Mama was raiding the bank
again.That meant we would have sweet potatoes for dinner. The bank
was a sweet potato bank. It looked like a teepee of dry cornstalks,
sitting right in the middle of the empty field that had been planted in
sweet potatoes. When Daddy dug the sweet potatoes in the fall of the
year, he banked them so they would keep through the winter and not get
frostbitten. You never want to bite into a frostbitten sweet potato –
the taste of it will gross you out.
Mama was there with a bucket and her
trusty old kitchen fork that she used to dig down through the layers of
pine straw and dirt to get to the treasure inside. She had already used
her hands to pull the cornstalks apart and make an opening, so she could
push enough pine straw back out of the way and get to the dirt. Now she
took the fork and began to dig a hole down through the dirt to expose
the cache of good eating that would help keep us through the winter.
She filled her bucket with sweet
potatoes, and carefully and thoroughly packed the dirt back over those
remaining in the bank, then the pine straw, then the cornstalks. When
it rained, the rain would flow down the outside of the teepee, down the
smooth, dry, hard cornstalks, and not get into the sweet potatoes.
Mama brought the sweet potatoes to the
kitchen, washed them, put them into the big, black, baking pan that
almost filled the oven of the wood cook stove. She knew exactly how
much wood to put in the stove to make the heat just right to bake those
By the time they began to get done, you
could open the oven door and see where the steam inside each potato had
popped a tiny little split in the potato skin and a little rivulet of
syrup was running down the side of each potato. When those potatoes
came to the table, a child like me could take her finger and scrape the
syrup off the side of the potato and pop her finger in her mouth, and
oh, boy, what a sweet little treat that was. But you could only do that
with the potato you were going to eat. If you tried to do it with any
of the others, Mama smacked you a whack on your bottom.
Everybody always peeled their baked sweet
potatoes, and it seemed such a waste to me to let all that good syrup go
with the potato skins into the pigs’ big dinner bucket that sat on the
floor behind the stove, where the good scraps went after each meal.
Now, when Mama decided to bake sweet
potatoes in the hot ashes of the fireplace, you didn’t eat the syrup off
the skins, or you got a mouthful of ashes. On those days she raked the
hot ashes out from under the burning logs, over against the sides of the
fireplace, and let the sparks die out of them. When she was ready, she
deposited the sweet potatoes in the ashes, taking care to see that every
sweet potato was well covered with hot ashes, and left them there about
an hour to roast. When dinnertime came, she pulled them out of the
ashes with a big, long-handle spoon, dusted them off, put them on a
platter, and brought them to the table to go with the turnip greens and
cornbread, or whatever we had that day.
Baked sweet potatoes are good to go in
school lunchboxes in the wintertime. When I was in the fourth grade,
one of my schoolmates was James Llewallyn, and he lived in town, so his
family didn’t raise sweet potatoes and good things like that, the way we
did in the country. One day at lunchtime he saw me take a sweet potato
out of my lunchbox, and he said, “What’s that?”
“A baked sweet potato.”
“Can I have a bite?”
I handed it to him and he took a bite.
He didn’t hand it back. He stood there slowly chewing and the flavor
going all over his tongue, and his eyes beginning to light up, and he
said, “Can I have it all?”
How could I deny him? I gave him my sweet
After that, every day at lunch, as I
opened my lunchbox, here would come James, sidling up and asking, as
though he knew he ought not, but hoping I would say yes, “Do you have a
sweet potato today?”
If I did, his next question was, “Can I
If I had one, I gave it to him. If Mama
had known about all of that, I am sure she would have put two potatoes
in my lunch, but I never told her about James Llewallyn.
When I was just a little child in the
second grade, I still remember a scene having to do with sweet potatoes
that brings a pain to my heart even when I think about it now. We had a
new little boy in class that day. When it came time for the mid-morning
recess, some of the children went outside to play, and some of them, who
had been sitting near the front of the room, gathered around the
pot-bellied stove in the back to get warm. The little new boy got a
baked sweet potato out of his lunchbox for a morning snack and went to
stand behind the stove where it was warm. His big sister came in from
the fourth grade to keep him company during recess, and probably just to
have some company herself, because it is hard to be a new child in
school. The little boy started to peel his sweet potato, and looked at
his sister. She indicated the coalscuttle, for him to put his peelings
Then the caterwauling began. “Look at
him. He doesn’t even know where to put his peelings. His sister has to
tell him where to put his peelings. He can’t even peel a tater by
The semicircle of boys on the other side
of the stove were like hyenas, taunting, ridiculing, making fun of the
little boy and his sister just because they were new in school.
Adults ought to watch children and not
let them get away with such meanness.
Once upon a time I read a book by a man
writing about his own childhood growing up in the country. In the
freezing cold wintertime, when he had to walk a long way to school, his
mother put a pan of sweet potatoes in the oven to bake in the mornings
while she made up the biscuits for breakfast. As he left for school,
she gave him a hot potato to hold in his hands and keep his hands from
freezing. When he got to school, he put it in his desk. When lunchtime
came, he ate it. That was his lunch.
One day when I was a grown-up young lady,
gone away to the city of Atlanta to go to school and to work, my
roommate, Peggy, told me her older sister was coming to visit for the
weekend and to meet a friend of hers that she had not seen in a long
time. The sister and her friend first got acquainted when they were
working together in Washington, D.C., before they each got married.
So, the sister came and the friend came,
and the four of us went out to a nice restaurant for dinner that
evening. We were three Georgia girls and the South Dakota friend,
enjoying a summer evening. As we studied our menus, we three
Southerners decided that we each wanted the sweet potato soufflé as one
of our dishes. Our friend from South Dakota expressed surprise at
seeing sweet potatoes on the menu. She said back home they only had
sweet potatoes for special holiday meals, such as Thanksgiving and
I thought, “What would Southerners have
done in the past without sweet potatoes? They were a staple of life.”
When I was a child growing up, I liked to
sit across the big kitchen table from Mama – the big old heavy table
that had been put together with pegs several generations back – and
watch her cook. Today she was peeling sweet potatoes and cutting them
in thick slices. Behind her on the back of the wood cook stove sat her
biggest black skillet with some lard melting in it – either some of our
homemade lard, or if it was late in the year and the homemade lard had
given out, some boughten lard that Daddy had bought in a gallon tin
bucket from the store when he made his monthly trip to town in the farm
wagon. Mama moved the skillet to the front of the stove where it was
hot, and began to put sweet potato slices in a single layer to fry.
When they were a golden brown on one side, she turned them to cook on
the other side, and got out the big white platter to put them on. She
lifted the slices from the skillet and put them on the platter and put
another batch in the skillet to cook. Now she turned back to the table
and sprinkled a little salt on the hot slices on the platter. Those
golden slices looked so good and smelled so good. But I dared not reach
across the table and get one, or I might get my hand smacked. If I
started eating them now, there would not be enough when the family
gathered for dinner. (Dinner was always in the middle of the day in the
Nowadays a cook would lift those potato
slices from the lard in the skillet to paper towels to drain before
transferring them to the platter. But we didn’t have any paper towels,
and, besides, folks in the country did things in the most direct way.
Whoever ate the most taters got the most grease, and everybody worked so
hard all the time anyway, they kept their arteries well cleaned out.
When my Grandpa Black, Mama’s daddy, died
at age 91, I had never heard of him being sick a day in his life. I
never heard of him having a headache or a cold, or any of those common
things like that. He went out to the coal pile one winter morning to
get a bucket of coal. When he didn’t come back after a long time,
Granny Black went out to see about him. She found him lying over on the
coal pile face down, dead. When his time came, he just dropped like a
piece of ripe fruit. The doctor who examined him said he had all his
teeth and they were all sound good teeth, and had all his hair, and
seemed to be a robust man. It was just his time to go. After a
lifetime of hard work, working on the farm from the time he could
remember, he had entered into his reward.
My own daddy said that he had to start
plowing a mule at such a young age that he could not remember a time in
his life when he was not plowing.
Rigorous physical work kept down a lot of
ailments that more sedentary people have.
Mama had a dish she called “juicy sweet
tater pie.” Today she announced she was going to make that pie. I took
my seat across the kitchen table. She got out a big rectangular pan and
the bowl of fresh butter that had been churned that morning, and
buttered the inside of that pan really good. She washed and peeled and
sliced into thick slices four or five good-sized sweet potatoes, and
arranged them in a layer in the pan. Then she arranged another layer
crosswise of the first layer. Two cups of sugar were spread over the
whole works and sweet milk poured in to cover the potatoes. Next, a
teaspoon of vanilla flavoring, with just a few swishes of the spoon to
stir the vanilla lightly into the milk. Then she dotted the whole thing
Now for the crust. A farm woman’s pie
crust was biscuit crust. It was made up just like biscuits, with maybe
a little more lard than biscuits, and rolled out to make the pie crust.
Mama got out the bread tray. Every woman had a bread tray. It was an
absolute essential part of life. If you have never seen a bread tray,
it resembles a shallow canoe, about two feet long. Two of the first
things a farm woman did when she got up in the mornings was put the
coffee pot on and start making up biscuits for breakfast. The bread
tray always had flour in it, left over from its use for the previous
meal. But more flour needed to be added for whatever one was going to
make now – whether biscuits or pie crust or teacakes or whatever. Mama
got out her sifter. Mama’s sifter looked like a big pie pan with deep
metal sides and a screen-wire bottom. She filled the sifter with flour
and shook it over the middle of the bread tray until a mound of flour
accumulated under the sifter. She put the sifter away, and took her
hand and smoothed out the flour in the bread tray and then made a well
to hold the other ingredients that she would add. On the table sat the
box of baking soda, the salt box, the gallon bucket of lard, and a jug
of buttermilk that had been churned that morning. Mama tipped the soda
box, put a little in her hand, maybe about a heaping teaspoon, and
dropped it into the well of flour. Likewise with the salt. She took
the lid off the bucket of lard, dipped a tablespoon in, and came up with
a hefty lump. Now the buttermilk. She picked up the jug, gave it a
good shaking to stir up the milk, tipped it over the bread tray, and
poured in about two cups. She used her right hand to pull a little
flour into the well, and began to work the soda, salt, lard, buttermilk,
and flour to mix it, and kept incorporating more flour into it and
working it, until she had a round, smooth mound of dough.
She laid out a clean piece of flour sack
cloth on the table, covered it with a dusting of flour, put the dough on
it, and began to roll out her pie crust. When it was rolled out to her
liking, she put the pan of sweet potatoes alongside the flour sack
cloth, carefully picked up the dough, and arranged it over the pan. She
crimped the edges and sealed it and cut off the excess. The excess
dough went into a bowl, with buttermilk poured over it, and set aside to
be used when Mama made biscuits again. By then it would have time to
sour a little, and would make the best biscuits you ever ate.
Mama cut some holes in the piecrust for
steam to escape and popped the pie in the oven of the wood stove.
Mama didn’t have any thermometer or
thermostat or anything else to test the heat of the oven except her
hand. I’ve seen her many, many times open he oven door, stick her hand
in, hold it there a few seconds, take it out, close the oven door, and
proceed with her cooking. The oven temperature would always be just
right for whatever she was baking, because she knew just how much wood
to put in the stove beforehand to have the oven the right temperature
when she got ready to use it.
There were some mighty powerful good
things that got baked in that oven, and they always came out looking
wonderful. They tasted even better than they looked.
That juicy sweet tater pie in that big
rectangular baking pan was a masterpiece when it came out of the oven
that day. Mama took a lump of butter between her thumb and forefinger
and greased that pie crust all over real good with butter, and that
butter skittered all over that pie crust and melted and it smelled so
good I could hardly wait for dinner.
That was one kind of pie. The more
traditional pie started out like mashed sweet potatoes. Mama made two
nine-inch pies at a time. She washed and peeled the sweet potatoes, cut
them into chunks into a pot, added enough water to come up about
two-thirds of the side of the sweet potatoes, added some salt and a lump
of butter about the size of an egg, put a lid on the pot, and boiled
them, stirring them every now and then. It didn’t take long for them to
She moved the pot to the back of the
stove, made up her pie crust, arranged the crust in the two nine-inch
pie pans, got out her potato masher, and mashed those sweet potatoes
real good. She added two cups of sugar, or maybe a little more, some
vanilla, a little more butter, and mashed it all in. Now it was ready
to go into the pie pans and into the stove. When those pies got done
they looked like two big red-gold jewels. A person could hardly wait to
stick a tooth in them.
Years later when I was a married woman,
cooking for my own family, one day I was telling my friend Helen the
ingredients for my sweet potato pies, which were just like my mother’s,
and as I named the ingredients, she said, “And eggs?”
“Nope,” said I. “No eggs.”
The only difference between mashed sweet
potatoes and the pies was that the pies had more sugar and some vanilla
flavoring. Mashed sweet potatoes needed to have a delicate, mild
sweetness, because you wanted the full taste of the sweet potatoes. But
a pie needs a robust sweetness. When my sweet potato pies – and Mama’s
– got done, they had a thin, thin layer like a crusty film of sugary
sweetness over the top of them. So good.
Helen said, “Do you drain the sweet
potatoes before you mash them?”
“Nope,” said I. “No draining.”
My mother never drained anything.
Neither do I. I always feel that I’m draining the food value away if I
do that. All those vitamins and minerals down the drain.
One day when I was about twelve years
old, a man came through the country selling subscriptions to the
Progressive Farmer magazine. How in the world my daddy paid for it
I do not know, but he subscribed to the Progressive Farmer. That
was a joy to my heart, because I liked to read almost more than I liked
to eat, and when that magazine came each month, I looked and looked at
it, and read and read it, and then I looked at it and read it some
Mama saw a recipe in the Progressive
Farmer for sweet potato pie with coconut in it. Now that would not
have impressed her in past years, because doing anything with a coconut
was a piece of work. But she saw in the Progressive Farmer that
one could now buy coconut in the stores already grated and ready to
use. My, my, these modern times. So when Daddy hitched up the mules to
the farm wagon to make his next monthly trip to town, she asked him to
get her some grated coconut. The next time she made her two nine-inch
sweet potato pies, she gussied them up with some grated coconut in them,
and we thought we were eating at the Waldorf.
There was a tenant house on the place, a
little three-room house. It was old and empty. The outside boards were
gray and weathered and showed their age. It was a good place to store
things from the farm. When Daddy dug the Irish potatoes in the fall of
the year, he took them to that little house and spread them out on the
floor in one of the rooms. It was near enough so that Mama could send
me there for something, and she could watch me as I went and came back
One day she said to me, “Katie, take this
bucket and bring me half a bucket of Irish potatoes,” so away I went to
the little house. The door creaked open when I pushed it, and I got
down on my hands and knees to drop potatoes into the bucket until it was
Now what would she do with them today?
She set me to peeling them and then washing them, and then she put a
little lard in the bottom of a pot so they wouldn’t stick.
I took my place across the kitchen table
from her as she cut them up into the pot, and brought the water bucket
and dipper over from the water table by the kitchen door. She added
just enough water to come about two-thirds of the way up the side of the
potatoes, added some salt, and put them on the hot cook stove.
They came to a boil, and bubbled and
boiled a little while, with Mama stirring them every now and then. When
they were done, she moved the pot to the back of the stove. She folded
a couple of towels to make a hotpad, which she put on the end of the
kitchen table by the window. She picked up the pot and put it on the
pad. Those potatoes needed to cool faster so she could get her hands
into them. She was going to make something good, something I liked.
Mama went on about her business for
awhile to give the potatoes time to cool. When she came back, I came
back, too. She got a pan and went over to the flour bin in the corner
of the kitchen, dipped her hand in, and came up with a couple of
handfuls of flour. She brought the pan to the table and put a handful
of flour into the pot of potatoes, which were cool enough to handle
now. She got an onion, peeled it, washed it, cut it up into the potato
pot. In the meantime she had put a big black skillet on the stove with
some lard melting in it. She put her hand into that pot of potatoes,
flour, and onion and squashed it all together until it was a thick
mixture. That sticky mixture will really stick to your hands while you
are trying to make out the potato cakes if you don’t keep on flouring
your hands between forming each cake. But Mama had been doing this a
long time and she knew exactly what to do. She put her hands in the pan
of flour, rubbed some flour into her palms, picked up a ball of potato
mixture, formed a cake with her two hands, flattened it slightly, and
put it in the hot lard in the skillet. And so on until she had a
skillet full browning on one side. She turned them over, and the brown
side looked all crispy and just right.
That skillet had to do double duty. When
one batch finished cooking, another batch went in. Farm women always
tried to cook enough for mid-day dinner to have enough left over for
supper, too. After spending the whole morning since breakfast gathering
and preparing and cooking everything, a person didn’t want to have to
spend the afternoon doing the same thing again. I cannot tell you how
many times I have heard Mama say she would rather take a whipping than
have to cook supper.
One afternoon in the fall of the year
when I was about twelve years old, I came home from school and opened
the cupboard door, as I always did as soon as I came in the house from
school. What does one do as soon as one gets home from school? Eat! So
I opened the cupboard door and there before my eyes was a plate piled up
with those wonderful, good potato cakes that I liked. And right beside
them was a plate of big, soft country biscuits. What a combination! A
biscuit just begging to have a potato cake put inside, and I would have
a biscuit and tater treat.
I glanced out the window and saw one of
my aunts and two grown women cousins in the cotton patch. They were
picking cotton. Daddy had hired them to help pick the cotton crop. We
were surrounded by relatives, who lived in the country houses near our
house. That is the way it used to be in the country. People were born,
grew up, got married, lived, and died in the same place. So people were
always surrounded by relatives. It was the two World Wars that took
people out of the country, and they found out there were other places
besides those where they had always lived.
I looked at my three women relatives out
there in the cotton patch and my heart went out to them. They were
swathed in cloth from head to toe. They wore big sunbonnets on their
heads, and long-sleeved, long dresses down to their ankles. They were
going to be sure that not a ray of sun got on them. Women now lie in
the sun to get as brown as a ginger-cake, but country women had other
ideas. They wanted to have nice light skin that made them look like
genteel ladies who never had to get out in the sun.
