Sunday, May 13, 2012

Hot Rolls and Sweaty Cooks

This post doesn't include a recipe. It doesn't boast any drool worthy photos nor does it link to anything. This post is a story, a tribute to all the amazing mothers in my life, who not only own it in the kitchen, but also own my heart. This is for my mother, Patty Bailey; my Granny Boohler back in Princeton, West Virginia, and my Granny Belcher also in Princeton West Virginia. This story also honors my Aunt Barbara Bailey in Johnson City, Tennessee, my Aunt Barbara DeMary in Fairmont, West Virginia, my "other mother" Mrs. Jane Haney in Richmond, Virginia, and my mother-in-law, Kathy Dalesandro (all the way out west!) in Carmel, California.

Happy Mother's Day.


I remember how my Granny Boohler’s West Virginia kitchen always smelled like hot rolls. Warm and yeasty, the room would bloom with the aroma of fresh baked bread. I’d open the oven door, letting the hot rush of doughy air sweep across my face, waiting to see if the tops had browned, so I could have one roll fresh out. Granny would sneak up behind me and quickly close the door. “You’re lettin’ all the good air out!” she would cry, and then go back to stirring the sausage gravy so it didn’t clump.

Meanwhile, my Aunt Barbara would be laying out the plastic tablecloth—the one with dogwood flowers on it—and topping each place setting with a bright red hand-stitched placemat along with mismatched plates and silverware. Mom would be bustling to and from the basement (where all the “big food” was kept in another fridge) lugging up the country ham, the crispy-skinned turkey, and the giant pot of green beans cooked in fatback. (You know you’re a true host when you need two refrigerators to hold all the food you’ve been cooking.)

As a young girl, my job was always the hors d’oeuvres. Granny would proclaim, “We can’t have dinner without hors d’oeuvres!” which I always found funny since most of our dinner “guests” munched on them while wearing dirty sweatpants and wife beaters. I would cube some Colby cheese, get out a few jars of bread-and-butter pickles, throw in a handful of green olives stuffed with pimiento, and then artfully arrange it all in Granny’s signature depression glass serving dish. Voila! Hors d’oeuvres.

Now, the “guests” were the men in our family, who avoided the kitchen much in the same way they avoided the washer and dryer and detergent in general. You see, it worked like this. The women cooked the food, served the food, and cleaned up the food while the men ate the food. They had their place—in front of the television, asking for refills of sweet tea and slices of applesauce cake. Simple and highly efficient in a patriarchal sort of way.

In truth, kitchen life for us ladies was easier when we were in total control. Never did I walk into that kitchen and see one of the boys frying up a mess of apple pies draped in one of grandma’s aprons proclaiming, “Come and get it!”, and never did I want to. We worked much faster as an all-female group. Each of us had her unwritten and unchanging role. My mother and aunt were in charge of cleaning up after Granny, who was well known to leave an apocalyptic mess in her wake. Some nights, it literally rained dirty dishes. They’d be piled up on the kitchen table, the counters, the stoves, in the sink, and even outside on the back porch with all kinds of half-charred, partially congealed vegetable, meat, and fat leavings. It took hours to scrub all those dishes by hand. And the best part was you got to do it all over again the next night. Brittle fingernails and cracked hands were our birthrights.

Granny may have left us with quite a mess, but she sure could cook up a lot of food. From apples to zucchini, she did it all. She’d cook all day every day for a solid week, and everything down to the white bread for leftover turkey sandwiches was made from scratch. One day, she’d make nothing but cakes and pies: coconut, pound, chocolate, chess. Next day would be candies and cookies: turtles, fudge, bourbon balls. Then onto breads: potato rolls, banana bread, zucchini bread. As the grand day of eating approached closer, the turkey, the whole ham, the sweet potato casserole, and the brown beans would be cooked up and stored in the basement fridge with all the other goodies. Finally, the salads would be made: congealed, potato, slaw. The last day would be reserved for gravies, biscuits, punch, and other last-minute doings such as opening fresh jars of blackberry jam, apple butter, and chow chow. This is what country cookin’ is all about: flour dusting every biscuit and filling each homemade pie with pure love drawn from the enduring sweat of a hardworking cook.

And Granny’s kitchen was small—really small. Imagine a cluster of frenetic women swarming around trying to find space to lay down just one more squash casserole, bumping into one another, knocking over the ice trays laid out for the sweet tea. Imagine all four burners on the cooktop gleaming orange, bubbling over with various gravies and boiling white potatoes. Imagine an oven continuously pumping out black smoke every time you dared to open it (since it hadn’t had a real cleaning in years). Imagine no ventilation, no dishwasher, no counter space, and no refrigerator space. Imagine sweating more than you thought you had in you and still making enough food for an entire congregation. Imagine the best time of your life.

Yet, this is how we did it. There was rarely an occasion—we were the occasion. Granny would break out the Fostoria serving platters and the carnival glass, and we always had some kind of green punch served from the antique punchbowl that usually resided in the basement. Gospel music would play from an old 8-track in the adjoining living room, and sometimes Granny would put on a little bluegrass from the tape recorder that rested permanently on the buffet—a little Flatt and Scruggs or her favorite, Mac Wiseman’s, “Tis Sweet to Be Remembered.”

We didn’t have much, but we had a lot, and Granny made sure none of us ever cared about the difference between our family meal and the lobster tails served in some fancy restaurant on real see-through Limoges china. Because this meal, like all of our meals, was special. Granny worked with what she had, and it didn’t matter that our forks didn’t match or the cole slaw was a little on the sugary side or the punch bowl had a big chip in the rim. This was a feast made from the fortitude of great Southern women treasured by strong, hardworking Southern men. The table was often silent while we ate, not because we were lacking in conversation, but out of respect. A good meal should be savored like a hot roll fresh from the oven and a good host should be cherished, not for what she has, but for what she offers.

This story was original published in "White Trash Gatherings: From-Scratch Cooking for Down-Home Entertaining" (Ten Speed Press, 2006).

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