I have my mother’s recipes. When she had to move to a nursing home some years ago after having a stroke, my sisters and I cleaned out her apartment, and the recipes went home with me. Most of them are not anything you would want to cook now—classic ‘50’s and ‘60’s concoctions she’d torn out of women’s magazines, full of Campbell’s soup or condensed milk, or even, God forbid, that syrupy Eagle Brand stuff. But the notecards have the recipes I remember as a child, growing up in Tennessee.
Some of them are so terse they are unintelligible. I called Mother at the nursing home and asked her about Mama’s Tea Cakes. (Mama was Mother’s mother.) It calls for “flour,” no amount specified. “What do you mean, ‘flour’?” I asked her. “How much? Two cups?” She said slowly, “Enough flour. You’ll know when you see it.” True enough for someone who made biscuits from scratch all the time, but not for me. I finally figured out how much by the texture, when the dough was just dry enough and not too dry. I wrote down the amount for future use.
The chocolate pie recipe became a matter of contention after Mother died in 2004. For some reason I took a notion to bake it for the first time in years. There were two versions, and neither was complete—oven temperature? How long do you bake it? None of my sisters remembered, and they had variant versions from our aunt Elsie. Finally, after comparing with a hokey hillbilly cookbook from a Cracker Barrel store, I think I got the definitive recipe.
Mother’s Southern Baptist Sunday School class cookbook was a great source of recipes as well. I have their recommendation on how to cook perfect fried chicken every time. I’ve had to adapt the cooking time, because chickens now are bred to have bloated breasts and take longer to cook.
When I was growing up, everything was fried, even the vegetables, unless they were “cooked down” with a piece of fat meat. Dessert was a part of every meal, sometimes just biscuits with butter and jam or sorghum molasses, but always there. Mother cooked three meals a day, every day, and cooked for whoever was home, including the workers getting in the tobacco in the fall, as many as 10 or 12 people.
My family has a terrible history of heart disease and high blood pressure. All of us try to cook healthy things now, which pretty much kills everything I grew up with. But every once in a while I throw caution to the wind and make that chocolate pie, or a Baptist pound cake, which requires a pound of butter and six eggs, or even fry some chicken. It makes my tiny condo kitchen smell like home.