My compassion was about to get me in
trouble. Mama was nowhere around. Mama was an outdoor person. She
liked to work in the garden or in her flowers or work with the
chickens. She was probably in the garden, sowing a few rows of seeds
for some late fall vegetables. Mama didn’t worry much about the sun
getting on her. She wore a big straw hat when she went outside, but
that was the extent of her precautions. She wasn’t planning on going
anywhere anyway, so she wasn’t concerned about looking genteel.
I took three biscuits out of the
cupboard, split them open, put a nice big fat potato cake in each one,
and got a bucket of water and a dipper from the table by the kitchen
door. Away I went out into the cotton field. I had a paper sack of
biscuits in one hand and the water bucket in the other hand.
I felt good as I went tripping down
through the cotton rows. The ladies greeted me with big smiles, and
they felt good when they saw what I had brought. We stood there and
talked as they ate their biscuits, gossiping about all the aunts and
uncles and cousins. They finished off with a drink of fresh, cold water
from the bucket. I went back to the house to do my homework for the
Late in the day when my daddy and big
brother came home from the field where they had been working further
from the house, and my little sister and I had finished bringing in the
water and stove wood for the night, Mama opened the cupboard door to get
out the leftovers for supper. Her eyes were exactly on a level with the
plates of biscuits and potato cakes. My sister and I had had an
after-school snack and some others had gone to the cotton field, so
there weren’t many left. Guess who did not get any for supper that
night. All that squalling coming out of the kitchen after Mama looked
in the cupboard was not an old hen hemmed up in a corner. It was Mama
venting her astonishment and indignation and verbal chastisement on her
daughter. Fortunately there were some other leftovers, but my sister
and I did not have any biscuit with our meal that night.
In the late springtime there are some
very special treats that begin to come in from the garden. One of them
is the fresh little green English peas. Their taste is unique. There
is no way you can even get English peas like that from a store. One of
Mama’s favorite ways to cook them was with the new potatoes that she dug
from under the potato plants flourishing in the patch beyond the
garden. I can see her now, down on her knees, her trusty kitchen fork
in her hand, digging under a potato plant to loosen it, and lifting it
over sideways to expose the white potatoes that looked like big
marbles. She plucked them off the roots and put the potato plant
carefully back in place, and tamped the dirt around it so it would do
well and make some more potatoes.
Sometimes Daddy would be at the house
when she came in with a batch of those little potatoes and he would grin
at her and say, “You are not going to leave enough potatoes for me to
dig for the winter.” But they were so good, she couldn’t resist. And
there were always enough to dig for the winter.
As I said, one of her favorite ways to
cook them was with fresh-shelled new English peas right out of the
garden. The taste of them was like a creamy coating of pure
lusciousness on one’s tongue.They cooked up all creamy in the pot,
seasoned with real butter, fresh churned that morning. There is nothing
like real butter for good cooking.
She didn’t dig all the potatoes while
they were little. Some of them got to be pretty good size. These she
might cook in a simple way by just scraping the thin new skin off and
washing them and putting them in a pot with enough water to barely cover
them, adding some salt and a lump of butter about the size of an egg.
She would bring them to a boil, and before long some of the smaller ones
would begin to break apart and thicken up the juice just a little. She
gave that pot a good stirring a couple of times during the cooking
time. When done, she took the pot off the stove and let it sit until
she was ready to serve dinner. Then she’d take the potatoes up and put
them in a bowl, pour the juice over them and serve. A good way to eat
them is to put a couple of potatoes on your plate, mash them with your
fork, spoon some of the juice over them, mix together, and eat. Yumm!
Years later when I was a grown woman with
a family of my own, I used to cook potatoes this way, but I went a step
further. When the potatoes got done, take up the potatoes in a
bowl, but leave the pot on the stove. Get a measuring cup and put
one-fourth cup of flour in the cup, add just enough water to make a
paste, and then gradually add more water to the paste, stirring as you
do, so it will be smooth and not have any lumps. Add enough water
to make a smooth, thin paste. Bring the juice in the pot to a
boil. As it boils, slowly add the flour paste to the boiling
juice, stirring it vigorously as you do so. Continue cooking and
stirring for a few minutes to be sure the flour cooks completely.
Remove the pot from the stove and let it sit a few minutes. Then
add three-fourths stick of butter and stir it in. You will have a
smooth, creamy, tasty sauce. Pour the sauce over the potatoes in
the bowl and serve. My own children really liked this dish.
Taste the sauce before you pour it over the potatoes to be sure it is
seasoned right. It is the real butter that makes it good.
Another one of my made-up recipes was
potato and onion soup.
Always begin with a heavy pot with a good
In my later married years, unfortunately
after my children were grown and gone from home, I became more
interested in good nutrition and healthy cooking. So I began using
extra virgin olive oil in my cooking. Therefore, I began making the
potato and onion soup by adding about four tablespoons of extra virgin
olive oil to the pot, and turning the pot this way and that way to oil
the inside of it really well.
Now peel, wash, and halve five good-sized
potatoes and put them in the pot.
Peel, wash, and coarsely chop three big
onions, enough to make at least three cups of chopped onions. Add them
to the potatoes.
Add one tablespoon salt and one teaspoon
Now add plenty of water to cover the
potatoes and onions really well. This is more water than I usually use
in my cooking, but this time we are making soup.
Bring the pot to a rolling boil, turn the
heat down to medium low, and in about twenty minutes give that pot a
good, vigorous stirring. Do it again in about another fifteen minutes.
The stirring brings the juice and flavor out of the potatoes and onions,
unites their flavors together, thickens the sauce slightly, and makes
the soup sit on your tongue, and you say Yum! when you eat it. So
One of my very favorite dishes is potato
salad. Going to homecoming dinners at church, and Wednesday night
suppers and family reunions and ladies’ luncheons, there are always lots
of dishes of potato salad, and they are all different. I like to sample
Somewhere back in my young married life,
when my children were small, and husband, children, and I were going to
a lot of church suppers, I came up with my own recipe for potato salad.
I don’t even remember how or when. But recently when I took a dish of
it to a ladies’ luncheon one day, and my potato salad happened to be the
only potato salad there, after we had all served ourselves and were
happily seated at all the tables eating, I heard a voice a couple of
tables away from me say, “This is the best potato salad I’ve ever
eaten!” It warmed the cockles of my heart.
So how do I make it? Well, I am
accustomed to making it in big batches, so I’ll give it to you the way
I make it.
Put a circle of cooking oil in the bottom
of your heavy pot and oil the inside of the pot.
Peel, wash and cube five pounds of
potatoes, and put them in the pot.
Add one tablespoon of salt.
Add enough water to come about two-thirds
of the way up the side of the potatoes. You don’t want too much water.
You are not going to drain the water from the potatoes.
Turn on the heat, bring the water to a
rolling boil, turn down immediately to medium.
In five minutes get a big cooking spoon
and stir the potatoes by lifting them up from the bottom with the big
Cook another five minutes and turn off
the heat. Test the cubes of potatoes to see if they are done, but still
When the cubes are done, but still firm,
remove the pot from the stove. Remove the lid from the pot and leave it
It is a good idea to cook the potatoes
early in the day if you are going to serve the potato salad that night,
because you want the potatoes to be cold when you mix the potato salad.
I even like to cook the potatoes the day before I mix the potato salad.
In that case, I cook the potatoes, remove
the pot from the stove, remove the lid from the pot, set the pot
somewhere to cool completely while I go on about my day’s business.
Later in the day I put the lid back on the pot, and set the pot in the
The reason I want to be sure those
potatoes are cold is that I don’t want to end up with mashed potatoes
when I mix the salad.
When I am ready to mix the salad, I get a
good-sized onion, peel, wash and finely chop it, add it to the
potatoes. You should have one cup of chopped onion.
Add a heaped-up, full tablespoon of sweet
Add one and one-fourth cups of really
good quality mayonnaise. It is the onions and the best quality
mayonnaise that make this potato salad good. So, don’t use any low-fat,
Now, get your big spoon and mix from the
bottom, mixing it all together really well.
Taste it. Does it need a little more
salt? If so, add some, mix it in, and taste again. You should have
some really good potato salad.
Put it in a pretty bowl, sprinkle on some
paprika for color, and go merrily off to your ladies’ luncheon. If you
hear someone say, “This is the best potato salad I’ve ever eaten,” keep
a humble spirit and don’t get the big head.
We ate like kings in the summertime.
Mama is working on the feast right now. She went to the cornfield early
this morning to check the green cornstalks for the biggest, fattest, and
best filled-out ears of corn she could find. When she found them, she
pulled them off the cornstalks, laid them in the furrow, and when she
had a dozen ears, she gathered them up in her arms, came to the house,
and said, “Katie, shuck and silk this corn,” which I got busy doing
Now Mama has the big, black skillet on
the wood stove with a few rashers of fatback in it, frying the fatback
to get the grease to cook the corn. Country folks consider pork fat
from fatback or streak-o-lean to be the very best seasoning for cooking
vegetables. Since the farm families raise their own hogs, there is
always plenty of fatback and streak-o-lean.
Mama removes the crispy, crackly meat
from the skillet, pushes the skillet to the back of the stove, and
begins working on the corn. She stands an ear up in a pan, comes down
the side of the ear with her sharp knife, takes the tops off the grains,
makes another swipe down the ear in the same place to get the rest of
those same grains, then scrapes the cob to get the last of the milk from
the bottom of the grains. By doing it in three steps instead of taking
off the whole grains at once, the corn will be so creamy and good when
it is done.
When she has finished cutting off all
twelve ears, she pulls the skillet back to the front of the stove to let
the grease get hot again, pours the corn into the hot grease, adds a
little salt and black pepper, and stirs the corn. She keeps an eye on
the corn as she goes on to work on the next vegetable she is preparing.
She doesn’t want that corn to stick and scorch. When it is about done,
she picks up the big, black, heavy kettle that sits on the stove all the
time, pours about a cup of boiling water into the skillet, gives the
corn a good stirring, and sets the skillet in the oven to finish off by
baking a few minutes. When it comes out of the oven, it has a tasty,
thin, clear, shiny skim on top, and it is baked to perfection. Mama is
working on so many things at once, she is like a one-arm paperhanger
with the itch. Two pots are simmering on the back of the stove. One is
butterbeans. She went out early this morning and picked, shelled, and
got those butterbeans ready to cook before I got up. Same with the pot
of green beans cooking alongside the butterbeans. When the dew was
still heavy and the sun was not very high, she went out in her old,
beat-up, comfortable shoes, and got them so wet in the dew, along with
the bottom of her dress and apron. But she said that just cooled her
What is she working on now? Squash and
onions! The pretty yellow squash looks so shiny and new and clean, you
would never know it grew from the dirt of the garden. Another black
skillet is on the stove with its rendered pork fat. Mama piles the
sliced squash and onions up in the skillet, and it is so full the lid
sits up on top with space between it and the skillet’s rim. But the
veggies on the bottom will soon cook enough to soften, and when they are
stirred, they will go down and the lid will fit.
Mama stirs the skillet, adds a little
salt and black pepper and a teaspoon of sugar, and stirs again. She
will let those squash and onions brown a little on the bottom several
times, and stir them after each browning. If you have never eaten any
squash and onions cooked like that, you don't know how good they can
Of course, you realize all of these
things are going on at the same time. While the corn is baking in the
oven, the butterbeans and green beans are simmering on the back of the
stove, and as the squash and onions are beginning to cook in front, Mama
is already working on the okra. Mama made fried okra different from
anybody else I’ve ever seen. She began by cutting off the stem end,
being careful not to cut into the pod itself, because if you cut into
the pod you are going to release some of that good, gooey stuff around
the seeds, and it will get into the cooking water when you boil the
okra, and make the water slimy.
You say, “Boil the okra? I thought she
was going to fry it.”
Well, she is. But she begins by dropping
the whole pods of okra into boiling water and parboiling them about
three minutes or so. In the meantime, she is making up the batter for
frying. She takes a deep, round pan and goes to the flour bin in the
corner of the kitchen, dips up a heaping handful of flour, brings it to
the kitchen table, puts in some salt, stirs it in, and turns up the jug
of buttermilk sitting there, pours in enough to make a good batter – not
too thick and not too thin. She mixes it up with a spoon, and reaches
around and pulls the skillet forward that has been sitting toward the
back of the stove with some lard melting in it. That lard needs to get
hot as she takes the pot of okra pods and sets it on a pad on the table
by the pan of batter. She dips those okra pods out with a slotted spoon
and drops them into the batter. She picks up the pan and goes and
stands by the stove and, using a big spoon, drops about three pods of
battered okra at a time into the hot lard. Those little pancakes of
okra sizzle and begin to brown around the edges. Each little pancake
has about three or four pods of okra in it. When they get done, those
things are good, good, good.
Years later when I was a young bride I
was glad for all that time I sat by the kitchen table watching Mama
cook. I learned to cook by looking back and trying to remember how Mama
did things. Sometimes it worked out and sometimes it didn’t. Early in
my married life I was going to impress my young husband one day by
making fried okra the way Mama made it. When he came home from work I
was going to have a treat for him.
So I began. Everything went along just
fine until I started dropping the battered okra into the hot lard in the
skillet. I was impatient and tried to cook too much of it at a time.
All the little okra pancakes didn’t sizzle and stay put when I dropped
them into the lard. They all ran together and made one big whole
skillet full of gloppy, gooey mess, brown around the edge and raw in the
middle. I got rid of the whole thing as fast as possible. That is the
only time in my life I tried to make fried okra the way Mama made it.
To get back to the dinner my mother was
preparing on that summer day I was telling you about – the next thing
she worked on was tomatoes. Oh, the things you could do with tomatoes.
But today she wasn’t cooking them. When she served sliced tomatoes, she
began by peeling them. That was going to be the dish today. She picked
up the big, black, heavy kettle that sat on the stove all the time, and
poured boiling water into a deep, round pan, dropped in about six plump,
deep-ripe tomatoes, and watched the skins split in that hot water. She
poured the water off, slipped the skins off to the stem end where the
skins clung to that end, cut out the stem end of each tomato, and sliced
them. She got a big cup, put in a tablespoon of sugar, about one-fourth
cup of cider vinegar, and stirred and stirred until the sugar was
melted. The sliced tomatoes went into a pretty glass dish, with the
vinegar and sugar mixture poured over them. That was the finishing
touch to dinner, because Mama had also made a big, black skillet full of
deep-brown crusty cornbread and a pan of biscuits while she was doing
all of those other things, but I will tell you about that later.
Now she said, “Katie, set the table,” and
I got busy.
At the left front corner of our back
porch, at sometime in the past a round hole had been dug in the ground.
Into this hole had been firmly anchored a tree trunk about twelve feet
tall, with its limbs cut off and the bark skinned off it. At the top of
this tall trunk was fastened a big dinner bell, with a rope hanging down
from it. Mama went out to the back porch, took hold of that rope,
pulled up and down, and gave that bell a good ringing.
Down in the field where they were
working, my father and brother and a couple of hired hands heard that
bell and it was music to their ears. Here they came, all red-faced and
hot, with sweat running down their faces into their shirt collars.
There was a long shelf on the back porch
that was attached to the outside wall of the house at one end and to the
corner post of the porch at the other end. This shelf was made of one
long, wide plank. This was the water shelf. The two-gallon bucket of
water from the well sat there, with a dipper in it, and a tin wash pan,
and on a nail on the wall hung a towel made of a flour sack.
The men got busy, washing their hands all
the way up to their elbows, splashing cold water on their faces, and
drying off with the towel. They came into the dining room. They were
plenty hungry and there was plenty to eat. The table was covered –
COVERED – with good things to eat. Mama had started gathering those
vegetables out of the garden before the sun came up, and she had worked
on the meal all morning. Now her reward was in seeing how much everyone
was enjoying what she had done.
A wonderful, satisfying meal when one is
hungry is one of the good things of life.
“Here it comes!” my little sister called
Sure enough, it was coming.
My little sister Minnie was jumping
around with excitement in the front yard.
“Mama!” I yelled. “Here comes the
Mama dropped her hoe and came in a trot
from the garden. She hurried up the back steps and through the house to
the front porch, and got there just as Mr. Byrd drove into the yard.
Oh, it was a strange contraption he was
driving, but it raised anticipation in the heart of my sister and me
that something good might be about to happen. It was a rare thing when
anything unusual happened in the country. The mailman was the only car
that came down our road as a regular thing, and if anybody ever heard a
vehicle at any other time, everybody ran out in the front yard to watch
until it came into view to see who in the world it was.
The rolling store was a dusty pickup
truck with a tall wooden body built on the back, almost tall enough for
Mr. Byrd to stand up in, so he could get in there and rummage around in
it to find what his customers wanted. It was stacked to the gills, and
he seemed to know exactly where everything was. There were things
hanging off both sides. Hanging on the back, where he had to carefully
step up over it to get inside the body of the truck, was a chicken coop,
made of a lightweight wooden frame and chicken wire. That was a good
thing, because if Mama bought anything, it would be by swapping chickens
for it. Either chickens or eggs. Chickens and eggs were Mama’s coin of
There were already a couple of chickens
in the coop, and I felt sorry for them because it was no picnic riding
down the road on the tail of a pickup truck, with the hot, dusty road
underneath them. But Mama was about to add to the population of that
coop, because she had a couple of chickens in a pen in the backyard that
she had put up in anticipation of Mr. Byrd’s coming.
It created quite a buzz in the country
when Mr. Byrd decided to turn his pickup truck into a rolling store and
established a regular route through our part of the county. He came by
the houses on our road as a regular thing every Tuesday. That was
almost more excitement than country folks could stand. The children and
housewives looked forward to Tuesday like looking forward to Christmas.
There was only one thing my sister and I
were interested in. “Mama, can we have some candy?” we whispered to
Mama. I’ll bet those same words were uttered by every child on his
route. Mama ignored us. When she and Mr. Byrd finished their
negotiations, she went to get the two chickens from the pen in the
backyard. When she came back, Mr. Byrd opened the coop door and held
his hand over the opening so its present tenants would not fly out,
while Mama poked the new occupants inside.
