Southern Food: At Home, on the Road, in History
by John Egerton
Southern Food Memories: From a bookclub Viewer
In watching your program, I am reminded of a comment I made to my grandmother, Grace Brewer Creech of Pine Ridge, Kentucky, in September of . My grandmother was a woman who raised her eight children during the Great Depression; her husband left for World War II and never returned to her or her children at the end of the war. She had chickens, a cow, and, when money allowed, a hog. By raising tobacco by hand, she managed enough cash to keep clothes and shoes on her kids. They raised a garden to provide for most of their food needs.
While driving up the Mountain Parkway that morning to visit her as she lay near the end of her life, my mind had wandered back to the wonderful Sunday breakfasts and dinners it had been my great pleasure to consume at her table. No one would sit at her table and go away hungry. Her mission in life was to fatten up the wives and husbands of her children, her grandchildren, and any of their prospective mates. On many occasions, the family would resort to eating on chairs on the front porch, seats on various couches, scattered throughout her rebuilt twin cabin with dog trot down the center. The center section had a floor installed some 75 years before and was completely enclosed. The amount of food covering the table would be staggering: five or six long cake pans filled with biscuits, a huge iron skillet filled with gravy, large plates of eggs, from her chickens, cooked over medium (I find it odd, but I cant recall ever seeing a scrambled egg in her home, yet I was nearly 25 before I discovered that her eldest child, my very own mother, knew how to do anything but scramble an egg!), thick slabs of old country bacon, fried apples, fried potatoes, and God knows what else.
As far as membership in her clan, she would claim her children, her sisters, brothers, neighbors, friends passing by, and their broods as hers. If you brought a few more with you, she would take them too. If you arrived late, you would be exhorted to Come on in here and get you a plate, before its all gone. Yeah, that would be the day; I would take bets on her against any squad-sized unit of the U.S. Army. Those well-trained boys would be laying in the floor, holding their bellies, calling for mommy, and she would still have food on the table.
Dinners with fried chicken, huge tubs of potato salad, plates full of her homegrown sliced tomatoes, deviled eggs, garden-grown green beans cooked with a salt-cured ham hock, corn that was sliced from the cob, put into bags, and frozen, cakes of every kind and description. Again the folks were everywhere but at the kitchen table, unless refilling their plates. Fresh melons, sliced cucumbers in bowls of salt water, and corn fresh from the garden, on the cob if it was at its sweetest then. You would grab a plate and start through the kitchen. Most of the vegetables were still on the stove, powered by bottled gas. The cast-iron pan that had fried half the chicken, or bacon, depending on the meal, was filled to overflowing with gravy; on the far counter was the upside-down lid of these old electric skillets, filled with chicken or pork chops or bacon. Biscuit pans were laid out wherever there was room, including a little wood-burning stove that provided heat to knock off the morning chill. Oh, and if milk were your drink of choice, as long as someone in the family knew of someone raising a dairy herd, the milk in her fridge would never see the inside of any pasteurization unit.
I told that woman of the mountains that I hadnt had a decent breakfast in the last 25 years. Her smile brightened as she offered to get up and go whip me one up. Alas, my heart tugged, as I knew that her precious hills were nearly ready to claim her, which they did the second weekend of September of 2002. She was buried in her family cemetery, not far down the hill from the house where she spent the last 60 of her 92 years, just at the far edge of the garden that had fed her and her family through part of the Great Depression, all of World War II, and all of the years since. Her warm generosity brought her, many times during her life, to send along food to those nearby who had fallen on hard times. Whether family, neighbors, or folks she barely knew, the Christian principles taught to her by her simple Methodist minister father were with her and followed by her all of the days she walked this earth.
The only place that I have ever felt that kind of excess in a restaurant was in Nashville, Tennessee, about three blocks from the Gaylord Entertainment complex. While I cant recall the street name, it was one of the two that crossed Broadway at the Gaylord, about two and one-half blocks up, a half block on past a Subway sandwich shop. The furnishings indicated that they had bought a lot of dining room tables and chairs at estate sales, to fill the basement space that they occupied. They were set for 8 or 12, and if you had less than that they would park some more folks with you. On our Sunday morning, it was a couple of Arkansas fans, whom the Wildcats had dispatched the afternoon before. We shared laughs, baskets of fried chicken, country ham, bacon, eggs, grits, pitchers of whole milk, coffee, and orange juice. Boats of gravy to smother everything in would give my doctor a heart attack and make a Zocor salesman smile. For about 15 bucks including tip, it was enough to make a grown man groan.
I recommend it next time you venture to Nashville.
Bill McFadden, Lexington
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