Thursday, August 31, 2017


 I’ve always loved the IDEA of playing Mah Jongg---those fluid movements of all the graceful, deft hands sliding tiles and laying down bamboos and numbers with the quick flash of jade bracelets.  We’ve not ever played much hands-on, with the real pieces, though we were given a gorgeous old set way back in the seventies. A dear older lady had it out and waiting for me one day when I dropped off her groceries and mail, and she insisted on my taking it and enjoying it with my family, just because I ran errands for her occasionally.     It was in a pretty leather case, with crushed-down Pool-Table-Green velvet inside, marked forever with the indentations of the tiles. 

The tiles must have been ivory, I think, for they had the tinge of old piano keys in a forgotten parlor, and were way too heavy for Bakelite. I asked my friend who owned the Chinese grocery (not simply for Asian foodstuffs, but delineated as so to distinguish from Mr. Melton's store or Piggly Wiggly) if she could recommend someone to give me lessons, and she immediately invited me to their Sunday-afternoon game at her house.

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It was a splendid afternoon, with two tables of bright, well-dressed ladies talking all over each other in syllables and tones I'd never understand, but which was like some sort of addictive music as they played, punctuated by a PUNG or CHOW or BAM! as they clicked down tiles in such a blur of motion that it was like watching a whole table of sleight-of-hand masters.

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I loved the games, learned not nearly what I should have, was treated as an honoured guest, and met some lovely people, who exclaimed and made little tik-tiks of admiration when I brought our game one day.

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And now, I enjoy the glorious colours and shapes and designs of all the choices in my online game---everything from the original to automobile emblems and flags-of-nations, in the "new" game in which you match two free tiles, click, and they wisp away into air, like those talented fingers used to do with the tiles on those hot Summer afternoons at Mrs. Wing's.

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Monday, August 28, 2017


Stand up, stand up TO, stand out, stand FOR, stand proud, stand strong, stand TOGETHER.

Monday, August 21, 2017


My friend Chronica Domus has posed a question about Sawmill Gravy, mentioned in the FEEDING THE HANDS post the other day.    "'Wonderful, just wonderful, and now you've made me yearn to sit at one of those groaning tables full of great food and great people, listening in on the chatting. But, a question for you first. What in heavens is "sawmill gravy"? Do please relieve this Brit's mind as it hasn't a clue, thank you."

I have referred the answering to my dear friend Marthy Tidwell, whose knowledge of Southern Kitchen lore is boundless.

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My friend Rachel asked me to give you a little run-down on Sawmill Gravy, and I’ll just say right off that I’ve found that it seems to be whatever the local folks say it is, in whatever town, area, settlin’, hoot or holler you live in.   It’s not quite a written-down receipt---not anywhere, I don’t think, because it’s not something you PLAN on, most times, because it’s not any cook’s best dish.    It’s a kinda in-a-hurry thing, you know, like stirrin’ up a cuppa-cuppa cobbler out of the last peaches in the freezer when you find out your husband’s asked two lodge buddies home for supper after the Stated Meetin’.  

Folks vary, too, on what’s in it.   Some swear by crumbled-up sausage, all stirred and fried up before the flour goes in to brown, because their own Grandmas did it that way.   What they may misremember is that the amount a sausage that would feed TWO in patties will stir around in the pan to season and satisfy a whole big skillet of gravy, when it’s all browned up and thickened.   And those Mamas with seven children to feed before the bus arrives at dark-thirty can stir and fry and whip that right up while those two dozen biscuits brown up and come out of the oven, and still have time to find two books, lunch money and a shoe in the meantime. 

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Of course, SAWMILL in the name gives it a rough touch, to begin with, because those loggers and sawyers had about one of the hardest, dirtiest jobs in the whole universe, and those big tough-hided men needed a lot of nourishin’---the cooks in those camps had to sling some hash, so to say, startin' WAY before daylight.   I’ve heard some say that some of those cooks made the gravy with cornmeal, but I’ve not ever tasted any of that.  It was supposed to make a crumbly gravy, even without any sausage, and got a lot of complaints that the mingy owners musta made the cooks use sawdust to stretch the gravy along for so many hungry men.   I’ve never seen anybody make it like that, but I guess such things happen.

Now, in MY family, we just call the one with sausage SAUSAGE GRAVY, and my Mama’s version of SAWMILL Gravy was just plain old gravy, the kind that’s just a good brown roo of lard and flour, with plain water and salt and pepper, and maybe the last cup in the coffee-pot before secont-boilin' to knock up the flavor a little.    That one is just a thick, rich quick stir-up maybe for a Winter breakfast, or to stretch the supper for extra.   It’s kind of a name that you give to the gravy you make when it’s never seen a smitch of meat, as versus the grease that you fried pork chops or chicken in.   You can make the same thing with a little broth from boilin' up squirrels or rabbit, saved in the freezer for emergencies, but those are all always called by their own names---Squirrel Gravy or Rabbit Gravy.    

