Day of the Dead: Remembering the Food They Loved

daddy-and-mother[1]Day of the Dead, or Dia de los Muertos, is celebrated in Mexico after Halloween to honor the spirits of their ancestors.  Family members and friends gather to pray for and remember family and friends who have died.  Families prepare special breads, cakes and candies to honor the day, the familiar skulls and skeleton shapes you may have seen.  They also cook favorite foods of their loved ones and have a feast in honor of them.

This season made me try to remember the favorite foods and meals of the family members I have lost.  Some are easy to remember.  Aunt Eunice, one of Daddy’s sisters, loved the creamed corn that Mother would cook in the summer.  Fresh corn just picked from the garden, creamed and cooked with a little bacon grease in an iron skillet just until it stuck a bit–what’s not to love?  Sometimes Aunt Eunice loved it too much and would actually get sick from eating so much.

Daddy had a lot of different dishes that he loved.  For some reason, today I remembered how he liked buttermilk and cornbread.  He would crumble cornbread fresh from the oven into a large glass, then pour buttermilk over it and eat it with a spoon, drinking the last few bites like a corn mush.  He was also fond of fried chicken with mashed potatoes and brown gravy, as well as slices of country ham fried in the skillet and served with biscuits and red-eye gravy.

Mother loved anything she didn’t have to cook, since she spent much of her time growing vegetables, canning, freezing, making preserves and pickles, and cooking our meals.  Don’t let anyone tell you this homemade stuff was fun to do–it was hard, tedious labor.  The fruits of her labor were delicious, but it was hard work.  So she adored eating out, especially going to the Pic-a-Rib for pit (pork) barbecue after church on Sunday.  She also liked being invited to other people’s houses for dinner.  It was a big treat when Aunt Eunice would do a fish fry and have us over, or when Aunt Mattie Lou (one of Mother’s sisters) would invite us and make her fabulous biscuits.  They were kind of a thorn in Mother’s side, however, because she could never get her biscuits as light.

Uncle Preston (one of Daddy’s brothers) had a special treat he adored.  Back in the day, fresh seafood was nonexistent in our area.  Whenever anyone went to Florida or anywhere on the Gulf Coast, he would ask them to bring back a bucket of oysters in salt water.  With luck, most of the oysters would survive the trip.  Aunt Mary Emma would dip them in cornmeal and deep fry them.

You’ll notice most of this was fried and pretty high in salt and fat.  In recent years this has come to be known as the Southern stroke diet, it is so highly correlated with strokes and heart disease.  At least at our house the ingredients were mostly unprocessed and fresh, although a lot of salt went into preserving that country ham.

Aunt Geneva’s coconut pie (a custard one, not cream), Mother’s chess pie, my grandfather’s favorite country ham, boiled in a lard stand in the back yard–and always biscuits and cornbread, it all brings home back to me.  So on this chilly fall night I think of the ones who are gone, I miss them, and I remember what they loved.

Flour Sack Dresses

Photo of feed sack dress from Va Voom Vintage
When Mother was a child on a small farm in Tennessee, one of five children, times were tough.  They grew most of their food, canning vegetables, preserving fruits, smoking hams and bacon.  Mother said there were days when supper was nothing but biscuits and sawmill gravy (made from leftover bacon grease, mainly.)  Cornbread and biscuits were the staples of existence.

When she told me that her mother made dresses for them out of flour sacks, I found this hard to picture or to believe.  I thought the fabric must have been rough, like a feed sack.  Recently I did a little research, and saw that the fabric was necessarily thick and tough, to protect the contents, which were basically flour or chicken feed.  But companies were marketers back then, too, so they began to use prints which looked more like something you’d want to wear, instead of advertising Martha White.

The only good part about it is that nearly everyone in their community was in the same state, so wearing a flour sack dress did not make you conspicuous.  The only halfway affluent person was the postman and his wife–and he also farmed and sold milk.  Mother was keenly aware that there were better dresses to be had, and that her family could not afford them.  And she loved her Papa so much, she would never have said anything to make him feel bad that he could not provide for more.

Nonetheless, she was thrilled when she got a new dress one fall that was actually storebought.  She set off for school with Elsie, her best friend (who married Daddy’s brother later when they were grown up. ) Elsie admired the dress, and asked Mother to switch with her.  So she did, and Elsie arrived at school in the new dress.  I can’t think why Mother did this, as badly as she wanted a new dress.  I guess she loved Aunt Elsie more.