home kitchen, try to get my mind around getting all that done and making it to church on time.
When my own children were growing up, we’d make a salad or two, a dessert, some relishes or pickles the night before, then early on Sunday morning, I’d put a big chicken casserole or pot roast into the oven, or on to simmer on the lowest burner til we were home again a little after noon. But under those conditions . . .
There's a GREAT difference in cooking for your own family, no matter how large, and in having to set out dinner for "company"---especially if you're having to grit your teeth and make a welcome that's hard to conjure. With family, you can go home, everybody can kick off their shoes, and you can set the dinner out, for a comfortable, family time. With others to be accommodated, especially so often and by their own intrusion, and with the prospect of a long hot afternoon of "entertaining" them when you just want a moment of that Day of Rest to be restful---I can only imagine the thoughts and feelings which accompanied the hard work.
And what on earth did she find enough of to SERVE to that multitude? She had eleven at her family table for every meal, and adding four extra adults and at least six more children---the fried chicken alone would have taken hours, and the chickenyard would have covered acres.
Mammaw always set a lavish table, and said that when her Mama and Daddy first got married, her Mama would kill and cook two chickens just for the two of them---“One’s just not enough for two, for dinner and supper both,” was the exact wording every time she told the story. The “bony parts” at that time would go into the stewpot for Monday’s dumplings, but as the children came along, the Sunday fried chicken became a rare thing, and the couple of Monday-morning chickens would be killed just for the stew.
That stew, much like New Orleans’ Red Beans and Rice, seemed to be a staple of the washday-on-Monday set, left to simmer whilst the big pot in the yard was set to boil early, cleaning and sanitizing those rough clothes the only way they had. I still have a bar of Fels Naphtha, brought from Mammaw’s house after her passing---it’s shrunk to a little pebble in the paper, and smells vile, but it was nothing compared to the harsh lye soap which they made at home. And there’s a little bottle of “Bluin’”---dried to a thin blue crust in the bottom of the bottle; the blue in the rinse seemed to whiten the clothes in those days Before Clorox.
And of course, GG and her girls did the cleaning up and the dishwashing while the “guests” took the shade on the porch. Mammaw’s major memory of those Sundays is that GG insisted that Mammaw and her siblings give over what they had just worn to church, for the visiting “town” cousins to PLAY in, romping around that dusty, foot-worn grassless yard, while Mammaw ‘n’ ’nem had to wear their own oldest clothes.
In GG’s meek acquiescence to the ascendant position of her two Sisters-in-Law, she was not known to show any of the fire of her own Mother, who, before GG was born and while all the “men” of the family were away at the “War”, caught a road-wanderer trying vainly to strip off her screaming nine-year-old’s underclothes in the barn. Great-Great knocked him in the head with a stick of kindling, and beat him in a frenzy til he was bloody. Then she held him at pistol-point when he came to while they were tying him up.
The words “chicken-killin’-dog” came into the story about here each time Mammaw told it, whether from her own narrative style or as words handed down the decades with the gory details. That phrase took on as much import and custom in our epic as “It was the best of times . . . “ did to usher in Sydney Carton's saga. And Mammaw would add, ‘What was she gonna DO---turn him loose, just so he could COME BACK?---that kinda man don’t deserve to live in the first place.”
I think Great-Great had just been home all that long time, with the dread of losing her husband to the faraway ravages of bullet and gangrene and disease. She held to the precarious hope of his return, but she knew that until then, every backbreaking chore and every cent and every mouthful of food were her own responsibility; she’d coped and cried and worked herself and her little ones through starvation and loneliness and lack of any amenities, through those years of tormenting heat and mosquitoes and sheer grinding poverty, and she’d JUST. HAD. ENOUGH.
She and her children tied him behind a horse and galloped him up and down the roads and furrows and gullies til he was dead. That woman was MADDDD, I tell you. Angry mad and Mental mad and some of both. And she just snapped.
And that’s the stock I come from. Scary, ain’t it? I know in my heart that I might do worse to anyone so treating anyone I love, and in circumstances like that---it’s part of my history, and I cannot bring myself to look on her with anything but admiration and sorrow for the circumstances she faced. And I know, in the grimmest, deepest darkest part of me, that if someone did that to one of our little girls, I'd be out there saddlin' up that horse.
Friday, January 16, 2009
She could "tot up" a long string of numbers in her head, still reaching down the aspirin, measuring out the coal oil, slicing off a steak. Her quick busy hands wrapped, bagged, dipped into the glass rainbow where all the candy lived, as she asked about the family, the crops, the son away in the Navy.