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So Sawmill gravy, to us, is a Po’ Folks gravy, made to satisfy a meat-cravin’ when there ain’t none, sometimes made almost thick enough to cut with a fork, furtherin’ the pretense, you see.  Over grits or rice or several biscuits, it’s made many a good hearty breakfast for hard-workin’ folks going out to a long day in the field or mill, or repeated in a good hot supper with maybe just a tad of good jelly you put up last Summer---well, a full stomach can sleep WAY better’n a growlin’ one, no matter the plain fare. 

 And biscuits and gravy---those common old staples of lard and flour cooked two entirely different ways,  but fillin' bellies and keeping backbone from belt buckle for generations---those have a place in history, just like flags and rights and battles and time. 

I hope I’ve explained this little bit of Southern’ cookin’ for you---maybe some of Rachel’s friends can chime in and give you their version of what Sawmill Gravy is. 

Very sincerely yours,

Marthy Tidwell

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Saturday, August 19, 2017


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One of the most interesting families in Paxton is the Comeaux crowd, a wonderful big sprawling clan from Cajun Country, transported to Paxton by Luck, Love, or Good Cookin’.  Back in the Fifties, Mr. Arsene Comeaux and his brother, Mr. Beh’teel came up to the Delta from way down in Louisiana with their Daddy and all his huge earth-moving equipment and know-how, to teach the local farmers how to set in Rice Fields in that rich, cotton-blessed gumbo.

  The two young men weren’t too tall, wiry with corded muscles like great vines up their arms, and could lift a good-sized log and caber-toss it out of a field as well as any good Scots in a kilt.   They were great life-grabbing men, loud-laughing and hard-working and an endless source of romantic giggles and chat amongst the teen girls of Paxton, and some of the Mamas had also been known to primp up a bit before the menfolks came to the house for noon dinner. 

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It became like the old Harvest Times around the county, like in the old days when the horse-drawn reapers and combines with their equally-sweaty drivers would rampage across the fields from dawn til way into the night, with great crews of dusty “hands” gathered to  take in one field after another.   It was expected way back then that the “house” provide the meals for all the workers, and the womenfolk of the family prided themselves on the hearty fare they could turn out from those big old black stoves, those gleaming Amana Ranges, those yellow-formica counters and dinette suites to match, standing right there in the farmhouse kitchens, serving as mixing stations and chopping areas and storage of each successive dish as it was arranged.   

At each succeeding new Rice Farm, the womenfolk would hardly sleep for days, spending nights and all, over piecrusts and eight-pies bubbling away twixt supper and breakfast,  along with great hams and big pots of stew-beef and  spaghetti and meatballs, all ranged down long narrow plank tables out under the trees in the yard.    On the second day, all those good meaty hambones would reappear, in vast pots of pinto beans, set out with spoons and bowls and several black skillets of crusty cornbread, along with bowls of vinegary slaw and platters of sliced tomatoes and sweet onion.   There was a code to those Harvest meals, as unbreakable as taking your very best dish, IN your very best dish, to a Church Supper.   You fed the men well who “made” your living by bringing in the fruits of your labor, even if all you could offer was side-meat and six biscuits apiece with sawmill gravy, along with the last three jars of the plum jelly from your cannin’shelves.

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And so the ladies of the area welcomed the dozen or so workers who traveled with the Comeaux family, calling them in at noon and supper in the same way as their fore-mothers---to the picnic tables in the yard, or under the patio, or even to card tables set up in the living room and den, if they had room.     But there was a bit of difference in the serving, this time---the getting out of fancy glass bowls and calling back and forth between Miss Kathryn Roseberry and Grandma Stewart, both young farmers’ wives back then, as to who was making the Four Layer Chocolate Delight, and who the Apricot Nectar Cake, and which one had prior rights to Sallis-Berry Steak, so that no toes, social or kitchen, were stepped on.

Those Comeaux boys, grown men both, came back and courted two of the Paxton girls whose family tables had held such welcome, and they’ve settled and prospered and become valued families of our little town.   Funny how Fate and Food can bring folks together, id’nit?


Tuesday, August 8, 2017


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BACK even before my Mother and Daddy first married, she worked in a tiny small-town grocery store---Aunt Lou’s, in fact, with all the goods anybody could need save for ready-made clothes and shoes.    Aunt Lou had the only “market” in town---her store was the only one to “cut meat” for sale, and Mother learned early to break down those sides of beef and pork and cut them into steaks and roasts and ribs.     

Mother also made a small-pond name for herself at the County Fair over in another neighboring county where one of her girlfriends lived.   There were all sorts of penny-games and contests and prize pumpkins and pigs and pickles and pies. One of the contests was held by the local family who did all the meat-butchering for the area for many miles around.   You’d raise your pig or steer, take it to their farm, and they’d deliver your Winter supply of meat in neat, slick-paper packages, with the bacon and hams kept to be smoked to your order and a date projected for you to come pick them up.