Mr. Byrd stepped up over the coop to get
to the things Mama had bargained for, as my sister and I stood in
terrible suspense, hoping and hoping, but not knowing, because we did
not always get something when the rolling store came by. Mr. Byrd was
handing things out to Mama, and last of all, he handed out something
small, and Mama reached down and put into my hand, and then into my
sister’s hand, a small, round piece of hard lemon candy. Oh joy, oh
joy! Our hearts sang and our feet jumped and our tongues flowed with
saliva as the wonderful sweet lemon flavor covered our tongues. We were
filled with delight for the rest of the afternoon, even after the candy
was gone, in spite of our trying to suck on it slowly and make it last
as long as possible.
Late in the afternoon after Minnie and I
had been running around, playing and getting tired, we went in the
kitchen to ask for a biscuit. “Come here,” Mama said, and she opened
the cupboard door and took out something that I had seen Mr. Byrd hand
to her earlier in the afternoon. She started loosening the wrapper on
it, and a wonderful fragrance came out. “What is that?” I asked. “Loaf
bread,” Mama said. “What is loaf bread?” I asked. Mama didn’t answer.
She had it open now, and it looked and smelled wonderful. She got a
sharp butcher knife and cut a thick slice and got the bowl of butter out
of the cupboard. She reached behind her on the table and got a kitchen
knife and layered some butter on that thick slice of loaf bread and
handed it to Minnie. Then she did the same for me. I took a big bite,
and oh my, did that treat taste good.
Mama sliced off some for herself, put
some butter on it, and we three stood there in the kitchen as happy as
queens, enjoying our royal treat.
Mama said, “Aunt Bell told me she was
going to get some yeast when Mr. Byrd came around again, and she was
going to make some light bread. The weather is hot enough now for the
bread to rise.”
“What’s light bread?” I asked. I was
hearing about so many unusual things today.
As it turned out, Aunt Bell did indeed
get some yeast from Mr. Byrd. The evidence turned up a few days later.
I went out in the front yard to jump rope and looked up the lane and saw
Geneva, my first cousin and best buddy, coming, with something held up
in front of her with both hands. It had a tea towel over it. Right
away that signaled that it was something from the kitchen, and that
meant something good to eat.
“Whatcha got?” I called.
She didn’t answer.
I ran to meet her. “Lemme see,” I said.
“No!” she answered. “This is for your
mama. Don’t make me drop it!”
She was holding onto it carefully, as I
am sure she had been instructed to do.
We approached the back steps and I opened
the screen door for her. Mama was in the kitchen. Geneva held out the
big plate with the tea towel over it and said, “Aunt Bell sent you
Mama received it and gave Geneva a big
smile and set it on the table. I was all eyes as she removed the
covering from it. When she lifted up that tea towel, the most
saliva-inducing, taste-buds-sit-up-and-get-ready-for-action, kind of out
of this world, wonderful fragrance, just came up and filled my nose. It
was like the smell of the loaf bread Mama had bought, only more so.
More intense, more robust.
The plate was filled with thick slabs of
Aunt Bell’s light bread, already buttered and ready for action. I was
ready for action with some of it, too. But Mama said, “You and Geneva
go play. We will have this for dinner when everybody gets here.”
My taste buds had to sit down and wait.
I said to Geneva, “You want to go play jump rope?” We went out and tied
one end of the rope to the corner post of the front porch, and took
turns, one turning the rope while the other jumped. We did that until
we wore ourselves out, and then I fetched the Sears catalog and we sat
on the front steps looking at the pretty clothes, making up tales of the
places we would go and the things we would do when we wore the beautiful
dresses we picked out for ourselves.
Aunt Bell was my daddy’s maiden sister.
She never married, but she was a lady of many talents, and some man just
missed out on a wonderful wife.
Aunt Bell lived in the big house on the
hill, and that was the highest hill anywhere around. It was built there
on purpose so it could be defended, because this was wilderness when the
house was built. The style of it was plantation plain, with two rooms
down and two rooms up, and the kitchen a separate building out back.
There was a big, wide hall between the two rooms downstairs, as big as a
room itself, with an outside door at each end of the hall, so the
breezes could come through and keep everything cool in the summertime.
That hall was the favorite sitting place in the summer.
By the time Geneva and I came along (we
were born two months apart), other rooms had been added to the house and
the upstairs was not used anymore.
The house had been in our family for
generations. My father and his siblings grew up there. There were nine
of them, and as they grew up and got married and moved out, finally Aunt
Bell was left alone in the house. Well, that would never do. So Aunt
Bell’s next-to-youngest brother, Uncle Ira, had been married a couple of
years, and he and his bride, Aunt Nellie, and their baby girl, Geneva,
moved back into the big house so Aunt Bell would not be alone there.
That is how Geneva and I got to grow up together and go to school
together and do everything together and be best friends, as well as
first cousins, because our fathers were brothers, and we lived near each
Geneva and I finished perusing the Sears
catalog by the time Mama was out on the back porch ringing the bell to
bring the men in for dinner. Geneva went home and I went to the dining
room to set the table. When we all gathered, Mama had not even made any
biscuits, since we had Aunt Bell’s light bread. It was an unheard-of
thing for a housewife not to make any biscuits for a meal, but Mama did
have her usual cornbread. Cornbread was a staple of life in the
Mama’s cornbread was as big as a plate
and as thick as the big black skillet in which it was baked, and it was
dense and heavy and wonderful. It was a deep brown, crispy, crusty
outside and snowy white inside.
It was made with four ingredients: our
own coarsely ground white cornmeal, a little salt and baking soda, and
the thick, white buttermilk that was churned that morning.
Mama put some lard in a skillet, set the
skillet on the front of the wood stove to get hot, and made up the
cornbread in a deep pan. When she had it mixed, she turned around from
the kitchen table and poured the mixture into the hot fat. It sizzled
wildly and smoke rose up from it, and the batter swelled up in the
skillet. Mama grabbed the handle with a thick cloth, opened the oven
door, and shoved it into the hot oven.
When it got done, it was ready to eat
with some of the butter from the bowl on the table, or to crumble up in
some of the pot likker of the vegetables we had that day for dinner, or,
later in the afternoon when the cornbread was cold, to crumble it in a
bowl, pour buttermilk over it, stir it up, and eat it with a spoon.
That was a standard afternoon treat for country children.
Sometimes in the wintertime when the farm
work was light and my father and brother were away from home all day,
working with one of my father’s brothers where he was cutting trees out
of the woods on his place, Mama would make hoecakes for herself and
Minnie and me for dinner in the middle of the day. She made the
cornmeal batter really thick so she could handle it in her hands. It
was meal and salt and a little fat from some streak-o-lean and enough
hot water to make a thick mixture. She greased a skillet, shaped two
hoecakes in her hands until they were about the size of two half-moon
pies that just fit in the skillet. She put the two hoecakes in the
skillet, pressed down slightly with her knuckles to flatten them, pulled
some red-hot coals out of the fireplace onto the hearth, and set the
skillet on them. Those hoecakes cooked up thin and crispy and good, and
they kept the impression of my mother’s fingers on them the whole time.
She used the same recipe for hoecakes to
make corn dodgers. In the winter when she cooked up a big pot of turnip
greens, she made sure there was plenty of pot likker so we could have
corn dodgers with our turnip greens.
Mama had a big, white, thick, China
platter. It was not as big as a turkey platter. It was just a
dinner-size meat platter. But it was thick Chinaware, and she used it
to take up her turnip greens. She used a slotted spoon, and lifted up a
big spoonful at a time, and let each one drain for a minute, and put the
greens on the platter. When she had all of them on the platter, she
took a knife and fork and cut those greens this way and that way, to be
sure they were easy to eat. Then she put the pot back on the stove to
get the pot likker to boiling while she made up the thick corn dodger
batter. She shaped each corn dodger in her hands until it was about the
size of a biscuit, flattened it with her fingers because she didn’t want
them to be too thick, pushed the pot to the back of the stove so it
would just simmer, and carefully dropped in each corn dodger. She put
the lid on the pot and let them simmer until they were done.
When we sat down to eat, the impression
of my mother’s fingers would still be on each corn dodger.
Oftentimes in the winter the main part of
our meal would be those turnip greens and corn dodgers and pot likker.
Later, when I was a grown woman cooking
for a family of my own, I never tried to duplicate Mama’s wonderful,
thick, dense cornbread that I liked so much. I didn’t have the
ingredients for it. No coarsely ground cornmeal from Daddy’s own corn
crop, no good, thick, country buttermilk. So I started making cornbread
from the recipe on the bag of Boughten cornmeal. But I have trouble
following a recipe exactly. I always want to “improve” on it. So as I
experimented, I found I could make cornbread with no eggs or one egg, or
if I wanted to add to the protein of our dinner, as many eggs as I
wanted to use. The cornbread was very accommodating. It accepted
gracefully whatever I wanted to try, and always turned out good.
I really like onions in cooking. Onions
are so good for you. Daddy used to say, “Onions will open up your
head!” He meant if you get a stuffy nose just get a good, pungent onion
and eat it raw and it will clear up your sinuses.
I started putting onions in my cornbread,
maybe two good-sized, finely chopped onions to a batch of cornbread.
Nobody could even tell there were onions in the cornbread, but I knew
they were good for health.
One day I opened the freezer in the top
of my refrigerator and saw a pound package of frozen mixed vegetables.
“Why not?” I thought. “It would be a kind of vegetable casserole, with
just a little cornbread surrounding a whole lot of vegetables.” So I
made it. And I liked it. But one of the children spoke up at dinner
and said, “I don’t like stuff in my cornbread.” Okay. So he
didn’t like stuff in his cornbread. Some of the other family members
chimed in. But they didn’t know about the onions, so I kept putting
onions in the cornbread, and they are probably healthier for it.
I found out later that they liked onions
better than I thought. We were a family of five, my husband and me and
three children. One night I was frying up two pounds of perch for
supper, and decided to make hush puppies to go with the fish. But I am
an impatient soul when it comes to tedious cooking, and I didn’t want to
fool with those little bitty balls of hush puppies. So, I decided to
make corncakes instead. By this time I was tired, so I cut up the
onions coarsely and added them to the cornmeal batter and fried four
corncakes at a time in the skillet. Those onions were not shy at all,
they stuck up boldly out of the batter. When I had a stack on the
plate, I brought them to the table, and we sat down to eat. Everyone
was hungry and we enjoyed the meal. We had a goodly number of corncakes
and some of them were left over, even though they were popular enough at
The next morning, with husband off to
work and seventeen-year-old son off to high school, there sat
thirteen-year-old daughter and eleven-year-old son at the table waiting
for breakfast. “I’m heating up these corncakes for your breakfast,” I
said. “They will be something different. They will be good.” I could
have spared myself the selling job. It turned out it was unnecessary.
I set a plate down in front of each one of them. Son reaches across to
the center of the table where the syrup pitcher resides in its usual
place, picks it up, and pours a generous stream on his corncakes with
the onions sticking up boldly through them. I look on in astonishment.
“Syrup on onions?” I say. “I never heard of putting syrup on onions
“Why not?” he says, and takes a forkful.
Daughter follows suit.
It turns out I have started something
new. From that time on, they are delighted when I serve them corncakes
with onions for breakfast.
When I was growing up in the country,
biscuits were a mainstay of every meal – breakfast, dinner, and supper.
Daddy harvested his wheat crop in June, and began taking wheat to mill
from time to time to be ground into flour. The wheat came back in three
forms – white flour, shorts, and bran. The shorts were the grinding
between white flour and bran. Shorts just looked like a darker flour.
Mama made biscuits out of the white flour and shorts, but she poured the
bran into the hogs’ big feed bucket that sat behind the stove. She
added a little buttermilk to the bucket and later in the day that
mixture would begin to smell like sourdough bread, and it smelled so
good you would be tempted to sample it with a spoon. But of course
nobody ever did eat out of the hogs’ bucket. Those hogs certainly had
some healthy eating because the folks did not know about nutrition.
I graduated from high school when I was
seventeen years old and went to the big city to study and to work.
World War II was going on at that time. Sixteen million people were in
military service and the country was fighting for its life. The
government was sending the best of the foodstuffs to the people in
military service, and since there was such an abysmal lack of knowledge
of nutrition in those days, it sent white flour to the military and
tried to get the people back home to eat dark bread. Well, the people
back home were having none of it. They didn’t go for that dark bread.
Nobody had been used to seeing dark bread in the stores up until that
time. Fortunately, we have learned a lot about nutrition since those
My daddy’s June wheat crop would provide
flour for us until sometime the following winter, and then he would have
to hitch up the mules to the farm wagon about once a month and go to
town to buy a sack of 50 pounds of flour and whatever other things were
needed at that time, such as coffee, sugar, salt, and baking soda. The
sacks that the flour came in were a very valuable byproduct. Those
flour sacks were washed clean and used to make towels to hang on a nail
on the wall by the water table where the water buckets and wash pan
stayed, or to make dish towels to use in the kitchen, or used to make
underclothes for the girl children, or long skinny sacks to stuff
sausage in when the hogs were killed during cold weather and it was time
to make sausage.
But back to biscuits – girl children in
the country learned to make biscuits and to cook from the time they were
very young. Mama was the oldest of ten children in her family and she
said she had been cooking ever since she had to stand up in a chair to
stir the pots on the stove.
She had two black baking pans for
biscuits. One was just the right size for our family. The other one
was almost as big as the oven of the wood cook stove. That one was for
when company was coming. How many times I have sat across the kitchen
table from Mama and watched her fill one or the other of those pans.
She started by taking the bread tray out of the flour bin in the corner
of the kitchen, filling her sifter with flour, sifting it into a mound
in the center of the bread tray, making a well in the middle of that
mound of flour, and beginning to add the ingredients for biscuits – some
salt, baking soda, a lump of lard, and some good, thick buttermilk. She
mixed it all together with her right hand, gradually working more flour
in, until she had a nice mound of smooth dough. She took her right hand
and pinched off a lump of dough, floured her hands so the dough wouldn’t
stick to her hands, put that lump of dough in her left palm, gave it a
few quick rolls around in the palm, and there was a biscuit. She put it
in the well-greased baking pan, and proceeded until that whole mound of
dough in the bread tray was now a pan full of biscuits ready for the
oven. She popped it in, and soon the kitchen was filled with the good
smell of biscuits cooking.
Is there any friendlier smell in all the
world than that?
When I got married, most of my earliest
cooking was done by remembering the way my mother did things. I made
biscuits exactly the same way she did, although I never had to make
biscuits every day, as she always had to do.
Sometime after I was married, I watched
my mother-in-law make biscuits one day. After she got the dough made
up, she rolled them out with a rolling pin and cut them out with a
biscuit cutter. I thought that looked like a lot of unnecessary work.
If she had just pinched the dough off and rolled it in her hand, she
would have eliminated the two steps of rolling the dough out and cutting
it out, plus the cleanup of those two steps.
I was surprised to find that most of the
cooks I encountered after I got married made biscuits exactly the same
way she did.
I guess it all depends on how we learn to
But man does not live by bread alone.
I found that out one hot summer day when
I was nine years old.
“Mama, can I go play with Geneva?” I
asked, hoping against hope that she would say yes. Even though the
houses down the road were owned by relatives, and cousins lived in all
of them, we children were not allowed to play together all the time.
Country children were expected to learn to work. Too much play and
idleness might foster laziness, it was thought.
I was careful to do all my jobs before I
asked permission. I had dried the dinner dishes and put them away as
Mama washed them, and afterwards swept the kitchen clean, checked the
water buckets to see if they needed water. One was almost empty. I
took it to the well and drew up some fresh water, filled it, and brought
it back to the water table.
Then I asked. I was holding my breath,
hoping Mama would not say, “I want you to go to the watermelon patch and
get a watermelon and bring it up here. Crack it open on the ground and
put it in the hogs’ trough for them to eat.”
That was a job I had to do sometimes, but
maybe not right now.
Mama pondered my question a moment, and
then said, “Yes, you can go for one hour. Ask Aunt Bell to tell you
when an hour is up.”
Oh joy! I flew up the lane, and puffed
up the hill to the back steps, onto the porch, and looked in the kitchen
door. Aunt Nellie was doodling around in the kitchen, finishing up
everything after dinner.
I greeted her and said, “Where is
Geneva came out on the porch, grinning a
big grin, glad to see me.
We went in the long, dark, cool hall to
get out of the heat, and Aunt Bell was sitting there with some
needlework in her hands. She was always sewing. She was a fine
seamstress, and much in demand to make clothes for all the girl cousins,
as well as for Geneva and me. What would we ever have done without Aunt
“Will you please tell me when an hour is
up,” I asked. “I have to go home in an hour.”
Then I got brave. “Aunt Bell,” I said,
“Can Geneva and I go upstairs?”
We had never been permitted to go
upstairs. I had never known of anybody going upstairs in that house.
It just seemed to be an unspoken understanding that nobody needed to go
I waited. I stood there by her chair as
she pondered. Finally she said, “Yes, y’all can go up there, but be
careful on the steps.”
Geneva was surprised by my audacity. We
bumped each other trying to be the first one up the steps. The stairs
were narrow and dark, and they turned to the right halfway up. Geneva
beat me, and she dashed into a room at the top of the stairs. I stood
on the landing taking everything in. It was a tiny landing, just a
passageway between the two rooms. The room on the right was a big
room. It was a fully furnished bedroom, with a double bed all made up,
a dresser and a chest of drawers and washstand with a big white wash
basin and pitcher. Everything was dusty, and there were cobwebs over
the windows. It looked like it was a room that was ready for someone
who never came.
Geneva was going all over that room,
opening drawers and peering in, checking everything out. She picked up
the pitcher as though to pour some imaginary water into the wash basin,
and a spider fell out. She squealed and jumped. The spider was dead.
I glanced into the room on the left. It
was quite different, a long, narrow room filled with a lot of old things
that had been just put up here out of the way. At the far end of the
room was a spinning wheel. Nails had been driven into the thick wooden
wall on the far side of the room, and old clothes hung on the nails.
