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Welcome to Christianity Oasis Purity Publications. This E-book is titled Personal Great Depression Stories - Mama's Cooking and Mine written by Author Katie Arnold. Christianity Oasis in association with Purity Publications proudly presents you with this Mama's Cooking and Mine E-Book free of charge for your enjoyment.


Confidential Christian Counseling

Mama's Cooking and Mine

by Katie Arnold


Chapter One ... Sweet Potatoes
Chapter Two ... Irish Potatoes
Chapter Three ... Vegetables
Chapter Four ... Bread
Chapter Five ... One Day
Chapter Six ... Butter And Syrup And Jelly
Chapter Seven ... Meats
Chapter Eight ... Day Two
Chapter Nine ... Pies
Chapter Ten ... Day Three
Chapter Eleven ... Winter Eating
Chapter Twelve ... Day Four

Chapter One

Sweet Potatoes

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 sweet potatoes.

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 potato.

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 have it?”

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 there.

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 hisself.”

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 Christmas.

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 country.)

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 with butter.

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 get soft.

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 more.

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.

Chapter Two

Irish Potatoes

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 again.

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 half full.

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 next day.

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 heavy lid.

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 black pepper.

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 enjoy.

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 them all.

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 cooking spoon.

Cook another five minutes and turn off the heat. Test the cubes of potatoes to see if they are done, but still firm.

When the cubes are done, but still firm, remove the pot from the stove. Remove the lid from the pot and leave it off.

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 refrigerator overnight.

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 pickle relish.

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, tasteless mayonnaise.

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.

Chapter Three


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 right away.

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 off.

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 be.

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.

Chapter Four


“Here it comes!” my little sister called out.

Sure enough, it was coming.

My little sister Minnie was jumping around with excitement in the front yard.

“Mama!” I yelled. “Here comes the rolling store.”

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 the realm.

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 something.”

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 other.

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 country.

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 supper.

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 before.”

“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 days.

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 do things.

Chapter Five

One Day

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?”

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 Bell?

“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 up there.

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 early.

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 ladder.

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 with joy.

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.

Chapter Six

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 made.

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 sleep.

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 it.

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 butter!”

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 winter.

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 sweetenin’.”

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, “Salt?”

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 was gone.

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 them.

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 home.

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.

Chapter Seven


“Mama!” I called.

This was about nine o’clock on a Sunday morning.

“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 today.

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 direction.

“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 the coop.

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 chicken’s teeth.

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 eating sand?”

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 place 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 buggy coming!”

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 cup.

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 enthusiastically.

“Oh,” said friend, unimpressed, thinking of those little seven-inch frozen chicken pies one could get in the grocery stores.

“No,” said Son, sticking his chest out, “My mother is making this chicken pie!”

New recipes often come into being by serendipity.

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 baking endeavors.

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.

Chapter Eight

Day Two

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 something together.

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 pick cotton.

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 nice.

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 used.

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 doing, Charlie?”

“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 it.

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 door again.

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 desperately.

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 school bus.

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 book?”

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 one.”

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 the farm.

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.

Chapter Nine


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 girl.

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 recent canning.

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 it.

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 dessert.

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 peaches.

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.

Chapter Ten

Day Three

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 North Pole.

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 bucket.

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 stories.

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 the hearth.

I said, “Daddy, will you read to us from my Bible?”

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 the other.

“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 life.

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 me.

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 me.

“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 asked.

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.

Chapter Eleven

Winter Eating

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 day.

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 the oven.

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 interesting.

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 wonderful.

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 fun.

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.

Chapter Twelve

Day Four

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
that whosoever
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 prophetic.

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 left.

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 appointment.”

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 hospital.

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 help me!”

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 out.”

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 chapter ten:

“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 you.”

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 home.”

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 a miracle.”

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.


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