She was the only woman in the family besides my Mother who “worked” and she had a maid/cook. She and her lanky, taciturn husband went across a little screened dogtrot from store to house and sat down to a hot noon dinner every day. Then they went back to work whilst their long-time Chambliss did the dishes, re-set the table, and threw a clean white ironed cloth over the table, food and all (excepting for the Jello).
Uncle Jake required three things on the table at every meal: biscuits, soft slumpy baked sweet potatoes, and red Jello, made in the little aluminum half-moon refrigerator tray that came as part of the Frigidaire’s trousseau. I was always made welcome to help myself to anything from the covered table, and I loved those cold, satin-soft potatoes.
I never encountered one on their table that was even warm, so I thought for a long time that they sprang full-blown in the fullness of their chill, without intervention of hand or oven. My imagination had them sort of moldering away in their big crate in the store, achieving some alchemy of sweet and rich, and being grabbed up for every meal by the lucky store proprietors, who never sold those “good ones” to customers.
At Closing Time, they’d lock up, go in the back door, get out the Jello, and sit down. She said “We eat it as we find it,” with no warming-up of the leftovers. The two of them were austere folk with the WORST offspring in the whole family, or county or state---Cousin Jenny was a HORRID person, a tattletale and a hitter and a pincher. She'd tell your deepest secret to anybody, with a sly look at you to gloat for your dismay. We all disliked her.
But she gave me huge boxes of BOOKS, and I will always bless her for that---I guess a gift of books can cover a multitude of sins.
Poor hard-working never-a-minute-to-herself Aunt Lou found a hobby. She painted by number. From that time, her house was redolent of the turpentiny smell of those little paintpots in their garish colors. The boards always came two-to-a-set, and I got the barns, neat red edifices with rolling green, a lightning rod on one and a rooster-vane on the other. She painted people and mountains and horses and fruit, all in sets of two.
And I think she felt productive. She certainly liked to talk about them and show them to people. She had them all framed just alike---I had an idea she found frames she liked and went around to all the stores, collecting every single one in just that size. They all had a string like the silk braid of a window-shade pull, way up higher than the top of the frame, with a pretty rosette right at the apex to cover the nail in the wall. Her walls were ringed round with brightness, and she seemed brighter for it, herself.
She gave a set of two to the local Baptist Church: Sacred Heart of Jesus and Immaculate Heart of Mary. They WERE religious pictures, after all, the nicest Palmer Paint had to offer. And thus the Deacons’ conundrum: demur and hurt the feelings of a forever-member whose tithes were regular and generous, or accept those two unacceptable-to-the-brethren-of-this-denomination pictures.
Last time I was there for a wedding, they’re still hanging in the vestibule---a little dusty, a little faded, but perfectly-done, not a dot out of place, not a single blue outline visible between the strokes. And she’s been dead for many years. I wonder what out-of-towners there for a visit or funeral or wedding think when they see those, then go inside and sing, “Leaning on the Everlasting Arms” with that foot-thumping rhythm that only a Southern Baptist can achieve.
I remember the day she died. I loved her a lot, and she deserved a better life than that dawn-til-dark one she lived in that store. With that energy, that endless patience, that quick laugh and "head for figures"---I wonder what she COULD have done, could have been. I still wish she'd had better.
Thursday, January 15, 2009
Aint Bessie, the girl-twin, married a man from “off” and moved to Mobile. She came back a time or two per year, always staying with Mammaw up there in the HOT Mississippi Delta, though her house was smallest and two other sisters lived right there in town. Aunt Bessie had some sort of malady that necessitated her lying down a lot, and not doing any housework or gardening or getting up to get her own refreshments throughout the day. She wrapped her legs, knee to ankle, in gauze every day, telling us every time how painful and dangerously-affected they were, though they looked perfectly fine to me, pearly and pale and smooth, when she undressed at night or took her bath.
I had a grievous envy of her “standing order” for a case of Co-Colas to be delivered to her back porch in Mobile every morning. A CASE. Of the six-ounce glass bottles, which she drank during the course of the day, leaving the empties in their neat wooden rack for pickup in the morning. I’d seen a milkman making his deliveries in several of my books, but the thought of a COKE-man, bringing that elixir to your back door---Mobile took on the magical dimensions and value of a Corner of Heaven.
She whiled away her days with Glamour or Harper’s or my favorite: Any magazine that featured Screen Stars. She brought big suitcases with her, a whole set of pearly-beige Samsonite, and often wore dresses echoing the white of that family portrait. She bathed, she dressed in garments that we’d have worn to church, and she sat. In the swing, on the couch, on a neighbor’s porch after she had limped theatrically across the yard. I was just a kid, and I saw right through her.