Nearest to the door hung two sets of World War I uniforms. My father
had been a young man during World War I, and his three younger brothers
had to go off to war. The only reason he did not have to go was that he
was the oldest son at home, and the government permitted him to stay
home to take care of their widowed mother and work the farm.
So, I checked out the two rooms with my
eyes, but I could not move. I was transfixed by what I saw at my feet.
Stacked against the wall in front of me was a huge pile of books. Some
of them had tumbled down across the narrow landing until, if I had taken
two steps, my feet would have been among them. I sat down on the top
step and reached over and picked up a book. You cannot imagine my
excitement. Ever since I learned to read I hungered for things to read,
read, read. Every year in September when I got my new schoolbooks for
the year, I took them home and began an eager effort to just absorb them
as quickly as possible. My brother Alvin was five years older than I,
and I did the same thing with his books.
As I sat there on the steps leafing
through the books, I found that some of them were medical books. In
past generations, when family fortunes were more prosperous, there were
two great-uncles who went off to medical school and became doctors.
Some of the books were about philosophy
and they were way over my head. One book was all about something called
white slavery and I wondered what that was.
Finally I found one that was everything I
was looking for. It had big print and pictures in it. I settled down
and started to read. Geneva called out impatiently, “Katie, come on and
let’s PLAY,” with great emphasis on “play,” like “What did you
come to see me for, anyway?”
All of a sudden I knew I wanted to go
home where I could be by myself and just read that book through.
“I’m going home,” I said.
“What?” She almost shouted it.
“I want to go home and read this book,” I
said. “I’m going to ask Aunt Bell if I can borrow it.”
I could hardly believe it myself.
Neither of us ever went home early. We had precious little time
together as it was anyway.
I started down the steps and she followed
me with indignation, heartily voicing her disapproval of my leaving
Aunt Nellie had joined Aunt Bell in the
hall, and they talked quietly together as they worked. Country women
rarely sat in idleness as they rested. They were always working on
something. Aunt Nellie had her embroidery hoops and some pretty colored
thread. She was putting flower designs on white pillowcases.
Aunt Bell continued to work on her
crocheting. I stood in front of her and asked permission to borrow the
book. She granted it, and I dashed out. Geneva stood on the back porch
and watched me as I ran down the hill.
At home, I looked for Mama. She and
Minnie were in the garden. It looked like they would be occupied for
awhile. So, I had the house all to myself. I looked for the coolest
place I could find, and got myself a rocking chair, and hoped I could
sit here for the rest of the afternoon without interruption. There was
a deep contentment in my heart as I settled into the book.
Time ticked by and I continued to read.
I recognized that this book was different from anything I had ever read
before. I knew it was not a fairy tale. There was a quiet excitement
in me as I read.
Some people think children don’t have
enough sense to think about deep things, but that is not true.
When Mama took a notion that she wanted
to put in a flower garden in front of our house, and she wanted it
fenced in so that the chickens wouldn’t get in and tear up her flower
beds, Daddy did exactly that – he fenced in the front yard with nice
fencing that was scalloped on top, and a nice decorative gate. I don’t
know how in the world he managed it. He must have made a good cotton
crop that year. But whatever Mama wanted, Mama got, if Daddy could
possibly do it for her.
When he put in that fence, he used tree
trunks that he had sawed just the right length for the fence posts. The
four corner posts were big enough for me to sit on. I liked to heft
myself up on a particular one of those corner posts late in the
afternoon and sit there and watch the sun go down. It filled me with a
melancholy feeling. It was a kind of feeling of homesickness, but I
didn’t know what I was homesick for. It was a longing to know what life
is all about.
Now as I read this book, my excitement
grew, because I realized I had come upon something momentous. As I
continued to read, I came to a full page picture in black and white. In
the foreground of the picture, Jacob was kneeling with his elbows on a
big rock and his hands were clasped in front of him. The book said he
was praying to God. In the distance in the picture you could see a
ladder going up into the sky, and angels were going up and down on the
I sat and looked and looked at that
picture and something stirred in me. I thought, “I can do that.” This
book of Old Testament stories was a revelation to me. I felt like a
door to something wonderful had been opened.
The back room in our house had a thumb
bolt lock on the door. Someone could go in that room and put the thumb
bolt on, and nobody could walk in on them. I got up and took the book
with me and locked the door. I kneeled down in the middle of the floor
and put my hands in front of me just like Jacob. I said, “God,” and I
talked to him as I had read in that book about people talking to him. I
don’t know what I expected, but I did not expect what happened. There
came such a strange, gentle, quiet, intense, wonderful peace that just
filled my heart. I was so surprised. At the same time I was so filled
Now I knew what life was all about. It
was about being connected to God. To come to him was like going home.
The Lord God had revealed himself to a
child. I had called on his name and he had answered me. From that
moment on, I wanted to know God. I wanted to know him the way the
people in that book knew him. But, I was a shy child and I did not tell
anyone what had happened to me.
Butter And Syrup And Jelly
In every country house there was a long,
homemade, wooden bench, made by the father in the family, for the
children to sit on at meals. This bench was made of one thick, wide
plank, planed smooth, so there would be no splinters to stick in little
bottoms. The bench was as long as the dining table, and dining tables
in the country had to be big enough for big families.
I want to tell you about three things and
then I will connect them together.
When I was a tiny little girl, about
three years old, there was a one-room schoolhouse up the road from our
house. Late in the summer one year there was a bustling about in our
house, getting ready for something upcoming. School would be starting
in September, and my parents had agreed for the teacher, Miss Annie
Wheless, to board at our house that winter. Preparations had to be
There was just one fireplace in our
house, and it was a double fireplace. On one side it opened into the
big kitchen-dining room where we ate and lived. The other side opened
into the family bedroom, which had two double beds in it, but the
fireplace on that side was rarely used. We were only in that room to
Across the short hall was another room.
My parents called it the back room. It was really the parlor. It had a
double bed and my mother’s pump organ, the nicest thing in our house,
which her parents had bought somehow for her when she was sixteen years
old. The room also had a washstand and a dresser and some chairs.
But no fireplace.
If Miss Annie Wheless was going to spend
the winter with us, there had to be a fireplace for that room. So,
Daddy got busy. He and some of my uncles built a fireplace and a
chimney, and he built a nice mantelpiece to go over the fireplace. He
brought in some firewood and kindling and put them by the hearth. Now
everything was ready.
You have to understand that butter was a
very important ingredient in Mama’s cooking and in our eating. Every
country family had their own cows, and butter and milk were a part of
everyday life. But sometimes in the winter the cows did not give as
much milk, and a churning did not produce as much butter, and the butter
had to be stretched. Mama would caution us not to take such a big cut
of butter when we buttered our biscuits. Of course, she did not say
that when company was around, but we rarely had company. I was a very
small child, but I had heard her say that often enough that I remembered
Now the school year had started, and we
were several months into it, and winter was here. There was a
particular cold, dark morning, the family at breakfast, and Miss Annie
Wheless with us, and the kerosene lamp lit in the middle of the table.
My brother Alvin is eight years old and I am three. We are sitting on
the bench alongside the table. Daddy is at the head of the table. Miss
Annie Wheless is sitting across from us children and also Mama, as she
brings in the big plate of hot biscuits. The biscuits are passed, and
then the bowl of fresh, soft butter. Miss Annie dips her knife in, and
comes up with butter for her biscuit. Suddenly I scramble to my feet
and stand up on the bench and lean toward Miss Annie’s plate, with my
eyes wide with astonishment, and exclaim, “Whooee, what a big cut of
That became a tale told in my family from
that time on.
It wasn’t funny at the time. My mother
must have felt like sliding under the table.
Miss Annie Wheless only stayed with us
one school year and then the one-room school closed, and things went
back to their usual rhythm at our house.
Breakfast in our family varied according
to the time of year. When the weather got really cold in the winter so
the meat would be sure to keep and not spoil, the hogs were killed, and
we had meat to eat with our biscuits. We didn’t use all of the meat
ourselves. Some of it we exchanged at the store for other things.
By the time school let out for the
summer, and Minnie and I slept until about seven o’clock every morning,
instead of getting up at five o’clock as we did on school mornings,
breakfast would be waiting for us on the back of the stove when we got
up. Daddy and Alvin would be out working in the fields, and Mama would
be out in the garden gathering the vegetables for dinner. What did we
find on the back of the stove? A plate of crispy fried rashers of
fatback or streak-o-lean, and a bowl of milk gravy, and a plate of
biscuits. That was the standard breakfast during the summer.
By the time school started again in
September the fatback and streak-o-lean would have given out, and
breakfast was now those big, fat, fluffy biscuits that Mama made, and
the fresh butter that Daddy had churned while Mama was making the
biscuits and coffee for breakfast. If you wanted to jazz it up, there
was a little pitcher of our homemade sorghum syrup that sat in the
middle of the table all the time. A favorite way to eat it was to pour
some syrup in your plate, put a dollop of soft butter in it, and stir it
all up together. Split a biscuit, put the biscuit in the mixture, cut
it up, mix it in, and enjoy.
Mama told about one time when I was a
tiny little girl, watching Daddy stir up a plate of syrup and butter
together, I looked at the mixture and said, “That looks just like
Charley Griffith’s old gray mule.”
Daddy usually planted the sorghum cane in
a field near the house. The cane grew up tall and green, looking very
much like corn as it grew. At the top of each stalk, standing straight
up, was the bushy seed head.
Minnie and I liked to go out in the cane
field and cut ourselves a stalk for each of us, bend it until it split
between two of its joints, and bite it at the split, to fill our mouths
with the thin, sweet juice that flowed out.
One of the treats for country children in
the fall of the year was sweet sorghum cane to chew on.
When Daddy cut the cane and took it to
the syrup mill, it came home, not as thin, sweet juice anymore, but as
syrup with an intense sweetness, and so thick it would hardly pour from
the syrup barrel when the weather got really cold in the dead of
I can remember one time when I must have
been about five years old – it was before Minnie was born – Mama took me
with her to the barn to tap the syrup barrel to replenish the supply in
the house. She opened the corncrib door, and there, sitting on a little
platform just inside the door, was a great big barrel. It had a hole
about the size of a half dollar on the side of the barrel, right at the
bottom. There was a corncob stuck in the hole. Mama had a small bucket
in her hand. She set it under the hole, pulled out the corncob, and
waited. And waited. Finally the golden brown, shiny, thick syrup made
its appearance, and slowly, ever so slowly, began to fill the bucket, as
Mama patiently waited. She stood with cob in hand, and when the bucket
was almost full, she jammed that cob in the hole and stopped the flow.
The weather was cold and we hurried back
to the house. Now what would Mama do with the syrup? She filled the
syrup pitchers, and announced that she was going to make some ginger
cakes. When she sweetened them with sugar, she called them teacakes.
When she sweetened them with sorghum syrup, she called them ginger
cakes. That was because they came out dark and rich tasting, a taste
that was kind of like ginger.
Mama called sugar, “short sweetenin’.”
She called sorghum syrup, “long
Three weeks after my sixteenth birthday
came December 7, 1941, when the United States was plunged into World War
II. Everything changed drastically and immediately. Many things were
rationed, and one of them was sugar. Mama did a lot of cooking with
sorghum syrup instead of sugar during the war.
I reached my seventeenth birthday and
graduated from high school and left home during the war to study and
work in Atlanta. I fell in with a wonderful group of young people, and
we were pals together in a close-knit group for several years, until we
all began to marry and scatter.
A couple of years after we got together,
we were all in our first jobs, and we planned our vacation together one
summer, so we chartered a bus and took a trip to Chicago. We were
touring the Field Museum of Natural History one day, and came upon a big
glass case with a stuffed polar bear in it. He was standing up on a big
mound of snow, and looking off into the distance, as though watching
something on the horizon.
Our guide was a personable, middle-aged
lady. She said, “Do you know what the snow is made of?”
We stared at her, and somebody ventured,
We caught on, and one said, “Sugar!”
Yes, Sugar. Very precious at the time.
But let me go back to five years old. I
had taken my seat across the kitchen table from Mama. She had sifted a
mound of flour into the bread tray, took her hand and made a well in the
middle, put in some salt and baking soda and an egg and a scoop of
butter that she scooped up with her fingers from the bowl of butter,
tipped the jug of buttermilk with her right arm and left hand so she
wouldn’t touch it with her buttery right hand, and poured some in. She
worked this mixture with her right hand until she had a soft dough, and
then made a deep indentation in the center. She reached over with her
left hand and got the little bucket of sorghum syrup, and poured some
in, as she had done with the buttermilk. She worked this in, and at the
same time working in more flour, too. When she finished, she had a big
mound of dough that was a deep orangy yellow. She went behind the stove
and rubbed the excess dough off her fingers into the hogs' bucket,
washed her hands, got out some clean flour-sack cloths and spread one
out on the table. She sprinkled flour on it, put her mound of dough on
it, sprinkled flour on the dough, and rolled it out into a great big
square. Mama didn't fool around cutting out teacakes with a cutter.
She took a table knife and cut that dough into big squares, each about
the size of a saucer.
Mama had two big black baking pans for
biscuits. One was the right size to make biscuits for our family. The
other one was so big that it almost completely filled to oven of the
wood cookstove. This one was for making biscuits when we had company.
This is the one she was going to use for making teacakes. She greased
that pan real good with lard and began to carefully transfer the squares
of teacake dough to the baking pan.
When those teacakes started baking they
smelled up the whole house so good. A person could hardly wait for them
to get done.
Mama’s teacakes came out soft and
cake-like. They were big, robust squares of brown goodness.
Sometimes when I was visiting Geneva and
Aunt Nellie had just made teacakes, she let us have some with a glass of
buttermilk. I liked Aunt Nellie’s teacakes, too, but they were very
different from Mama’s.
When I got old enough to read books from
the school library, one type of book that I liked was English novels.
Aunt Nellie’s teacakes – perfectly round, because she cut them out, thin
and crisp and delicately flavored – reminded me of the genteel teatimes
I read about in English novels.
In addition to sorghum syrup to eat with
our biscuits and butter, we had jelly and preserves that Mama put up
during canning season in late summer. Mama kind of rationed those, and
only opened one of her great glass jars of those when we had company.
But once the jar was opened, we could eat the rest of it after company
She made the best apple jelly I’ve ever
eaten anywhere, out of the sour green apples on the place. That jelly
was so firm you could cut it with a knife, and it looked beautiful in
the jars. Some of the relatives had started using bought pectin from
the store to make jelly, but Mama scorned pectin. She made her jelly
the natural way, the same way her mother had done before her.
We had blackberry jam and fig preserves,
but Mama’s favorite was peach preserves, probably because we had such an
abundant supply. When Mama was a bride, and she and Daddy moved into
the little house down the hill from the big house, she put out a whole
orchard of peach trees all around the house, and in one of the fields on
the north side of the house. Oh, my, did we have peaches! We had cling
peaches and clear-seed peaches. We had red peaches, yellow peaches,
white peaches, and yellow peaches with a red blush on one side.
I never got tired of peaches. Many and
many a time I ran out and browsed among the peach trees, finding a peach
that was dead ripe, rubbing it between my hands to get the fuzz off, and
biting in, the juice just filling my mouth and running down my chin.
There is no way to describe the flavor of that peach.
All women in the country saved Octagon
soap coupons, and once a year they cashed them in to get some kind of
treasured premium. Mama had four tall glass preserve dishes that she
had gotten that way. They looked like big glass compote dishes,
standing on their tall, glass legs. Two of the dishes were scalloped at
the top, and the other two had matching glass lids. They looked like
cut glass, and they were really beautiful. Mama was very proud of
When we had company, such as at
Christmas, when all the relatives visited back and forth for a whole
week and ate at each other’s houses everyday until we were all stuffed
like pigs, Mama would get out one of those preserve dishes, open up one
of her quart jars of peach preserves, fill the pretty preserve dish, and
set it in the place of honor in the middle of the table. Toward the end
of the meal someone would say, “Please pass the preserves,” and that
dish would start around the table, everyone taking a little, and me
watching to see if any was going to be left after the company went
The time came when I grew up, and sad to
say, left good home-canned preserves and real country butter behind.
There was a day when I, as a new young
bride, saw my mother-in-law come home from the grocery store with a big
bag of groceries in her arms, set it down on the counter, unpack it, and
reach for a bowl from the cabinet shelf. Into the bowl she put a
one-pound block of something white. Beside the bowl she put a clear
little packet about an inch and a half square. The little packet had an
orange-colored powder or paste in it.
She said, “I’ll let that sit there until
it softens, and then I’ll mix it.”
About an hour later I was doodling around
in the kitchen when she came back, opened the little packet’s contents
onto the white block in the bowl, got a tablespoon, and mixed and mixed
and mixed it, until it looked like a bowl of yellow butter. But it was
margarine. It was a marvel to me that the good old country butter that
I grew up with was too expensive for town folks to eat.
I asked her, “Why does it come white with
orange food coloring to mix in?”
She said, “Because the Wisconsin dairy
industry will not allow margarine to be sold to look like butter. So
the coloring comes separately to be mixed in.”
Soon my husband and I got an apartment of
our own, and I followed my mother-in-law’s example – until one day I was
laboriously mixing and mixing that margarine, when I thought to myself,
“Shucks to this. That margarine tastes exactly the same whether it is
white or yellow.” From that time on, my husband and I ate our margarine
white from a pretty butter plate and it suited us just fine.
That was a long time ago and times do
change. Now the margarine in the stores looks just like butter.
“Mama!” I called.
This was about nine o’clock on a Sunday
“Mama, I see Uncle Jack and Aunt Mary
coming down the road and they are coming this way!”
I looked again. Dorothy and Mary Frances
were coming along behind them. I would have some cousins to play with
Mama had already moved into action at my
first announcement. She poked up the dying fire in the wood stove, put
in some splinters of kindling to make it blaze up again, and then a
couple of sticks of stove wood. She moved the big, black, heavy kettle
from the back of the stove to the front, and filled it with water from
the water bucket.
