I’ve had an idea for a while, and a few weeks ago I got the ball rolling. My maternal grandmother – aka Granny, Miss Ruth, or Mrs. Etha Mann – turned 97 years old last June. At the Carrington Nursing Center last Mother’s Day, she was declared the oldest mother in the place and she was downright proud of that distinction. The idea was to pick her brain, essentially interviewing her about the kinds of foods her family ate and how they were procured and prepared back in the early part of the 20th century. Her memory slipped from time to time, but she could tell tales of her childhood and quote large volumes of poetry from her many years as an English teacher at Belmont High School. I figured she would easily be able to pull out some food stories from those days as well.
When I mentioned this idea to her, she said something along the lines of “Oh, law…”, as if she wouldn’t be able to recall anything – then she launched immediately into a story. As a young girl, she told me, they would put butter in a bowl at the table and smooth it out so that it was perfectly rounded on top. When they had mashed potatoes, they prepared them in much the same way – rounded on top – and the two bowls looked almost exactly alike. As the story went, another little girl was visiting one day and Granny spotted a bowl of potatoes, told her friend it was butter, and proceeded to eat a big spoonful. Apparently this elicited the desired shock from the friend, and a gleeful giggle from Granny, then and now as she told me the story.
I’m thankful that I got that story, because she left this world just a few days after that visit. I will remember her for a lot of things – calling me Dr. Pudding Reed (and by admitting this publicly I am NOT giving any of you permission to call me that), correcting my grammar and pronunciation on a regular basis, making sure I knew she “loved me good” – and food stories that I didn’t have to ask about because I was there. I may have told a few of these stories before, in some form or fashion, but this time I think it’s okay – Granny liked to tell the same stories over and over again, too.
Granny was known first and foremost in the family for her iced tea. It wasn’t anything fancy, but it did approach addictive. Three or four family-sized tea bags, a small can of frozen lemonade, and at least a cup of sugar – that’s the basic recipe for a gallon of tart-sweet joy. These days it is harder to find the smaller can of lemonade, and I suspect she put more than a cup of sugar in there most of the time, but the key ratios are there. A few years back several of us in the family met for a pre-game tailgate at Hotty Toddy U, and as has been known to happen in the Grove, there was family silver on the table. We only had one token piece – a silver pitcher full of Granny’s tea – perfectly appropriate for the occasion. And I have some in my refrigerator now.
Beyond the family she became somewhat famous for her fish fries. Until recent years when she was unable to navigate the kitchen as well as before, I can remember very few visits when we did not have fried fish, hushpuppies and slaw at least once. Oftentimes we were involved in catching the fish – bream or catfish, usually – after which we would sit on the back porch with my grandfather, Pappy, and clean them. Okay, we would watch him clean them. What we didn’t eat would be dropped into empty milk cartons, filled with water, and frozen until we visited again. She cut the whole catfish on each side so that you could easily pull off a bite at a time with your fingers. At her table I learned to enjoy the salty crunch of a fried fish tail. And if I ever master her hush puppies, I will know I have arrived.
There were always lots of desserts to choose from, and Granny was almost always thinking of me when she made them. As a child and on into early adulthood, I would not get near coconut or pecans. (The coconut is still abhorrent to me, but I have learned to tolerate and even enjoy pecans in some forms.) If she was making something with pecans in the recipe, and it was possible to do so, she would make half with nuts and half without. Chocolate sheath cake in particular was always lumpy on their side, smooth on mine. She made a great caramel cake, too, and that is no easy feat. The penultimate dessert at Granny’s house, however, was the Purple Cow: Nugrape soda over vanilla ice cream, preferably in a Therm-O-Ware tumbler.
Granny also brought food into the little sayings she would repeat now and again. If someone complained, “If I just had this, then I would do that” her automatic reply was, “If I had some ham, I could have some ham and eggs, if I had some eggs.” I confess I have adopted that one.
Granny was bedridden for the last two years, so she hadn’t sat at the Thanksgiving table in a while, but we’d still take her a little plate and spend some time at her side. This Thursday I expect it’ll be a little tough for us, but we know she is feasting at a spectacular table, one that she can walk to on her own power, where she won’t have to worry about her sugar level, and with Pappy at her side, who’ll be happy to take his dessert right in that little puddle of pot liquor on his dinner plate, thank you very much.