As well as being prominent in church and township, they were also a local landmark, with huge cut-outs of pigs and cows and sheep attached to the top of an enormous board-fence which surrounded most of the cattle-lot.   You could give directions to your house:   Turn left at Nolan’s, and again at the Pentecostal.   Everybody knew them by name and reputation for such fine meat.

They also made your sausage---Winter or Summer style, gut-stuffed and smoked firm and lasting, or loose-pack delivered in whatever clean pan or tub you handed them when they took custody of your ill-fated pig.   And there were links---hundreds of the little pink twists---WAY before Jimmy Dean, we were all enjoying “baby-links” in our part of the country.     Even our city cousins up in Memphis had no such delicacies in their big markets, like Montesi and Seessels, and loved the little sticks of sausage when they visited us.

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Nolan’s also  advertised by product---like a Viking-hall edition of the bite-sized  store-samples today---great heaps of their Brats and Franks were cooked atop mounds and mounds of fried onions and peppers at every fair, carnival, barn-raisin’ and Camp Meetin’ for counties around---you could smell that marvelous aroma from WAY down the road, and followed your nose to the irresistible.    Literal “word of mouth” brought them a booming business in all sorts of endeavors.

Other sausages were made by their old family recipes---Bratwurst and Knockwurst and my favorite---those tee-ninecy little two-inch pink poppin’-weenies all strung together like long beads with a knot between.   Those things were the tastiest of their wares, to me, with their tight little skins giving a decided POP when you bit them, and the most delicately tender insides, fragrant with garlic and I’ve-never- figured-what-else.   Opening that big Revere–Ware skillet lid and seeing a pan of Mammaw’s homemade kraut with a big spiral of those small pearly weenies simmering atop was a Happy-Meal to our family.    I’ll bet kids today don’t feel as pleased to see their favorite pizza drive up to the door.

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But Nolan’s had a distinct product which was their biggest seller:  Baloney.  Everybody knew Nolan’s Baloney, and I don’t know HOW they made enough pounds of the stuff for all the demand.  Aunt Lou sold tons of it in her store---every single slice cut by hand---why, the town didn’t hardly “get electric” until 1940 or so.    And Mother could handle those big butcher knives as well as anybody.   She’d reach one of the long, keen blades from their side-slot, sometimes give it a little gingerly test with her thumb, slide that big knife delicately through rind and flesh, and cut you off twelve sandwich-sized slices as neat as you please---every one exactly the same thickness, one side to the other. 

And she could CUT A POUND of Baloney.  Slices or one piece---no matter, and she didn't need to keep flopping another bit onto the scale-platform.  When she laid down her knife and did that squint-squat to look at the numbers---they balanced. Every time.

She’d not had much kitchen training, save for killing and cleaning a chicken nearly every Sunday morning of her life, shelling mountains of beans and peas, and snapping all the snap beans. Her cooking mostly ran to being allowed to measure wets and drys, or stir a pot or two, besides washing up each and every dish by hand, but my Mammaw just could NOT countenance letting her loose with any kind of knife, “because of her bein' left-handed, and all.”  She just didn’t do it right, or even LOOK right doing it, according to Mammaw, and that was that.

But Mother could cut meat to the ounce, as she proved several times at the Fair and a barn-raisin or corn-shuckin' or two.   The usual prize was a whole stick of that good Nolan's baloney, and she never failed to bring home the prize.

We had it in sandwiches, in ground-up sandwich spreads, sorta pinked around the edges into little pinwheel-shapes and fried for breakfast or with a good thick slice of hoop cheese laid on to melt, and slid onto the platter with six or so mates to set down for a quick supper with jacket potatoes and dill pickles.   (Come to think of it, we had PICKLED BALONEY, as well, all cut into cubes and marinated in a good strong brine for a couple of days in the fridge).  It was a beer-lover's hors d'oeuvre, let me tell you.   A bowl of that brought out to the pit where a group were tendin' an all-night pig-roast---oh, my, Porky Nirvana.  And if you forgot the forks, you'd hear an immediate chorus of snicks as half a dozen pocket-knives were opened to begin joogin' in that bowl.

 Mother just had a Know-How.   That hefty knife, which she’d washed and scalded and sharpened herself nearly every day for ten years, seemed a bit too big as she drew it from the side-scabbard on the butcher-block.   She’d squint down the blade with the eagle eye of a watchmaker, checking its angle and edge, then set that big five-pound cylinder of baloney on the board.    A little nudge to the angle, a press to ensure a solid seating, and then she’d lay the knife gently along one of the imaginary lines her eye had sectioned the big cylinder into.    A sure lift of the shoulder, the gentle descent as that scarred old knife cut through the perfect spot like slicing pie.

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Every time.   And she could cut that pound into equal-six, or equal-eight, depending on how many around your table that day, with each so fairly divided that there was never a squabble amongst ‘em.      There’s a Musical Gift, and a Literary Bent, as well as a Leaning-Toward-Law or Medicine or Military, and they all garner their praise and enhance their owners.   But a natural born talent, now, like whittlin’ out a swan, or charming an owl, or even cutting baloney---that’s a Purentee GIFT.

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