Oddly enough, all of this immersion hasn't had me thinking recipes, cookbooks or slow cookers at the end of the day, but rather family, our oldways by way of the mountains of West Virginia, and the gift of Southern cooking, that for me, is simple, satisfying, and easy in all sense of the word, especially on the soul-- a steaming pot of brown beans waiting to be topped with a dollop of vinegary chow chow, the sensuousness of my mom's creamed new potatoes, the certainty that once again my Granny Boohler would burn her beef roast and white gravy in that old cast iron pan (but it was still so good).
I remember the days when my Granny Belcher cooked in a wood stove and how her cinnamon rolls filled the entire house with the aroma of burnt sugar, spices and yeast. Heavenly, especially for a ten year old little girl. That house is gone now. In its place is a carpet store, which was oddly built off the back of the living room, that in a ghost town sort of way, still stands completely intact. I miss those days. I miss that food, even with its so-called imperfections, which ironically is what made it so perfect. Most importantly, I miss the people I've lost, especially this year.
Perhaps this is one of the many defining elements that makes Southern food and cooking what it is, the gift of recollection or the idea that these things shall not be forgotten.
I found a story, a recollection that I wrote nearly ten years ago, that continues to guide me as I navigate this wild journey as cook, writer, wife, and Southerner by way of Appalachia. It keeps me in the present. Perhaps it will renew a lost memory or two for you as well.
Comforting Comforts-- Ball Jars and Funeral Cake
By Kendra Bailey Morris
As a child, I was lucky enough to have three grandmothers. My father’s mother, Granny Boohler, my mother’s mother, Granny Belcher, and my Granny and Grandpa Boohler’s longtime neighbor and friend, Maw Maw.
Maw Maw lived in a small, brick, two-bedroom home, painstakingly built by her husband (known appropriately as Paw Paw). The home was about 100 feet from my grandparents’ home (which Paw Paw had also built back in the fifties) and boasted a mini carport, a paved drive, and a big picture window fronted by expertly clipped rhododendrons (the West Virginia state flower). The property was neat as a pin—immaculately mowed and edged by Paw Paw, who took great pride in caring for his small plot of land.
Maw Maw and Paw Paw lived in Mercer County, West Virginia, where small towns such as Princeton and Bluefield still flourish along with nondescript in-between places bearing names like Possum Hollow, Greasy Ridge, and Punkin Center. Nearby was Junior’s used car dealership along with the Air Strip Motel, owned by Maw Maw and Paw Paw’s son, which, ironically, was nowhere near an actual airport. Up the street, you could get the best foot-long chili dog in town at the local Tasty Dawg. It was that kind of place.
Down the road a bit rested the old, beat-up yellow school bus that the Clemons family made into their home. Much in the same way a hermit crab makes his home out of an empty conch shell, the Clemons’s made their home out of an abandoned school bus. Over the years, this diligent family of four built onto that yellow and black bus emblazoned on each side with “Mercer County Schools.” First, a bathroom was added on, then a living addition, and eventually a small kitchen was built off the back as well as a deck and a makeshift front porch. Over time, much of the bus began to disappear—the flattened tires, the driver’s seat with steering wheel, the fold-out entrance doors—until one day the family was left with an actual home that wasn’t sitting up on blocks anymore.
About a block away, Maw Maw and Paw Paw’s home seemed like the Ritz Carlton. With a full-sized kitchen and a semi-finished basement, they did pretty well for retired coal miners who lived a good part of their married years in a tent colony on coal company property. A certain amount of this good living came from Paw Paw getting the black lung from years of working in the mines. In the late sixties, Congress established a black lung benefits program to which Paw Paw promptly applied and promptly received a hefty six-figure lump payout. And typical of solid country people who came from nothin’, both Maw Maw and Paw Paw went to their graves without spending so much as a dime on themselves.
But Maw Maw and Paw Paw still kept enough food around to feed the entire congregation of Greenview Methodist Church, and stashed it (just like their lump-sum payout) all over the house. With a basement filled wall to wall with home-canned vegetables and meats, few trips were ever made to the local grocery store. They were completely self-sufficient, with nearly all of the canned goodies coming from Paw Paw’s vegetable garden. His garden was an impressive sight to behold. The neighbors marveled at this local wonder. As the garden was built on a 70-degree ridge, it was hard believe he could get anything to grow there with the constant mountain flooding from summer rains, but somehow that green thumb of his made it work. There it was—rows of green beans, heirloom tomatoes, sweet corn, mounds of crispy cabbages, and crunchy red radishes. It was a vegetarian’s delight, less all the fatback it was cooked in.