Mammaw and I rolled our eyes at her, muttered about her lazy ways while we hoed or picked in the garden, and just sort of tolerated her, counting the days til the bus took her back South. One day there were several guests for noon dinner, and Mammaw and I (ten or so, but VERY handy in the kitchen) had cooked a really nice dinner, with macaroni salad with all kinds of chopped vegetables---our own country primavera, so to speak, and a baked ham which had been in the oven since breakfast and had heated the windows-wide hot kitchen to inferno status.
We got all the food and dishes arranged on the table, the ice in the glasses, and most of the kitchen neatened up before we called the company in---they had been entertained by Aunt Bessie, swaying lazily in the porch swing, her white dress and lace collar cool and pristine, while we were drenching our cotton dresses and aprons in that HOT house.The big old round dining table was set against the wall beneath the middle-room window, and also occupying the middle room of Mammaw’s little shotgun house were a double bed on the opposite wall and a parlor organ on another. That organ---I loved to pump the pedals with my foot, pull out all the "stops" and bang away at "Blest be the Tie" and "What a Friend," my vigorous jouncing causing all the stuff on and attached to and hanging from all the gingerbready carvings of that big old piece of gee-gaw to sway and bounce.
There were hats and pincushions and an apron or two, hung by their ties, as well as a tape measure and a calendar-with-a-string and my hair ribbons and one ball of twine, seated atop a pointy finial, handy for reaching and cutting a bit when needed. We just sorta moved stuff aside and ran the duster over and around, and with all the years' accumulation of colors and fabrics, the whole thing took on the look of a melted carousel.
We’d had to wait for the men to come in and move the table out a bit so we could all get around it. Before they all arrived, Aunt Bessie wandered in, noticed a fly on the window screen, and exclaimed, “Look at that OLE FLY!!”
Before we could stop her, she took a mighty swing with the flyswatter, and “WHACK!!”---she sent a cloud of dust and screen-rust flying all over the table, the food, the shining Good China plates. The ONE moment she’d got up off her lazy bee-hind the whole trip, and she’d ruined ten people’s dinner and a whole morning’s hot kitchen labor.
There was a LONG silence, and everyone stared at her, with expressions from rueful to snickering, to woebegone at the loss, to downright hostile. Mammaw and I grabbed up all the food, took it to the kitchen, and carefully took an inch or so off the top of every lovely salad and vegetable dish. We had to remove about twelve slices of ham, already cut, then cut more to fill the platter, and that BEAUTIFUL crusty cornbread got its entire top (the bottom crust, flipped up to stay crisp) sliced off with a big ole bread knife, so no dust could have penetrated. Nobody likes nekkid, crustless cornbread.
The ice in the glasses was a goner, so we had to send to a neighbor’s house for all the trays she could spare, and wash the glasses. Everybody went back out on the porch while we did all the repair we could, and I still wish I could have heard the conversation out there with Aunt Bessie.
She never did live it down.
I HAVE just noticed through the photo-loupe that the middle one holds a battered fedora and has a home-rolled clamped unlit between his fingers, the tell-tale little wisp-twist awaiting the match---he was probably antsy for all that fol-de-rol to be done so he could unbutton that collar and light up.
The two smaller young boys in their snowy shirts and little overalls are little mysteries, their solemn faces and sun-frowned brows giving them a wary stance belied by their small stature and moment-of-quiet in what must have been romping, running, elbows-and-shouts lives of small country boys, coupled with whatever work they were big enough for yet. I'd imagine that they were doing their part to carry on the dirt-stomp of that grassless yard, as they lived those hot Southern lives. Small Samuel, on the right, is twin to Aunt Bessie, in white to his right,
Uncle Pea-bo is one of the ones on the back row, but I'm cloudy on which.
His wife Aunt Katie was a little Jilldaw of a woman, if there is such a word. She loved glittery stuff---jewelry and pins and hair ornaments and rhinestone-heeled pumps, and stockings with seams and black flocked butterflies flitting up the ankles.
She was barely my shoulder-height---and I ain’t tall---with a tiny ratted bun atop her head like the knot on a brioche. Instead of hats for special occasions, she wore something shiny stuck before her bun, and she draped neck, arms, fingers and lapels with whatever came to hand in her big treasure chest of tarnished baubles.
She came to my Granpa’s funeral with about five pounds of various metals draped about her person and the gleam of tarnished rhinestones on every finger, with the above butterflies on her hose, black suede ankle-strap stilettos, a wide gold lame belt failing miserably to cinch her plump little waist, and an enormous red paper-satin Christmas bow affixed to her purse.
And I DO remember each and every one of those garnishments to her ensemble.
She smelled like Saratogas and Pepto Bismol, and I just LOVED her.