“Katie!” she called. “Come here and help
me catch a chicken!” She was urgent, and I ran and caught up with her
as she went down the back steps.
The chickens were pecking about on the
ground, looking very contented and at peace on a Sunday morning, unaware
that doom was about to descend on one of them.
Mama opened the smokehouse door and
angled it to make a corner that hopefully we could hem a chicken up in
that corner and catch it. She looked over the flock hastily and spotted
a nice-looking fryer and cut him out of the bunch and headed him toward
the smokehouse. But he didn’t cooperate. She lunged for him, and he
jumped and flapped wildly and ran past her, tearing off in the other
“Head him off, Katie, head him off!”
I did, and we ran circles around that
yard for a few minutes, but no chicken is a match for my mama, and she
finally got him.
She put that chicken under her arm, went
to the chopping block at the woodpile by the well, held the chicken by
his legs, laid his head on the chopping block, picked up the axe in her
right hand, and whacked that chicken’s head off. She laid him against
the woodpile and left him there a few minutes for the blood to run out
of him. When she brought him in the house, the water was boiling in the
kettle. She poured it in the dishpan and got ready to pluck the chicken
and dress it and cut it up and put some lard in one of the black
skillets to make fried chicken for dinner.
Aunt Mary and Uncle Jack and the girls
were taking their time. They knew what would be going on at our house
as soon as we spotted them coming our way. There were a lot of
blackberry bushes and plum bushes growing along the roadside, and they
stopped every now and then to sample the luscious fruit.
Finally they arrived, and we all greeted
each other enthusiastically and effusively. Minnie and I and Dorothy
and Mary Frances had a great time playing in the yard and playing in the
house and playing all over the place all morning. Mama and Aunt Mary
were in the kitchen fixing company dinner and doing woman talk, while
Daddy and Uncle Jack sat on the front porch doing man talk, mostly about
the crops. That seemed to be what men always talked about.
Anytime anyone in the country had company
for dinner, they always knew the main dish would be fried chicken.
But not only for dinner. For breakfast,
too. However, it was a very rare thing in the country to have company
for breakfast. That is, until my brother Alvin got to be sixteen years
old. When he got to be sixteen years old, he was permitted to go and
come freely after all the work was done on Saturdays, and he would get
cleaned up and go across the creek to pal around with our first cousins,
Johnny and Fred Bell, who were his age. They might go somewhere and be
late coming home, and he would just stay and spend the night with them.
Or if they were over more in our direction, they might stay and spend
the night with him.
Mama always wanted to know if there was
company for breakfast on Sunday mornings after Alvin and Johnny and Fred
started running around together, so she would go and softly crack the
door to the back room (the back room was now Alvin’s bedroom) to see if
there was one boy in the bed or three boys in the bed or no boys in the
bed. If there were three boys in the bed, she fixed them a company
breakfast. Of course, Mama and Daddy had already had their usual
breakfast very early, because with the cows lowing and the pigs
squealing and the chickens cackling, all wanting to be fed by the crack
of dawn, no farm couple is going to have a late breakfast. They have to
get up and get going seven days in the week.
Mama had taken to putting a chicken up in
a coop a couple of days ahead of time after Alvin and Johnny and Fred
started running together on Saturday nights, so she wouldn’t have to do
a chicken chase on Sunday mornings.
When the boys got up, they would have
fried chicken and good thick gravy and biscuits and butter and sorghum
syrup. If it was after hog killing time in the winter, Mama would cook
sausage for them instead of fried chicken.
Another one of Mama’s chicken dishes was
chicken pie. Probably not like any chicken pie you ever ate. Later on,
when I was a grown, married woman cooking for a family of my own, when I
made a chicken pie, I always boned the chicken first. Not Mama. She
never boned a chicken in her life. Neither did any other housewife in
the country. Whoever ate the most chicken did the most boning.
Daddy had made a special chicken coop for
Mama to use when she wanted to put some chickens up for a few days to
fatten them up for some reason, such as when she planned ahead of time
to make a chicken pie. In that case it would just be one chicken in the
coop. If she was going to swap chickens for merchandise when Mr. Byrd
came by in the rolling store, there would be two or three chickens in
Daddy had taken four planks, each plank
about three feet high, for the four legs of the coop. Then he made a
wooden frame and covered it with chicken wire, and nailed the legs on
the frame, and set it up by the smokehouse. It looked like a big box
made out of chicken wire. The top, bottom, sides, and ends were wire,
and the chickens couldn’t get out of it. It was about four feet long
and two feet wide – the fattening coop. Mama fed those chickens a mush
of crumbled up biscuits with a lot of buttermilk on them, and those
chickens’ flesh got nice and soft.
One Sunday morning Mama announced that
she was going to make chicken pie for dinner, and I got ready to take my
seat across the kitchen table to watch – but not until she finished
plucking the chicken, because I did not like the smell of those wet
feathers. When at last she was ready to cut up the chicken, then I took
my seat and watched as the drumsticks, thighs, wings, three pieces of
breast, back, liver, gizzard, and neck, piled up in a plate. Mama had
to be really careful with that gizzard. It had to be split open and
washed and washed, because it was full of sand. That sand was the
I remember being in the yard one time
with Mama when I was a small child, and seeing where the rain had washed
some coarse sand into an indentation in the yard. Some of the chickens
were standing there pecking in the sand.
I said, “Mama, why are the chickens
She said, “They are filling up their craw
with sand to grind up what they eat.”
Now Mama had the chicken cut up, and she
got out her baking pan and buttered it, and arranged the chicken pieces
in it. She sprinkled some salt and black pepper on the pieces, poured
sweet milk over the whole thing and dotted it with butter. She got out
the bread tray, made up some biscuit dough, rolled out enough for a
crust, put the crust on the pie, crimped it, put in a few slashes to let
out steam, and put it in the oven of the wood stove. Soon the kitchen
and the whole house were smelling like chicken pie, and, oh my, did we
look forward to dinner!
Sometimes Mama made a variation in her
chicken pie by making chicken and egg pie. In that case, after she put
the chicken pieces in the baking pan, she broke eggs between the chicken
pieces, and then put in the salt, pepper, sweet milk, and butter, and
then the crust over all. I really liked chicken and egg pie. I liked
cutting into the crust and coming up with an egg and some of that good
gravy from the pan. The broth from the chicken, along with the sweet
milk and butter, made a wonderful gravy.
All the things we ate in the country had
a deep, rich flavor to them, because they came right from nature, with
all the fullness of what they were intended to be. When I got grown and
left home, I was often disappointed by the anemic taste of things,
because so many things did not have the richness and depth of flavor of
the good things we ate in the country.
We had chicken and dressing at our house
once a year. That was Christmas. Mama took a big fat hen and boiled it
in a great big pot, and the broth that came out of that hen was
something special. Mama used it to make dressing. Mama’s dressing was
the best I have ever eaten anywhere.
In fact, we had chicken and dressing
every day during Christmas week – from Christmas Day through New Year’s
Day, because we visited back and forth among all the relatives who lived
around us, and everybody served chicken and dressing. That was just a
traditional Christmas dish. But everyone’s cooking is always a little
different, so there was enough variation to make it interesting.
Besides, we had a lot of other things besides chicken and dressing.
Everyone pulled out all of the stops for Christmas. By the time the new
year came, we all looked like rotund, jolly good fellows.
The weather would be cold, and all the
families would have killed hogs shortly before Christmas, so another
traditional Christmas dish was boiled ham. The hams were so big that
they had to be boiled in the big black wash pot that sat at the wash
out by the well. The wash pot was used for boiling clothes on washday,
when the men’s overalls were so dirty from working in the fields, or
from working at the sawmill in the winter, and having rosin stuck all
over them. But that wash pot could be scrubbed out and used for cooking
something big when the need arose.
I can see my mother now, down on the
ground, with the wash pot turned on its side, and she has some coarse
sand to use for an abrasive cleanser, along with some lye soap and
water, and she is giving that wash pot a genuine cleaning. When she has
it all cleaned and rinsed, she puts it back on the three rocks under it
at the wash place, draws up some water from the well, pours in just
enough water, and builds a fire under the pot. She goes in the
smokehouse and gets a fresh ham, and soon the fire is blazing around
that pot, the ham is boiling along inside, and the whole yard is filled
with the wonderful aroma of ham cooking. That same thing would probably
be going on at some of the other houses in the neighborhood at the same
time, and we would all have ham with our Christmas dinners as we visited
from house to house.
We did not have to worry about the ham or
the chicken or anything else keeping, because we had natural
refrigeration in the country in the winter. When we got up in the
mornings and went in the kitchen, the top two inches of water in the
water buckets would be frozen solid.
Sometime along in February Minnie came
running into the kitchen one day, exclaiming, “I see Mr. Bud Bell’s
Sure enough, there was his pretty horse,
high-stepping along, pulling the little open buggy, with Mr. Bell
sitting up regally on the seat, holding the lines. There was something
under a tarp behind him in the buggy.
Mama said, “Bud Bell has killed a beef.”
He did this about once a winter, driving his little buggy along, selling
beef to the neighbors, and on down the road to other houses along the
way. We folks in the country did not ordinarily have beef in our diets,
except on the rare occasions when Mr. Bell killed a beef. That seemed
to be his specialty.
Mr. Bell pulled into the yard and Mama
went out to talk with him. She bought a little piece of beef that day.
I don’t know what she swapped him for it, but she got some, and came in,
and told Minnie and me she was going to make some good old-fashioned
country beef hash. Folks in the country didn’t ever eat just straight
beef – it had to be stretched. And Mama was expert at that.
When my father and brother came home and
we all sat down to dinner, Mama had made a pot full of something good
out of that little piece of beef, and my daddy really raved about how
good it was. And he was so right.
When I became a young bride and began to
cook for my husband, I found I liked cooking. It was creative. It was
so satisfying to put together a number of ingredients and have them come
out looking totally different and producing something totally wonderful
to eat and good to look at, too. A work of art, so to speak. It gave
one a feeling of accomplishment.
So I decided to make a chicken pie. But
not like Mama’s chicken pie. I would do the boning. Fortunately I did
not have to run down a chicken. But I did buy a whole chicken. A whole
chicken with all those bones and the skin and fat and everything about
the chicken makes a good broth, and a good broth will make a good sauce,
and a good sauce makes good cooking. A good sauce sticks to the tongue
and bathes the tongue and stays there long enough to give one a feeling
of the richness of the flavor of what one is eating. One really gets to
taste the food if a good sauce is involved.
I put that chicken in a big pot, covered
it with water, sprinkled in some salt, put a heavy lid on the pot, and
turned the heat up high to bring it to a boil. When it began to boil I
turned it down to medium low and let it cook until it was ready to fall
off the bones. Take that pot off the stove and set it somewhere to cool
for about half a day while you go on about your business doing something
else. It is a good idea to cook the chicken early in the day if you are
going to have chicken pie for dinner that night.
When I got ready to bone the chicken I
took every bit of the meat off those bones, and discarded the bones and
skin. There was a nice bowl of chicken meat sitting there. It was
enough to make two deep-dish ten-inch chicken pies with double crusts.
Now to make the sauce. I put the pot on
the stove and turned the heat up high to bring it to a boil, and got a
three-cup size measuring cup and put three-fourths cup of all-purpose
flour in the measuring cup, and dipped some of the broth out of the pot
before it began to get hot. I like black pepper in my chicken dishes,
so I added a tablespoon of black pepper to the flour in the measuring
cup and stirred it in, then a little broth, and stirred it in to make a
smooth paste, continuing to add broth and stirring it, until I had two
cups of the mixture of flour and black pepper and broth in the measuring
Now the broth should be boiling in the
pot. Get a long-handled cooking spoon and stir the broth in the pot as
you tip the measuring cup over the pot and gradually add the paste,
continuing to stir for a few minutes to be sure the sauce will be smooth
and flour fully cooked.
Turn the pot off and let it sit there a
few minutes. After a little while get a stick of butter – one-fourth
pound of butter – and add it to the pot and stir it in until it is fully
blended. Now you are ready to add the chicken back to the pot. This
chicken and sauce mixture makes wonderful chicken pies, or, if you wish,
you can add a pound package of frozen mixed vegetables to the pot and
have chicken and vegetable pies.
Now you are ready to make the pastry. I
didn’t want to make biscuit dough pastry the way Mama did, because I
wanted my pastry to be more flaky. But the pastry recipes in the
cookbooks were a pain – all that talk about ice water and handle the
dough quickly so it wouldn’t warm up, and besides it always seemed to be
too sticky. Fortunately shortly after I started cooking, the food
sections of the newspapers began to write about a new way of making
pastry, and it was all the rage for awhile. I think it came along just
for me. One used cooking oil instead of shortening, and rolled the
dough out between two sheets of waxed paper, and it was so easy to do.
After a few years that recipe completely dropped from sight, and
everything was all ice water and shortening again. But I was rescued,
and I stuck with the cooking oil recipe. I found out why the recipe
became unpopular. All the printed recipes in the newspapers called for
cooking the pies at too high a temperature. The high temperature made
the pastry taste burnt. It really tasted bad. I learned to cook my
pies at 300 degrees and cook them longer, and they were all so good.
I very early learned to adapt the recipe
for a deep-dish ten-inch pie by using two and one-half cups of all
purpose flour and half a cup of cooking oil and three-fourths cup of
milk. It was so easy to make and so easy to roll out between two sheets
of waxed paper and so easy to put on the pie.
Anytime I made chicken pie I always made
two of them – one for dinner that night and one to put in the
refrigerator for later. Those pies were good hot or cold. You could go
to the refrigerator and cut yourself a wedge of that thick
wonderful-tasting pie and sit down with a good book and a cup of coffee
and have yourself a treat that warmed the cockles of your heart and made
your stomach jump for joy.
My younger son and his teenage friends
often came in the back door and through the kitchen in the afternoons
when I was cooking. One afternoon I heard his friend ask Son, “What are
you having for dinner tonight?
“Chicken pie!” said Son
“Oh,” said friend, unimpressed, thinking
of those little seven-inch frozen chicken pies one could get in the
“No,” said Son, sticking his chest out,
“My mother is making this chicken pie!”
New recipes often come into being by
I looked at the little piece of dough
left over after making the pie crust and thought, “What can I do with
this?” I was never one to just throw something away. That would cramp
my thrifty country heart. I opened the cabinet door to look for
inspiration there, and my eyes fell upon the box of raisins.
“Ah, yes,” thought I. “A raisin pie.”
There was just
enough dough to make one little raisin turnover. I rolled out the
dough in a circle, put a handful of raisins on one side of the circle, and thought, “That
certainly does need some moisture on it, or those dried raisins are
going to be like eating a pie of little dark hard rocks.”
I opened the refrigerator door, and there
on one of the shelves inside the door was a quart jar of salad
dressing. Of course. Just what I needed. I took the jar out,
unscrewed the lid, got a tablespoon, and put a healthy dollop – about a
piled-up tablespoonful – of salad dressing on those raisins and smoothed
it over them. Turned the dough over the half covered with raisins,
crimped the edge to seal it, made some holes in the top with a fork to
let steam escape, and looked among the pans to find something small
enough to put it in. There was my little black skillet, just the right
size for cooking one egg. “Or just the right size for one little raisin
turnover,” I thought.
I put the little raisin turnover in the
little black skillet, and put the little black skillet in the oven with
the two chicken pies, and set about to clean up the kitchen after my
That night at dinner, myself, husband,
and three children had to share one raisin turnover in order to see how
it came out. It had come out of the oven looking all golden brown and
perfect. I cut it carefully into five small pieces so each person had a
taste. It went over well. It went over so well that I made a whole big
cookie sheet full later to take to a church supper.
So I had a new recipe. I continued to
make the raisin pies as long as all the children were at home. When I
made up a whole batch I always emptied a whole box of raisins into a
bowl and stirred in enough salad dressing, a generous amount, so that
every raisin was thickly coated in salad dressing. It was easy to put a
tablespoonful of this mixture on a round of dough, fold it over, crimp
it, put it on the cookie sheet, until I used up all the mixture and
dough to make a whole batch of raisin pies.
I had two deep dish ten-inch aluminum pie
pans with fluted edges. They were two of my handiest cooking utensils.
One day when I was baking I had enough dough left to roll out one thin
bottom crust to fit in one of those pans. After I got it in the pan I
thought, “Now what am I going to make with this?” I decided to go ahead
and bake the crust all by itself. Later in the afternoon after the
crust was baked and cooled, I was rummaging around in the cabinet and
spied a twelve-ounce can of tuna. “That is what I will put in that pie
crust,” I thought.
I opened the can of tuna and drained it
and spread it over the pie crust. But it needed something else, too,
and since I am so fond of onions in cooking, I got an onion, peeled it,
washed it, chopped it coarsely, and sprinkled it over the tuna. But it
still needed something else. I looked in the refrigerator. There was a
nice two-pound block of sharp cheddar cheese. Just what I needed. This
was developing like nail soup. I cut thick slices from the block of
cheese and covered the tuna-onion mixture generously with the slices of
cheese. Just before dinner the pie pan went under the broiler until the
cheese was melted and the whole dish was hot. I brought it to the table
in the pan and cut it into five pieces – one for each of us. Oh, boy,
was it good!
This was another recipe I continued
making after that first try. I called it my tuna-onion-cheese pizza.
I like spaghetti, but I have an aversion
to draining things, so early in my cooking days I was pondering on this,
and I thought, “Why can’t you cook spaghetti in the sauce instead of in
water where you have to drain it?” So I decided I would do that. I had
a big heavy pot with a heavy lid. This is what I would use.
The day came when I got ready to make my
spaghetti and I got out the big heavy pot and put a little cooking oil
in the bottom, and turned the pot this way and that way to coat the
inside of the pot so nothing would stick. Into the pot I layered three
coarsely chopped onions, a pound of extra lean ground beef, two coarsely
chopped green bell peppers, and three carrots cut into chunky pieces.
Next, I went to my spice cabinet and put in a generous sprinkling of
salt, black pepper, red pepper, garlic powder, and Italian seasoning.
