Thursday, January 22, 2009


I learned a recipe word from a woman in the DEEP South. She had done a bit of housecleaning for my Mother, and in the process, somehow convinced Mother that she could cook.

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.

1 comment:

Jon said...

What a rare gift you have of converting your photgraphic memory into words! Reading the post above had a video playing in my mind's eye and it was like watching a documentary filmed by a master cameraman.

Jon at Mississippi Garden