Sunday Dinners

When I was in college in the late ’70s, one of my friends whose family lived in the town would bribe me to go to his Baptist church’s Sunday school for young adults by promising Sunday dinner at his grandmother’s house.  I wasn’t much of a hard party-er on Saturday nights, so it was no hardship to get up for Sunday school.  And it was worth it for the Sunday dinner.

Ron’s grandmother, Dodi, was a tiny woman somewhere in her late seventies.  She wore thick glasses and was hard of hearing.  She lived alone in a small house in a neighborhood that was on its way down, but still had a number of working-class people living there in rows of identical houses.  Dodi spent her entire week shopping for and preparing Sunday dinner for her family and whatever friends they brought along.  Usually the crowd was at least six people, and sometimes as many as eight or ten.

Dodi’s income was small, so she clipped coupons and watched the grocery store circulars in the paper, and made her plans.  She didn’t drive.  Sometimes one of her grandchildren would take her shopping, but often she took the bus to the grocery store and back.

After Sunday school and church we would go over to her house around noon for dinner.  Her meals always featured several dishes of classic Southern food like fried chicken and mashed potatoes, green beans, biscuits, or ham, or meatloaf, and casseroles from Good Housekeeping or recipes in the newspaper.  Sometimes there was a Jello salad, a favorite treat for women of her generation.  There was always pie or cake for dessert.  It was plain food but always delicious to me.  As I recall, we served ourselves buffet-style and ate in the kitchen if the group was smaller.  I remember a linoleum floor and white metal cabinets.

Her daughter or one of the grandchildren invariably complained about something she’d cooked.  They made fun of her because she couldn’t hear, and because all she talked about was the shopping she’d done and how much she’d saved with her coupons and bargain-hunting.  She just laughed at what they said.  I think it hurt my feelings more than it hurt hers, but maybe she just couldn’t hear what they were saying.

I wondered, why does she go to so much trouble?  She was old and she had to be tired from trudging back and forth with groceries and doing all that cooking.  It’s taken me years to understand why.  She wanted to see her family, pure and simple, and making a meal was a sure way to get them to come.  Cooking for her was how she showed her love.  Planning and making the meal every week gave her something to do and something to look forward to.  It was an event she could count on.

Four or five years later she developed dementia, and the Sunday dinners went away, never to come back.  No one else in the family stepped up to carry them on, except for Thanksgiving and Christmas.

Photo credit:  Caitriana Nicholson


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.

A Few More Things About My Mother

Here are some more things I remember about Mother.  As I wrote last week, I wrote these in a notebook as I rode the Metro North train home from Manhattan a few years ago.  It 360px-Kosaciec_bezlistny_Iris_aphylla_RB2[1]was a sad time in my life, and writing seemed to help.  I only wish I had written more while the memories were fresher.

14.  When we lived in town, Mother had flower beds with four o’clocks in back of the house.  The blossoms only opened in the evening and closed at dark.  She had huge beds of tiger lilies in the back yard in summer, and every color of iris in the spring.

15.  She kept every drawing or story I ever gave her.  She kept every letter my brother wrote from the Air Force.  She kept the ugly pottery owl with a flat head that I made in 7th grade art class.  She kept boxes and boxes of photos and an old family Bible.

16.  She liked to talk on the phone a lot.  When she lived in town she spent hours on the phone every day, it seemed.  It was a sad day when my sister Glenda had to take the phone out of Mother’s room in the nursing home. Mother couldn’t hear it anymore and had forgotten how to dial.  She and Aunt Elsie always talked every day until Mother moved to be near Glenda.  Then they talked once a week, until Mother couldn’t hear anymore.  That was one of the first things the strokes took away.

17.  Mother was a good, old-fashioned Southern cook:  fried chicken, boiled country ham, vegetables cooked down with fat meat, creamed corn (a little bit stuck to the skillet, the way Daddy liked it), stewed tomatoes, cornbread.  Her biscuits were not reliable.  She made wonderful pies:  chocolate (no meringue, because my sister Juanita didn’t like it), chess, pecan.  Cakes were chancy things and might or might not fall.  She also liked recipes from her Sunday school class members or Good Housekeeping, especially Jello salads.  When Daddy had his first heart attack her cooking changed completely.  No more sausage and biscuits or fatback—only as a treat.

I was thinking of Mother’s fried chicken recipe this week.  It turns out her method was just featured in Southern Living recently, and they increased the minutes you cook it because chickens are so much larger now.  Her recipe is in this blog’s archives.

Enjoy the week, and enjoy Memorial Day weekend!

Almost Perfect Fried Chicken

Photo by Niall Kennedy

This recipe comes from my mother’s Sunday School class cookbook, produced about 25 years ago.  It used to make absolutely foolproof, perfect fried chicken.  However, times have changed–and the timing of this recipe needs to change unless you are using a small chicken, what used to be called a “fryer.”  I have discovered that today’s super-sized chickens (I’m talking to you, Frank Perdue, and your son, too) take longer to cook, especially the egregiously oversized breasts.

What follows is the ORIGINAL RECIPE.  If using a larger chicken or pieces, which tend to be thicker, add 2 minutes to each side, and leave the split breasts in for another 5 minutes or more.  Cut into the meat and see if the juices run clear.

So the recipe is not as easy as it used to be.  But it still works, if you use a small freerange-type chicken or adjust the timing.

Sunday School Class Fried Chicken

Clean and cut a whole chicken ready to fry (or buy pieces).  Place in cold water and let set about 3 – 5 minutes.  Pat the pieces dry.  Salt the chicken and roll in flour.  Add a little black pepper if you like.

Meanwhile, heat shortening in a deepish skillet (Crisco is good, or oil, or lard if you’re a purist).  When it’s hot (a drop of water will make the oil sizzle), put the chicken in.  Cook on medium heat 5 minutes with a lid ON the skillet.  Then remove the lid and cook for 4 minutes with the lid OFF.

Turn the chicken pieces and place the top on; cook for 5 minutes.  Then remove top and cook for 4 minutes.  Should be done, crispy but moist inside and not pink.  As noted above, modern breasts and thighs MAY TAKE LONGER!

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