When we’d visit in the summer, oftentimes I’d get to “sleep over” in Maw Maw’s basement on the old rickety twin bed with its half-painted iron frame and “hot dog” mattress (you know, the kind of mattress that folds you up like a hot dog if you lie in the middle). But somehow, that bed was still comfortable—probably because Maw Maw always made it up with her handmade quilt and crisp, fresh sheets just before I came over.
No one had air-conditioning back then (and it could get quite warm in the summer), so a drafty basement with a cement floor was a welcome relief. Next door, at my Granny Boohler’s house, every bed, couch, and available floor space was packed with aunts, uncles, and cousins from bottom to top, and even at the ripe old age of eleven, I think I needed some peace.
After dinner, Maw Maw would saunter down the creaky wood stairs and tuck me in, dressed in her characteristic oversized brown print smock, and softly uttering the same apologetic phrases, “Well honey, I knows you want to stay on up, but me and Paw Paw’s tarred tonite—he’s been pullin’ weeds out der all day. Dontchu whirry. You can c’mon back tamara and slep ovah.” I would hold onto those words like a fistful of diamonds just waiting for night to pass so I could start the process over again the next day. I just loved being there.
On some nights, when I couldn’t sleep, Maw Maw would lie next to me in the adjoining twin bed and wait for me to fall asleep, which I rarely did. Instead, she would fall asleep on her back with legs gently crossed, her hands resting on her chest peacefully, and emitting just enough of a snore that I knew not to try and start up any conversation. She seemed old to me then, with her tightly wound silvery brown curls, deeply embedded facial lines, and skin heavily pigmented from too many long days in the sun.
In the middle of the night, when I’d wake up, Maw Maw would be gone. Feeling a little scared (being down there by myself now), for entertainment I’d count the Ball jars lined along with wall. They were always properly organized by their contents—eleven jars pickled wax beans, eight jars sweet corn, six jars pickled beets, ten jars apple butter, seven jars bread-and-butter pickles, four cans homemade sausage. I remember how the moonlight would creep in and bounce off the golden colors of the corn and the freshly packed cucumbers still glistening in their vinegar.
Immediately, I’d feel better as it reminded me of Maw Maw’s cooking—the quintessential vegetable plate with fresh, sliced tomatoes, collard greens cooked in fatback, apple cider–laced cole slaw, and mushy butter beans. And sweets! Her sweet potato pie was pure heaven. Simply garnished with a dollop of fresh cream and a sprinkle of nutmeg, it was the perfect ending to the perfect meal.
Maw Maw passed away a few years ago, tipping the age scales at 103 years. After her funeral, friends and family gathered at the house, doing what we all do in the country when someone beloved passes on—bearing sweets. Although in Maw Maw’s case, it may have seemed more appropriate to bring a couple of jars of homemade apple butter or canned cream corn, the people who loved her most brought gooey brownies, homemade cinnamon rolls, and apple date pies. There was, of course, a West Virginia Funeral Cake—a chocolate-cinnamon–infused cake with chocolate icing, which originated out of the coalfields. Made from ingredients on hand in every country cook’s kitchen (flour, sugar, eggs, and chocolate) it is designed to be made at the last minute and leave a lasting impression. The West Virginia Funeral Cake’s sole purpose is to brighten up even the saddest of days, and it truly does.
Every cookie, cake, and pie savored that day was made in Maw Maw’s honor because in many ways, that’s why we all cook—to give back to the people we love. The meals that Maw Maw cooked for me were fashioned out of love, and sharing her food made me proud to be part of everything Mercer County, where a school bus can be a home or a particularly fruitful garden a symbol of community stature; where Ball jars and fresh vegetables are enough to live on, and six-figure lump payouts don’t mean nothing next to the Bible.
Originally published in "White Trash Gatherings: From-Scratch Cooking for Down-Home Entertaining" (Ten Speed Press, 2006).
©2012 Fatback and Foie Gras. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed without permission.