Over this went a twenty-eight ounce jar of good spaghetti sauce that I
had got at the store. I rinsed the jar out with a little water and
added that to the pot, and put in enough water to come about two-thirds
up the inside of the pot.
The heavy lid went on, the burner turned
on high under the pot just until it began to simmer around the edges,
and then turned down to medium low. It cooked for an hour without my
removing the lid. While it was cooking I got out an eight-ounce package
of thin spaghetti and broke it into pieces in a pan to have it ready to
add to the pot.
After an hour I got out my long handle
cooking spoon, removed the lid from the pot, gave it a really good
stirring, and added the dry spaghetti, stirred it in, and put the lid
back on the pot. I turned the heat up a little and let it cook another
ten minutes, removed the lid, gave it another good stirring, put the lid
back on, turned the heat off, and let the pot sit there at least half an
hour before serving so all the flavors could meld together.
I called that my spaghetti, but my
daughter said one day, “Mom, that is not spaghetti. That is a stew.”
“O.K.,” I said, “That is my spaghetti
stew.” And I had not drained a thing.
I was eleven years old and it was summer
again. The days were long and I was bored. It was afternoon, and I had
done all of my after-dinner jobs. I had washed the dishes and dried
them and put them away, and swept the kitchen clean, and done the other
things Mama had assigned me before she went outside. Mama was an
outdoor person and Minnie was a lot like her, so they were outside doing
Minnie and I and Geneva and her little
sister Louise were so blessed that our parents did not make us work in
the fields, the way most farm children had to do. We had to learn to do
all the things in the house and outside around the house, which kept us
plenty busy usually, but I was so glad I did not have to pick cotton.
There was a family from down the road that Daddy had hired the previous
fall to pick cotton for him, when the fields were white with the bolls
bursting open with their fluffy contents. The white cotton looked
pretty, but those bolls had sharp points that could really prick one’s
fingers. A person had to learn how to give a quick snatch and get the
cotton out of the bolls without bloodying one’s fingers with a continual
pricking. This family consisted of a father, mother, and several
children, including a little boy who looked to be about six years old.
His mother had made him a little cotton sack, with a wide cloth strap
that went over one shoulder, and the sack hung down on his right side,
so he could pick a handful of cotton and put it in the sack, and work
his way down the rows until he filled up his sack with cotton. His
family considered it was time for him to learn how to work.
But the afternoons are hot in the South
in the fall of the year, and that sun on one’s back can become rather
overbearing. The new little worker who had not yet learned how to pluck
the cotton without stabbing his fingers on the sharp points of the bolls
can quickly decide that it is not any fun after all to have his own
little cotton sack.
The little boy called out to his mother,
“I’m going to the house!”
She was bent over her row, industriously
and rapidly dropping cotton into her own sack, but she jerked erect and
shot her dagger eyes at him and pointed a finger in his direction, and
said, “You get back in that row and start picking cotton!”
His face fell and his shoulders slumped,
but he had no choice but to get back to the business of learning how to
I’ve always remembered that scene and
been thankful that my parents did not require me to work in the fields.
But on this particular afternoon I was
looking for something to do, and my eyes fell on the mantelpiece. Of
course! I would explore the mantel. The mantel was like a family
archives. Who knows what I might find there. I had never known it to
be cleaned off. Things just accumulated there. Of course Mama dressed
it up by hanging pretty white cloths like dresser scarves around the
edge of it. Those cloths were starched stiff as boards and ironed slick
as glass and decorated with pretty flowers that Mama had embroidered on
them when she was sitting by the fire sometimes on a winter afternoon.
She changed those scarves ever so often and kept things looking very
I got a chair and climbed up on it and
decided I would start exploring on the right end of the mantel. Right
in the middle of the mantel was a great big old antique clock that did
not run anymore. It seemed to make a line of demarcation. On the right
side of it were things that we used all the time – the patent medicines,
for instance – while down at the other end were things not as much
So I began. Horrors, there was the
bottle of castor oil right in first place. Castor oil was so bad that I
decided when I got grown and had children of my own I would never, never
make them take castor oil, and I never did.
The little box of Black Draught powders.
I can remember Mama opening one of the little packets of Black Draught
and pouring it in a spoon and saying, “Open your mouth, “ as in it
went. That stuff seemed to be so hard to wash down and get it all out
of my mouth.
There was the little bottle of Fletcher’s
Castoria and the bigger bottle of Dr. Caldwell’s Syrup Pepsin. Those
were not so hard to take.
The bottle of horse liniment. That is
what the older folks used on their knees. Someone would say, “How you
“Well, I got the rheumatism in my knees.”
“You got any liniment?”
“Yeah, I been using some.”
I explored further and found the little
box of pink calomel tablets.
There was the square glass jar with a
round ball glass lid with camphor in it.
Ah, here was the little blue jar of Vicks
salve. Vicks salve was an absolute staple in every household. How
would anyone ever raise children without Vicks salve? I remember all
those times Mama rubbed a thick coating of Vicks salve on my chest and
heated a soft square of cloth in front of the fire until it was so hot
it made me jump when she applied it to my chest to make the Vicks salve
soak into my lungs and clear up a cold.
But I would rather have Vicks salve than
a greasy rag anytime. Sometimes when I had a cold Mama would pull some
red coals out of the fire onto the hearth and set a skillet with some
lard in it on the coals. When the lard got hot she dipped a soft rag in
it and got it saturated with lard and put that hot greasy rag on my
chest and buttoned my gown over it and put me to bed. I hated the
feeling of that greasy rag. But it was a common country remedy. People
had to make do with whatever they had.
Sometimes it was not Vicks salve or a
greasy rag. Sometimes it was a mustard plaster on the chest. In that
case the dry mustard was prepared with a little water to make a paste
and smeared between two pieces of cloth and applied to the chest, and
when that mustard burned and reddened the skin, it was supposed to be
treating the cold that one had.
Sitting by the big old clock was the
bottle of turpentine. How many times I have come home from school in
the afternoon with a sore throat, and right before putting me to bed
Mama gave me a teaspoonful of sugar with a few drops of turpentine on
Daddy’s shaving mug was there, with his
shaving brush in it, and the round alarm clock that he wound up every
night and put in the bedroom to awaken him and Mama while it was still
pitch black dark outside.
I had about exhausted the interesting
possibilities on the right side of the mantel, so I got down and moved
my chair to the far left end, and decided to work my way from the end
back toward the antique clock. I positioned my chair and climbed up.
My eyes did not quite reach up over the edge of the mantel, so the
things I could not see in the front were investigated by my reaching
back and feeling for them with my hand. I had been successful so far
with that method on the right side.
Now I reached back across the wide mantel
to the wall behind it, and my hand fell on something small and flat and
hard. Was it a flat tin of some kind of pills? That was not uncommon
in a country house. It felt dusty, whatever it was. It had been there
a long time.
My fingers wrapped themselves around it
and I picked it up. It came to my eye level and I saw what it was.
A book! A tiny little book. I had never
seen a book that small.
Mama was coming in the back door. The
first thing she saw was me in that chair.
“Katie, what are you doing? Get down
from there before you fall!”
I scrambled down and asked, “Mama, what
is this?” She looked at it carefully.
“A New Testament.”
“Can I have it?”
“It belongs to your daddy.”
“Where did he get it?”
Mama had assigned Minnie a job to do
outside, and Minnie was calling her, so she disappeared out the back
I took my treasure into the cool hall and
sat down to look at it.
I was about to receive a new revelation.
It had been two years since I found the book of Old Testament Bible
stories, and I had found a new Friend with that book. Since I learned
to pray that very first day, I had prayed every day. Sometimes
For instance, there was the thing that
happened at the beginning of this summer. The one room school near our
house had closed a long time ago, but there was still an operating one
room school further up the road, and the teacher had asked Uncle Ira if
he would take her and her pupils on an end-of-summer trip to the movies
in his school bus.
My brother and sister and I did not
attend the one room school. We rode many miles past it to the
consolidated school. Parents had a choice, and my parents decided to
send us to the consolidated school, especially since Uncle Ira drove the
I don’t know what the deal was about
school buses, but the drivers kept them all the time, year round, and
drove them like their own vehicles. Those school buses did not look as
spiffy as school buses look today. But they got us there and back.
There was just a handful of students in
the one room school, certainly not a bus load, but Miss Whitehead wanted
to treat them to a special happening at the end of the school year.
Uncle Ira agreed to take them the thirty mile trip to the town where
there was a movie house to see Shirley Temple in “Captain January.”
Uncle Ira was going to take Geneva along.
Geneva, bless her heart, wanted me to go,
too. So Uncle Ira asked Daddy if I might go. But there was a problem.
A huge problem. It cost a dime to go to the movies. And Daddy did not
have a dime. We lived by the barter system. About once a month Daddy
hitched up the two mules to the farm wagon and took something from the
farm to exchange for the few essentials we needed, and went the six
miles to the store. The only time we had cash money was in the late
fall of the year after the cotton was sold. Daddy had to first of all
pay the merchant for the seed and fertilizer he had bought on credit in
the spring in order to make the crop, and then if anything was left
over, each member of the family got a pair of new shoes and a couple of
new garments, and Mama got a new oilcloth tablecloth for the table, and
we hoped there would be a little something left over for Christmas.
When that was spent there was no more cash money until the next cotton
crop was made and sold the next fall.
My daddy would do anything in the world
he could possibly do for me, but he did not have a dime. I wanted with
all my heart to go on that trip with Geneva, and I begged and pleaded
with him to find a way, which must have grieved him terribly, but no
dime was forthcoming.
I loved my daddy with all my heart and I
did not hold it against him, but I still wanted to go with a desperation
that consumed me. So I went to my Friend, and in a quiet place where I
could be alone, I poured out my plea, and I must have prayed as
fervently as anyone has ever prayed for anything.
The days were slipping by, and the time
was fast approaching when the date had been set for the trip. I
continued to pray. I was filled with longing to go, and it seemed to be
all I could think about.
Late in the afternoon of the day before
they were to go to the movie, Daddy came in, hot and tired, and washed
up at the wash shelf on the back porch. I was feeling very dejected.
Mama was getting supper on the table. Daddy pulled a chair out from the
table and sat down and called me to him. I went and sat on his knee. I
guess my head was drooping a little. But I looked in his eyes, and
Daddy said, “Tomorrow when Uncle Ira and Geneva go to pick up Miss
Whitehead and the children, you can go with them.”
It took a few seconds for it to sink in.
Then my chest swelled with such joy I thought it would explode. I
hugged and hugged my daddy, and jumped up and leaped around, and laughed
with ecstatic delight, and felt that I just loved everybody in the world
at that moment.
When supper was over and the dishes were
done and the family was settling down on the back porch for a little
while before bedtime, I slipped away for a few minutes and went around
the house to the front porch and sat on the steps. I wanted to be alone
with my Friend to thank Him, because I knew with certainty that He had
answered my prayers.
So the next day dawned with a light in my
soul, as well as the light that was shining on the earth from the sun.
It was a bright day in every way.
Uncle Ira had gotten some remnants of
cloth from the cotton mill in town where we went to school, and Aunt
Bell had made new dresses for Geneva and me. It was a coarsely woven,
off-white, nubby fabric, and Aunt Bell decided that would make up best
as a skirt and little jacket for each of us.
So Geneva and I had almost more good
fortune than we could handle that day – new dresses, plus the great
adventure of going to a movie, which we had never in our lives done
before. In fact, nobody on that bus that day had ever been to a movie
before, except Miss Whitehead. There was probably more high
anticipation and great excitement among us than anywhere else in the
whole state of Georgia that day.
The movie lived up to our expectations,
and the day stood out in my life as one of those high memorable
occasions that one remembers in a special way for a lifetime.
All of that had happened at the beginning
of summer. Now here I sat in the hall toward the end of summer with
another book in my hands that I had found, another book that seemed to
be just as monumental as the first one.
When Daddy came home I couldn’t wait to
show it to him.
“Daddy, where did you get this little
He took it in his hands and turned it
over and over and looked at it.
“A Red Cross worker was giving them out
at the train when the men were leaving for the war, and she gave me
Daddy had gone to the train to see his
three younger brothers off to World War I. The only reason he did not
have to go was that he was the oldest son at home, and the government
permitted him to stay home to take care of his widowed mother and run
Even though he did not go to war, he had
received one of the New Testaments. I was glad he had kept it, because
now I had it. Daddy may never have read it, but I intended to read it.
I felt somehow that this was no ordinary
day, that there was something special going on behind the scenes of life
that I did not yet know about.
This little book introduced me to Jesus.
On a Saturday in the fall of the year
when I was twelve years old Mama decided to go to the field and help
pick cotton that day. She informed me early in the morning that I was
to cook the dinner. That elicited a huge guffaw from my brother, but
nevertheless when dinnertime came he could take it or leave it, as I
said to him. I felt very important and responsible.
Minnie would go to the field with them
and play at picking cotton, and when she got tired of that she would
come back to the house and amuse herself as she pleased. I expected to
be busy in the kitchen.
Mama had gone to the garden when the sun
was just coming up, and gathered the vegetables while the dew was still
heavy on the vines and plants, and started the preparation of them. She
told me what to do next, and gave me explicit directions. Of course now
that I was twelve years old I had been helping her a lot in the kitchen
for awhile, and felt that I knew just what to do. I certainly knew how
to make the biscuits and cornbread. Those were two things we had every
day, and I had been watching her make them since I was a tiny little
So Mama, Daddy, Alvin, and Minnie left
for the cotton field, which was close to the house. If I needed to ask
any questions I could run out there and ask them. But I did not intend
to do that.
Things went well. So well that I decided
to do something special. A surprise. What could I make? A pie. But
what kind of pie? I raised my head in contemplation toward the ceiling,
and my eyes fell on a quart glass jar sitting all by itself on top of
the cupboard, where Mama had placed it a few days ago. It was a gift
from a visitor.
Several houses down the road from us
lived a family who had a great big scuppernong arbor in their back
yard. This scuppernong arbor was as big as a room. It made a shady
nook where one could put some chairs under it and enjoy its shade, if
one pleased to do that. The vines were trained over the frame so that
they grew up as thick as walls on each end, and thick as a roof over the
top. When the family had company in the fall when the scuppernong
grapes were ripe, they liked to invite them out to the arbor to walk
around under its shade and pick the ripe grapes and have a feast.
One afternoon recently the lady of that
family decided to call on Mama for a little visit and some friendly
woman talk. So after dinner she washed the dishes and swept the kitchen
and put on a clean apron, as country women were wont to do when they
went visiting, and came calling. She did not come empty handed. She
carried a small paper bag, and from it she took a quart glass jar of her
She presented it to Mama, and said, “You
can use this to make you a pie.”
Mama said, “I don’t believe I have ever
seen canned scuppernongs before.”
“Canned scuppernong hulls,” said the
lady. “They make good pies.”
Mama opened her mouth to say something,
but didn’t. Then she said, “Well, much obliged. They look mighty
pretty in the jar.”
I was watching all of this, and I was
thinking it was mighty strange to think of making a pie out of
scuppernong hulls. What did they do with the flesh of the grapes?
But that was another day. Now this was
today and I was cooking, and I wanted to make a pie and the lady did say
they made pies out of those scuppernong hulls. So why not?
I got out the bread tray to make up the
dough for the pastry. I had never made pie pastry before. But there
has to be a first time for everything.
It went very well. I found the pie pans
and got one out. It was a little tricky getting the bottom crust in the
pan, but when it tore, I patched it and pressed it down to make it look
right, and decided to go ahead and roll out the top crust while I was at
Now to get the filling. I got a chair
and stood up in it to reach the jar on top of the cupboard. Got it
down, got it open, turned it up and poured its contents into the pie
shell. Wow, it certainly made a mound in the pie pan, and there was
some juice, too. I got the top crust on it and sealed it around the
edge with my fingers. It looked very nice. Kind of humped up in the
middle. A generous pie. But I liked to be generous.
I put it in the hot oven and put two more
sticks of wood in the stove to keep the fire going, and stirred the pots
cooking on top of the stove. Mama had started a pot of green beans
cooking before she went to the field, and also one of corn and tomatoes
and okra together. Those would soon be done, and I would push them to
the back of the stove until dinnertime.
The next thing to do was to make the
biscuits, since I already had the bread tray out. There was still a
little lump of the pie pastry left in the bread tray. It turned out
that was fortunate, because at that instant I heard a sizzling in the
oven and opened the door to find the pie had split its crust and juice
was running out. Oh, horrors! I sprang into action. Oh, dear, I
needed to patch that pie crust. Which I did. Carefully, so as not to
crack the crust anymore. I more or less just put a strip of thin dough
across the crack, and pushed the pie back to the center of the oven and
closed the door.
Now to make those biscuits. I needed to
have them ready to put in the oven when the pie got done. But as I was
sifting flour into the bread tray I heard that sound in the oven again.
Popped the door open to see the pie had sprung another leak. Patched it
as carefully as I could. If only I had put the contents of that jar
into two pies instead of one.
That kept happening until the pie looked
like it had been in a fight, with a bunch of bandages covering its
wounds. The different pieces of dough had browned to different shades
of doneness, until some of it was very brown and some was very light.
When my family came home from the field
and saw that pie I thought my brother would absolutely break a rib
laughing. He was doubled over in hysterical mirth until I said
sarcastically, “Are you in pain?”
Fortunately as a rule we had really good
pies at our house. Those were the pies that Mama made. Green apple
pies, for instance. As soon as the new crop of apples began to get big
enough every year Mama started making green apple pies.
Apple pies are good, whether from green
apples or ripe apples. Mama made double crust pies, a lot prettier than
that pie I made, and sometimes she made a cobbler in her baking pan with
just a top crust on it. Then again she might make stacked apple pies.
One day Geneva came to see me when Mama
had made stacked apple pies and she said, “Oh, I see you have ‘Lazy
Man’s Pie’ today.”
Well, when Mama made “Lazy Man’s Pie” she
started out by cooking the apples until they were like applesauce. Then
she made up a batch of biscuit dough and got out her biggest baking pan
that was almost as big as the oven. She pinched off a big lump of dough
and rolled it in her hand to make a really big biscuit. She then
flattened and flattened that biscuit in her hands until it was really
flat, and about half as big as a plate. She put that one in the greased
pan and made another one, and kept on until she had six of them. She
baked them until they were nice and brown, and took them out of the oven
and split them open and buttered them. She put each one of them back
together and began to stack them, by putting one on a plate and covering
it with some of the cooked apples, and proceeding until all the biscuit
crusts and apples were layered, with some apples as the top layer. It
really was not a lazy pie. It took about as much work as any pie. But
it certainly was good.
The apple dish that I liked the very best
was baked apples. When Mama made baked apples I really set my mouth for
Aunt Liza Griffith lived in the next
house on beyond ours. She was really old, and wore her hair in a tight
little ball of white like a snowball on the back of her head. One
afternoon she came to see Mama for a short visit and said she had cooked
some baked apples that morning. But things had not turned out well.
She had her patent medicines and her cooking flavorings sitting on the
cupboard shelf together, and when she reached up to get the vanilla
flavoring to put a little in the baked apples, and the baked apples
tasted a little unusual at dinner, she discovered she had really put
some Dr. Caldwell’s Syrup Pepsin in the baked apples. Dr. Caldwell’s
Syrup Pepsin is a laxative.
Mama’s favorite fruit seemed to be the
peach, since she had put out all those peach trees around the house when
she was a young wife. At the end of summer the shelves of our canning
closet were filled with glass quart jars of peaches, among other things,
and big beautiful yellow pickled peaches that shone through the glass
like golden balls, and peach preserves to put in the pretty glass
stemmed preserve dishes when company came.
In the summer she made double crust pies
and peach cobblers and peach rolls. I liked to watch her make those
peach rolls. She began by buttering her baking pan and setting it aside
while she made up the dough for the pastry. While she was buttering the
pan and making up dough she had me washing peaches and peeling them and
slicing them. Now she rolled out a circle of dough like a pie crust.
But it was not going to be a pie crust. She took the bowl of fresh
peach slices from me and spread some of them over that dough and poured
a scant cup of sugar over them. Now she started at one side and rolled
the whole thing up like a jelly roll, and very carefully placed it in
one end of the buttered baking pan. She made another and another until
she had four of them in the pan. That filled the pan. She carefully
poured some sweet milk down the inside of the pan until the milk came
about three-fourths of the way up the side of the rolls. The part of
the rolls that stood up out of the milk like humpback whales got dusted
generously with sugar and the whole thing dotted with butter, and into
the oven it went. The only thing left to do after that was to eat it at
dinnertime, and believe me, that was no chore. Its wonderful fragrance
filled the house as it baked, and stirred up my taste buds.
Not only did we do a lot of wonderful
good things with peaches in the summer, but we dried peaches, too. Oh,
my, did we dry peaches. In preparation for storing them, Mama took an
empty 50-pound flour sack and washed it and boiled it until it was as
white as snow. When the peach slices were dry and shrunken and wrinkled
and ready to store, they went into that sack.
We had a chinaberry tree growing in our
front yard, and Mama always added a handful of dried chinaberries to the
sack of peaches to keep bugs out of them. In the winter when she got
ready to make something good with some of those peaches she very
carefully picked out the chinaberries because, believe me, chinaberries
don't taste good. Once in a while one got through, and I hated it when
I chomped down on a chinaberry.
When Mama got ready to make something
with dried peaches she always began by stewing them in some water,
sweetened with either sugar or sorghum syrup. Those sweetened with
sorghum syrup were very dark and sweet and rich and good. They made a
great dried peach roll, like the dish she made in the summer with fresh
But the very favorite way to use dried
peaches was for fried peach pies – those wonderful half-moon pies that
took exactly two pies to fit in a skillet for frying. It gave a lift to
my heart when I came home from school sometimes on a winter afternoon
and saw a plate stacked with dried peach fried pies on the table. What
a feast – that afternoon and the next day in my school lunch box. Fried
pies were a favorite and very common item in country children’s school
lunch boxes in the wintertime.
One kind of pie that could be made winter
or summer or anytime, no matter the season, was egg custard. Everybody
in the country always had eggs and milk, and if some of the relatives
decided to walk down the road on a Sunday morning to spend the day,
probably the easiest and quickest pie to make for dessert was egg
custard. Mama was good at it because she was good at making meringue,
and the pies always looked so pretty. Sometimes she even made an egg
custard pie just for our family even when we didn’t have company. In
that case, she would put me to beating the egg whites for the meringue.
I had watched her do it from the time I could remember, so I just had to
get the hang of it when she started me doing it.
How many times I had seen her separate
the eggs, dropping the whites onto her heavy, thick, white chinaware
platter. After she made the pie and put it in the oven she sat down in
a chair with that platter and a fork to start the meringue, by tipping
the platter until the eggs started down toward the end of it, and she
beat them back briskly with the fork. She sat there beating those eggs
back as they tried to run down the tipped platter until they frothed,
and then until they were a mound of stiffly beaten egg whites. She got
up and sprinkled some sugar on the mound and beat it in, and the
meringue was ready to put on the pie. She took the pie out of the oven,
spread the meringue on it, and set it back in the oven to cook the egg
whites. It always came out looking like a picture.
Years later my mother-in-law saw the
first meringue pie I made as a young wife, and she bragged and bragged
on it mightily. I was grateful for the lessons I had learned from my
mother in that simple country kitchen.
My birthday came in November and I was
thirteen years old. Christmas was coming, and I knew exactly what I
wanted. We children got one gift, whatever we asked for, something we
had picked out in the Sears catalog, if it was something within reason
in price, which meant it couldn’t cost very much. But that did not
stifle the excitement. The only time country children got gifts was at
Christmastime, and there is no way to describe the atmospheric-high
excitement and anticipation of every child’s heart as the season
approached. I was no different.
The absolute wonder of Christmas morning
was so different from any other day in the year. For three hundred and
sixty four days we lived mundane lives – then CHRISTMAS came! We had
things at Christmas that we never had any other time.
We children did not hang stockings or
anything like that, and I never saw a Christmas tree in a country house,
so we had no tree under which gifts appeared. Instead, we set shoeboxes
on the kitchen table. The kitchen table was also the dining table at
our house. Minnie and I scrambled around to get the biggest shoeboxes
we could find. Each member of the family got a new pair of shoes when
the cotton was sold, so there were new shoeboxes in the house. Alvin
was now eighteen years old, and he didn’t set a box anymore, but he had
big feet, and either Minnie or I could use his shoebox. Daddy’s shoebox
was the next biggest one, so we used his, too. Minnie and I compared
the boxes, and they were about the same size, so we did not have to feel
competitive about who had the bigger box.
Don’t think we just went and plunked
those boxes down on the table just any old way. No, we positioned them
carefully as though we were expecting to catch stardust in them.
Christmas Eve night was cold, cold,
cold. Daddy had brought in an extra big log to put on the fire to make
it last through the evening, but Minnie and I were not planning on
sitting up late. Alvin had gone off with his pals for the evening, and
while Mama and Daddy sat in front of the fire Minnie and I went into the
back of the room in the shadows and put on our nightgowns. We called
out, “We are going to bed,” and though we dreaded the shock of the cold,
we jerked open the door to the icy bedroom, raced across the floor, and
jumped into the double bed. It was like stretching out between two
sheets of ice. There was a pile of quilts on the bed, quilts that Mama
had made, so many that they felt heavy on us, but they didn’t warm us up
instantly. We lay close together so our body heat would warm up a place
for us, but if we even moved a toe away from that spot it felt like the
We went to sleep and slept soundly and
awoke in the morning to hear Daddy making a fire in the fireplace in the
next room. The big log had burned down and Daddy had covered it with
ashes before he and Mama went to bed, and now a new fire had to be
made. It would take awhile for it to start warming up the room, because
it was so cold in that room that the water buckets sitting on the wash
table in the corner had a thick sheet of ice on top of the water in each
When the fire got going good in the
fireplace, Daddy moved on to his next job of starting a fire in the wood
cookstove. When that got going good, Mama got up. We children were not
allowed to get up before Mama. In fact, we had to wait until the room
got reasonably warm. With the fireplace in one end of the room and the
wood stove in the other end, they tried, but that room was never a
tropical paradise in the winter. But we didn’t mind. We had some great
times in that room.
And this morning was one of them. After
we had called out about the tenth time, “Can we get up now?” and were
finally told, “Yes,” we leaped out of bed, shot through the bedroom
door, slammed it behind us to keep the cold in the bedroom and out of
the dining room, and raced to our shoeboxes. Some of the things in our
shoeboxes were always the same every Christmas. Every Christmas we
always found a big red fragrant apple, different from any of the apples
we grew on the farm, and an orange that smelled so good it was like
something from another world, and a handful of mixed nuts in the shell
that we had a great time cracking afterwards, such as pecans, English
walnuts, Brazil nuts, filberts, and several other kinds. There was
always a flat box of raisins in each of our boxes. When we opened the
flat boxes we found raisins still attached to a slender limb of the
grapevine. They were dried on the vine and put in the flat boxes that
way. We pulled the dry little limb out of the box and plucked the
raisins off and ate on them as we wished.
There were always several sticks of
red-striped peppermint candy in each of our shoeboxes.
We knew from past experience that all of
these good things to eat came from a mother lode of much more of the
same, which had mysteriously appeared in the big closet by the
fireplace. If one opened the door to that closet before Christmas one
would not see anything unusual. There would be the shelves that Daddy
had built next to the chimney of the fireplace so the canning jars with
their beautiful contents from the summer’s canning would be warmed just
enough by the chimney that they would not freeze and break and lose
their bounty. That was the day before Christmas. Nothing unusual. But
on Christmas morning that closet held a bushel bag of those big shiny
red apples that smelled and tasted more apple-y than any other apples we
ever saw, and a bushel bag of oranges, which we considered to be so
exotic that they must appear only at Christmastime. There was a peck
bag of the mixed nuts in their shells, and a two-pound box of the pretty
striped sticks of peppermint candy.
How Daddy ever got all of those things in
that closet just in time for Christmas morning we never knew. But it
was an exciting surprise every Christmas.
We had a great time eating on those
once-a-year treats. One of my very favorite things was the oranges.
When I was a tiny little girl, and afterwards, too, I came to Daddy and
said, “Daddy, make a hole in this orange for me.” He took it and rolled
it and rolled it until it was soft, and took out his pocketknife, wiped
off the blade, cut a hole in the top of the orange, and handed it to
me. I put that orange to my mouth and gave a squeeze and my mouth
filled with pure liquid joy.
But the gift – what was the gift in the
shoebox? Minnie got a doll, a really beautiful doll. I had seen it in
the Sears catalog. She had, too, and asked for it, and here it was. It
was too big to go in her shoebox, so it was lying beside it. She picked
it up, and its eyes opened. Big blue eyes that opened when Minnie
raised the doll up, and closed when she laid it down. Pretty dark brown
hair. Minnie was enthralled with her new doll.
And me – what did I get? I got exactly
what I had asked for. You cannot imagine what it is like to look at
something on the page of the Sears catalog for months at a time, and
think about it, and then wake up one morning, and there it is, real and
actual, and you can actually hold it in your hands. You have it. That
was the wonder of every Christmas morning. It was like being Cinderella
at the ball. Every day of the year was pretty much the same, then
Christmas came, and you stepped into another world.
Two years before, when I was eleven years
old, I had found the little pocket New Testament. Now I was thirteen
years old and I wanted a whole Bible, all in one book. And that is what
I had asked for. I had found one in the Sears catalog, a very
inexpensive Bible. When I got up on Christmas morning and looked in my
shoebox, there it was. It was the very first whole Bible in our house.
It was kind of small, not a big Bible, but its back was shiny black and
I thought it looked elegant. It looked special.
I took it in my hands and turned it over
and looked at the back of it and the front of it and every inch of it,
and sat down in front of the fire and opened it. Its pages looked so
pristine. I had a whole book of my very own to read, and, oh how I
loved to read. I started at the first page, the first line, the very
first words, and was soon lost in the wonder of it. There was more to
it than I had read in the children’s book of Old Testament Bible
Mama woke me up from my deep
concentration by calling us to breakfast. Ordinarily I would have
hopped up in a flash at being called to Christmas breakfast because,
like everything else at Christmas, breakfast was different.
If Daddy could possibly do so, he always
bought a whole wheel of cheese for Christmas. This wheel of cheese was
about a foot in diameter, and it came in its own round case of thin
white wood like balsa wood, with a lid of the same kind of wood. We
always looked forward to cheese for Christmas, the only time in the year
when we had cheese, and, oh boy, did we eat cheese for awhile, beginning
on Christmas morning.
Mama had cut off a hunk of that cheese
and sliced it into really thick slices to go in the biscuits. When she
took the biscuits out of the oven they were so hot she could hardly
handle them, but she did anyway. She split each biscuit open, stuck a
thick slice of cheese in it, and closed it up quickly so the heat would
begin to melt the cheese. Those biscuits with the half-melted cheese in
them were something special for us on Christmas morning. Not all of the
biscuits had cheese in them. There were some to eat with the sausage
she had cooked from our own freshly butchered hogs, and some to eat with
butter and sorghum syrup if we wished. But I don’t think any of us ever
ate sorghum syrup on Christmas morning because we had something else
sweet on that particular day. Cake! We always had cake for breakfast
on Christmas morning. Three kinds of cake, in fact.
The only time in the year when Mama ever
made cakes was for Christmas, and she always made three of them. About
a week before Christmas every year Mama started rummaging around in the
back of the top shelf of the cupboard until she found her recipe book.
The reason it was hard to find was because she only used it once a year,
and only to make cakes. She needed it to tell her how to make those
yellow cake layers. All three of the cakes were made with the same kind
of yellow cake layers. She always remembered from year to year how to
make the icing, because sometimes she made icing to go on those big
teacakes we had as special treats from time to time during the year.
I was always intrigued by Mama’s recipe
book, but I can’t remember ever looking at it. She always kept it
stashed away, and it only appeared at Christmastime. It was a thin
paperback book, about six inches by nine inches in size, with a green
paperback cover. I think the title on the cover was “White House
Cookbook.” I wish I had it now. I wonder what became of it.
School was always out for two weeks at
Christmas, so I was usually home when Mama began making the cakes before
Christmas. I always liked to sit across the kitchen table and watch
her. Minnie never seemed to be as interested in watching Mama cook as I
was, so Minnie went on about her business as I watched.
Mama always made the cakes in the same
order every year, one a day for three days in a row. The first batch of
three yellow cake layers got iced with chocolate icing, and the second
batch with a hard white icing flavored with lemon flavoring. The third
was always coconut, and when I was a tiny little girl that meant Daddy
always had to get a whole coconut at the store when he made his monthly
trip to town. This was before anyone could buy grated coconut all ready
to use, so Mama had to do her own preparation. I can remember her
taking an ice pick and punching out the eye of that coconut and pouring
the milk into a cup and letting me drink it. It was so good! This was
before Minnie was born, so I was not depriving her of anything.
When Mama finished making the cakes
before Christmas she stored them in the deep drawers of a big old desk
that daddy had made sometime in the past, which sat on one side of the
dining room, and everybody knew not to open those drawers until Mama
opened them herself on Christmas morning to cut off a thin slice of each
cake for each family member. Then the cakes went back into the drawers
until company came, and, believe me, company would be coming, because
this was Christmas week, and all the relatives would be coming to our
house for a day or two during the week, and we would be going to their
houses the other days of the week.
By the time breakfast was over we were
hearing firecrackers down the road. The boy children and their fathers
could hardly wait until breakfast was over in their homes so they could
get outside and start shooting firecrackers. All boys in those days
always got firecrackers and Roman candles and sparklers for Christmas.
There was a veritable fireworks show in every yard where we had boy
cousins. When Alvin was younger and got all those things for Christmas
I loved watching the Roman candles go off, and Daddy would even help me
hold sparklers sometimes and have the fun of watching them play out
their show in my hand.
There was a small house on our land where
a family lived who helped Daddy with the farm work. The family had four
children – James and Claudia and Italy and Lieutenant. Italy was called
It. Lieutenant was called Tent. It and Tent and Alvin were great
playmates together during all their childhood and boyhood years. It and
Tent were always at our house early on Christmas mornings during those
years, and those boys had a great time together with their fireworks and
whatever else they got for Christmas. When Alvin was twelve years old
he got an air rifle for Christmas and a lot of BB’s to go with it.
Those boys must surely have been expert marksmen by the time Christmas
week was over. They shot at tin cans and fence posts and targets of all
kinds that they made. But Alvin was in deep trouble when he shot one of
Mama’s hens. He probably thought a BB wouldn’t harm her, but it killed
her. If somebody messed with Mama’s chickens they were messing with
Mama’s money, and that wasn’t good. I never knew how that situation
played out. I was probably not supposed to know. Our parents were good
to us so they probably didn’t lower the boom too much on Alvin.
So now I was thirteen years old and had
my Bible, and Minnie had her doll, and the day was winding down and dark
was coming on. Alvin was away visiting cousins Johnny and Fred Bell and
doing whatever young men of eighteen do on Christmas night. Daddy poked
up the fire in the fireplace and put some more wood on it to last until
bedtime. Mama took her seat in the little rocking chair at one end of
I said, “Daddy, will you read to us from
He looked at it in my hands and said he
would. He pulled the dining table up closer to the fire and put the
kerosene lamp on the table. I arranged three chairs in a row with their
backs against the dining table, so the light from the lamp would fall on
the Bible as Daddy read.
“Daddy, sit here,” I said, indicating the
middle chair. He sat down, and I sat on one side of him and Minnie on
“Where do you think we should start
reading?” Daddy asked.
“Start in the New Testament,” I said.
“Start at the Gospel of Matthew.”
I never knew why I said that, instead of
saying, “Start at the beginning of the Bible,” as one would logically
think, but they proved to be words of destiny.
I laid my head over on his shoulder as he
began to read, and Minnie laid her head over on his shoulder on the
other side, and Mama sat in her rocking chair on the side of the
hearth. We were all ears as Daddy read.
Daddy read to us every night that week
and through New Year’s night, and then school started again. When
school started again Minnie and I were sitting at the dining table by
the lamplight doing homework every night, and Daddy did not get to read
to us anymore.
I never saw anybody in the family read in
that Bible anymore, except me, but evidently Daddy continued to read
from time to time whenever he had a chance from work. It changed his
We were reserved people, and did not talk
easily about deep things. Four years went by and I was seventeen years
old before I found out the effect that Bible had on Daddy. I was about
to graduate from high school as valedictorian of my class, and a
recruiter from one of the business schools in Atlanta was touring the
schools in the area, trying to recruit the best students for her
business school. She talked with me, and I was interested, so she got
permission from the principal to release me early that day, and she
drove me home to talk with my parents. It was still two months before I
would actually graduate, so there was time to think about it.
The upshot of it all was that Daddy
borrowed the money for me to go to school, and Uncle Ira co-signed the
note. How my daddy ever paid that money back I do not know, but my
heart swells with gratitude even now when I think of what he did for
The two months went by, and the time was
fast approaching for me to leave home. Minnie and I came in from school
one afternoon and found Daddy in bed. Daddy in bed in the daytime?
Daddy’s favorite name for me was Sister.
“Sister, come here and sit down,” he said, as he patted the bed beside
him. I sat down and looked at him. His face was very distressed. He
began to talk, and as he began to talk, he began to cry. It was the
only time in my life I ever saw my daddy cry. And he was crying for
“You have never been away from home,” he
said. “You have never been away from home, and now you are going to a
place you don’t know anything about. Anytime you need help, you call on
Jesus. Ask Jesus to help you. He will help you. Will you do that?” he
Daddy was fifty-six years old and he had
learned the answers to life from reading a Christmas Bible.
I know he prayed for me during all the
following months and years, and because of it I lived a protected life
in a perilous world.
In the wintertime when I was a little
girl there would come a day sometime when Mama would say to Daddy, “I
want us to burn oak wood for awhile. I want to make some hominy.”
Daddy agreed, and went to the woodpile to pick out all the oak wood and
put it in a pile by itself. Mama chose a day, when the weather was sort
of mild so she could let the fire go out in the fireplace. Then she got
busy and cleaned every speck of the ashes out of the fireplace. She
didn’t want any pine ashes left to mix with her oak ashes.
When the fireplace was clean she went out
and got an armload of oak wood and brought it in to start the fire
again. It took a number of days of burning oak wood to get enough ashes
to make hominy. When there were almost enough ashes she set about to
get the corn ready.
Minnie and I went with her to the
corncrib, which was a smaller building attached to the side of the
barn. She opened the door, and the dry ears of corn in the shucks were
piled almost to the rafters. There was enough room just inside the door
for us to sit on the floor, or to sit up on the side of the pile of corn
and shuck the corn. Mama had brought a great big basket, and it was
going to take a lot of corn to fill it, because she was going to make
the hominy in the big black wash pot that sat at the wash place out by the
well. If she was going to make hominy she wanted to make enough for the
job to be worthwhile. There was no problem about keeping it in the
natural refrigeration we had in our house in the wintertime.
When the basket was full, and there was a
pile of shucks lying beside us, we were ready to go back to the house.
The shucks would be fed to the cows at milking time that night.
Mama and I carried the basket between us,
and went in and set it down in front of the fireplace, and pulled up
chairs for the next step, which was shelling the corn. The first ear
was the hardest to shell, because the big hard white grains were rough
on the hands. But after you got that first one done the rest was duck
soup, so to speak, because you could use that cob to shell the rest of
the ears. You soon had a rhythm going, where you just raked those
grains right off the cobs. Minnie was helping us, and the three of us
soon had that job done.
When Mama had enough oak ashes she soaked
the shelled corn in a watery stew of the ashes until the potash in the
oak loosened the hard shells of the grains, and those shells were ready
to be washed off, leaving the big white naked grains of dry corn. She
washed and washed that corn, and finally built a fire under the wash pot
to begin her cooking.
I never stayed at the wash place to watch
Mama cooking hominy, and I don’t know exactly how she did it, but I know
when that hominy got done it was a thick, creamy, snow-white mass of
goodness that just coated the tongue and delighted one’s taste buds with
each bite. Did we eat good when Mama made hominy!
There were some rocks that jutted out of
the ground on one side of our front yard. One day when I came out the
back door Mama had a flour sack lying on the flat rock there, and she
was beating the tar out of that sack, so to speak. That flour sack was
as white as the driven snow. Did it deserve a beating like that? It
was not the sack that was getting the beating, it was what was in the
sack – dry black eye peas in the hulls. Mama was being efficient. She
was saving herself from having to sit down and shell those peas and get
her fingers pricked with the hard, sharp hulls. The beating loosened
the hulls from the peas.
It was a windy day, just right for what
she intended to do. She had an empty washtub sitting nearby, ready to
receive the peas as she untied the flour sack and took out a double
handful of peas and hulls and threw them up in the air over the
washtub. The strong wind sailed the hulls away over the yard, and the
peas fell into the washtub. When all the hulls were gone and all the
peas were in the washtub, she put the peas back in the sack, saving out
enough for a meal. Those she washed thoroughly and put to soak
overnight, ready to cook for the next day’s midday dinner.
Next morning those dried peas were
swelled up in their soaking water to the size they were as green peas in
the summertime, and they were ready to cook. Mama added some fatback
and some salt to the pot and set it on the wood stove to cook. When
those peas were about half done Mama stepped behind the stove where
there hung on a nail on the wall a string of dry red pepper pods, which
she had picked out of the garden in the fall and strung them to have for
winter cooking. Mama selected a pod and dropped it in the pot of peas.
Those peas would have some zing to them when they got done. Also there
would be a little cruet of vinegar on the table, which was good to go
with a plateful of black eye peas and cornbread. Mama was making the
cornbread now, and that would be dinner – plenty of black eye peas and
cornbread. It was a good stick-to-the ribs dinner on a cold winter
Daddy always had two big hogs to kill
every year at hog-killing time when the weather got really cold. But we
didn’t eat all the hams from those hogs. One of the hams would be
swapped at the store for a case of salmon, which was twenty-four cans,
and that gave us some variety in our eating.
When Mama got ready to cook salmon she
got a deep round pan and crumbled up about four or five cold biscuits in
the pan, opened a can of salmon, poured it in, and mixed the whole thing
together with her hand until it was thoroughly mixed. She had a skillet
with lard in it heating on the stove, and there were biscuits baking in
She picked up a little ball of the salmon
mixture, rolled it in her hand like a biscuit, flattened it, and put it
in the lard in the skillet. When the skillet was full and the salmon
patties had browned, she turned them over and browned them on the other
side and moved them to a plate.
Now to make the gravy. She sprinkled
some flour into the hot lard in the skillet, added a little salt, let
the flour brown, added a big glass of sweet milk as she stirred
vigorously, and watched it thicken, as she moved the skillet to the back
of the stove and got ready to pour the gravy into a bowl.
When the family sat down to eat on that
particular day there would be salmon patties and biscuits and good thick
cream gravy. If one still had an empty place in his stomach after that,
he could reach over to the center of the table where the syrup pitcher
always sat, and split a biscuit on his plate, pour on the sorghum syrup,
and have dessert. Enough of anything is enough.
When our own dry black eye peas and field
peas and Crowder peas were used up, and there were still winter days
ahead, Daddy took a ham to town and swapped it for a bushel bag of dry
pinto beans. A bushel of pinto beans will go further than a ham, and
stick to the ribs better, too. We had many and many a pot of pinto
beans for winter dinners, with some chopped onions to go on them, and
plenty of cornbread. This was an eat-all-you-want dinner, as long as
you wanted pinto beans and cornbread.
Sometimes on a cold winter afternoon when
Minnie and I came home from school we would find Mama opening some of
the quart glass jars of tomatoes that she had canned in the late
summer. These tomatoes had all the richness and flavor of being canned
right from the garden. Mama was getting ready to make tomato soup for
supper. This was not your ordinary tomato soup. There were plenty of
good-sized chunks of tomato in these canned tomatoes that made it
Mama emptied three quarts of the tomatoes
into a pot, brought it to a boil on the front of the wood stove, and got
ready to make the thickening. She put some flour in a big cup, added
some water to make a thin paste, went to the stove, and stirred the
tomato pot vigorously as she slowly poured in the thickening. After she
emptied the cup she continued to stir the pot a few minutes to let the
flour cook completely and moved the pot to the back of the stove. She
got the bowl of butter out of the cupboard, put a heaping tablespoonful
into the pot, and stirred it in. Now the soup was done and hot and
ready to serve. Cornbread was baking in the oven, and it was about
done, too, and smelling mighty good.
The family sat down to a supper of good
homemade tomato soup and cornbread. A mighty satisfying meal.
Sometimes when times were lean and Mama
could not think of anything else to have for supper, she made flitters
and syrup. I loved flitters. But all that grease certainly did make a
body thirsty afterwards.
Mama started off with a couple of
skillets with lard in them that she set on the front of the stove to get
hot. She took a big bowl and put in plenty of flour, a pinch of salt,
and a tiny pinch of baking soda. To this she added some sour buttermilk
to make a thin batter. That sour buttermilk is what made flitters so
good. They had that little sourdough whang to them.
When I got grown and came to the city I
encountered pancakes for the first time. Flitters were not pancakes.
Flitters came out of the skillet thin and brown on both sides and
buttermilk white inside, with that little sour buttermilk taste that was
When we had flitters for supper we had
plenty of them, with plenty of good sorghum syrup to go on them. Nobody
got up from the table hungry.
Every year Daddy planted a patch of
peanuts, and when he harvested them, they were pulled up whole, with the
peanuts clinging to the roots of the plants. Daddy spread those peanut
plants with the peanuts on them on top of the barn for the peanuts to
dry. Minnie and I used to like to climb the gate and get up on the barn
and sit there and pick peanuts off the plants and eat them. We had a
good time cracking the peanut shells and eating peanuts and throwing the
shells off the barn onto the ground below.
When the peanuts were dry they were
picked off the plants and the plants were fed to the cows. The peanuts
were put in a clean flour sack and brought in the house to eat for
snacks or to make parched peanuts sometimes on a rainy day, just for
If Minnie or I said, “Mama, can we make
some parched peanuts?” Mama got out her big black biscuit pan, the one
she used to make enough biscuits when company came, the one that was
almost as big as the inside of the oven, and she spread out a layer of
peanuts in it and set the pan in the oven. Every now and then she
opened the oven door and gave the peanuts a good stirring and shut the
door again. The oven was never at its hottest when she made parched
peanuts, because they could burn mighty quickly if one wasn’t careful,
and burned peanuts were not good at all.
When they were just right she took the
pan out of the oven and dumped the peanuts into a big round deep pan.
If it was rainy and cold and gray
outside, and the fire in the fireplace and the wood stove had the big
dining room – kitchen all cozy inside, one could sit in front of the
fire in a rocking chair and eat parched peanuts and throw the hulls in
the fire, and watch the hulls catch fire with a blue flame, and feel so
warm and secure and blessed. It was a good day.
There is food for the body, and then
there is food for the soul. I did not know my soul was so deprived
until I sat one Monday morning, a beautiful morning in May, in my living
room with two little ones playing around my feet, and my firstborn
six-year-old son away at school. The day before, Mother's Day, my
mother-in-law had brought me a stack of her women's magazines that she
had finished reading. Now I sat leafing through them hungrily,
thinking, "I’ll just look through these a few minutes before I have to
get up and start on my day."
Then something caught my eye. A book.
One of the magazine titles had a book serialized in three or four of its
issues. A whole book. I picked out those issues and separated them
from the rest of the stack. I would look at them later when I had a few
minutes. Right now I needed to get up and wash the dishes and do the
laundry and make the baby’s formula. I started to arise and then
thought, “Well, I’ll just see how the book starts out.”
So I read a few words. A few sentences.
A few paragraphs. And I read on. After an hour I got up in a daze and
gave the baby his bottle and changed him, and gave my two-year-old
daughter a snack and hurried back to my chair. The children
cooperated. They played happily.
Time moved on. When at last I read the
last words in the last issue of the magazine where the book was
serialized I sat weeping, saying, “I didn’t know, I didn’t know.”
In my mind I went back to that day when I
was nine years old and found the book of Old Testament Bible stories.
That day I fell in love with God. I loved God with all my heart. I
loved being with godly people. I loved being in church. But I had not
gone all the way. I was lost. I had disobeyed the God I loved.
When I found the little New Testament on
the mantel that summer day when I was eleven years old I read it and it
told me the way to God’s heart, but I ignored it. I was smug, I was
arrogant, I thought I already knew it all. I said I already knew God.
But that is not what God said.
In my heart of hearts I knew there was a
disconnect. I knew something was not right. That little New Testament
told me there is a terminal disease of the soul. A terminal disease. I
did not know I had it.
The little New Testament said,
“God so loved the World
that he gave
his only begotten Son
believes in him
shall not perish,
but have everlasting life.”
The Son of God came to earth to fix it.
He came to deal with that terminal disease. That terminal disease is
called sin. Jesus Christ, the Son of God, came to take all the sin of
all time upon himself, and to release us from it. He offers us that
release and freedom as a free gift. But he gives us free choice – we
can take it or leave it. It is amazing how many people leave it. I
certainly did for many years.
This morning I sat reading a book
serialized in a magazine, and suddenly it all came clear. The book was
called, “The Day Christ Died.” Jim Bishop was the author, and the
writing was inspired. The whole long day was one of increasing
brutality and horror against Jesus until it climaxed in the
crucifixion. The pain of it was indescribable, but Jim Bishop was
describing it, until I cried out, “Jesus, you didn’t have to do this.
You didn’t have to do this. You could have stopped it at any time! But
you did it for me. You did it for everybody.”
In that moment I ceased to ignore him. I
surrendered to him. I gave myself away to him. I fell in love with
Jesus. I said, “Jesus, I’ll do anything you want me to do from now
on.” And he accepted me. In that moment a transaction took place in my
soul. The Bible calls it “being born again.” It calls it “being
saved.” Jesus took away the terminal disease of sin and gave me eternal
life, and I became a child of God. What a glorious thing! I was so
filled with joy I could hardly stand it. This is what I had been
looking for all my life. I received a whole new life that day. I
entered into a whole new dimension of living. The wonder of it goes on
and on and on.
A day came some years later when I was
scheduled to go into the hospital for surgery. Our pastor came to the
house to pray for me. During our conversation he said, “The Lord may
have an appointment in the hospital for you.” His words proved to be
When the time came and they placed me in
a room after surgery, there were two beds in the room. The other bed
was empty. But not for long. Sometime late in the day orderlies and
nurses came rolling a gurney with a patient that they transferred to the
other bed. They got her all settled and they left. I was not up for
conversation and neither was she, so no conversation passed between us.
There was silence in the room the rest of the day and that night, except
for the quick steps of the nurses as they came to check on us, and then
The next morning I felt better. My phone
rang about nine o’clock. It was a good friend. We had a long talk. As
we talked, I told her about the pastor’s visit and what he had said,
that, “The Lord may have an appointment for you in the hospital.”
When finally I hung up the phone a voice
came immediately from the other bed. She said, “I think I may be your
I encouraged her to speak on. She told
me a litany of troubles. She had come from Ohio to visit her daughter
in the Atlanta area. Back home in Ohio she had a longstanding history
of chronic kidney problems, and now on this visit had been stricken with
a very serious painful attack. She was scheduled for surgery in this
She was a nurse, and worked at her
profession. Her father was disabled, and since she was a nurse, her
siblings thought she should be the one to take care of him. So she had
the care of her father in addition to her job.
Her husband had recently left her and
cleaned out their bank accounts. What made it even more heartbreaking
was that her children seemed to side with their father.
She told me all of this, and in anguish
from the depths of her soul she said, “I’ve been crying out to God to
I asked, “Do you know God?”
She said, “No.”
I said, “If you come to God and give
yourself away to him, he will accept you and your troubles and work them
Then I said, “Let me come over there,”
and I slid my feet to the floor and went around on the other side of her
bed and opened the drawer of the little nightstand there, hoping there
was a Gideon Bible inside.
There was. I took it out and opened it
to the book of Romans in the New Testament.
“This is how you come to God,” I said.
“Listen to this,” and I read to her the ninth and tenth verses of
“If you shall confess with your mouth the
Lord Jesus, and shall believe in your heart that God has raised him from
the dead, you shall be saved.
For with the heart man believes unto
righteousness, and with the mouth confession is made unto salvation.”
I said to her, “Do you believe that?”
She said, “Yes.”
I said, “Say it.”
She said it out loud.
I said, “Now on the authority of the
Bible, the Lord has saved you and you are his child. He will help
I went back and got in my bed.
We were quiet. She was thinking. Peace
reigned in the room.
In a little while her doctor came in. He
did not stand at the foot of her bed and talk to her. He sat down on
the side of her bed and looked at her. Just sat there and looked at her
a few moments. Like maybe wheels were turning in his head and he was
thinking of something. She waited for him to speak. Finally he said,
“We are not going to do surgery on you. We are going to let you go
She broke out in a beatific smile.
“Well, I feel wonderful!” she said, and the way she said it made it
sound like, “Oh, what a beautiful day this is!”
He said, “We are going to call your
daughter and let her come and take you home,” and he left.
It took awhile for the daughter to get
there. She and a nurse came in rolling a wheelchair to take the patient
out, but I believe the patient could have floated out without touching
the floor. She looked as radiant as the sun coming up.
I lay in my bed and thought, “I am seeing
Such has been my walk with the Lord.
Exciting and thrilling. Sometimes through dark valleys. But he is
always with me.
So again I say, there is food for the
body, and then there is food for the soul. Mama’s good cooking
nourished my body, and the Lord himself nourishes my soul. It takes
both for life to be complete.