We've received such wonderful stories from readers in response to our latest Inviting Writing theme about eating at Grandma's house—thank you! This one, a richly detailed recollection of Southern-style family dinners in the 1950s and early 1960s, seems perfect for Thanksgiving week because it's a veritable feast of description. The writer, Mary Markey, has a knack for preserving the past: she works at the Smithsonian Institution Archives.
By Mary Markey
Every year, my mother and I took the train from Illinois to spend the summer with our family in Georgia. The "Nancy Hanks" would pull into the little train station in Millen late in the evening, where we were met by an uncle and aunt or two and whichever of my cousins had begged the hardest to make the trip. Our trunk was loaded into the bed of the truck, the cousins and I clambered up after it, and we were off to Granny’s house in the country.
In the immense dark, her porch light glowed like a beacon. And there she was, wiping her hands on her homemade apron, come to the doorway to meet us. Small, round, and soft and rosy as a withered peach, Granny was the heart and soul of our family.
Aunts and uncles and more cousins were soon assembling on the porch. Transplanted early to the Midwest, where I was already a lonely outsider, here I was content to be taken back into the fold of a large, extroverted Southern family. I looked forward to a summer of many playmates and indulgent grownups.
Cuddled in with a few cousins in the spare room’s creaky iron bedstead, I smelled the deep, mysterious odors of Granny’s house—old wood, damp earth, wood smoke, cooking and the chamber pot that we had used before turning in. On the porch, the adults would stay up late talking as they rocked in chairs or on the glider. Their laughter was the last thing I heard as I drifted into sleep.
When we woke, the uncles were long gone to the fields, and the aunts were at work in the textile mills in town. My mother was in the kitchen, helping Granny prepare the noon dinner. We snatched a cold hoecake or leftover biscuit smeared with jelly and took off on our own adventures.
Granny’s house was a one-story frame building that had once housed a tenant farmer on my grandfather’s farm. The dining-room was light and airy, with windows on two sides curtained in the translucent plastic plisse curtains that the dime stores once sold to poor people, but the kitchen was a dark, close little room. In the even darker little pantry were Mason jars of home-canned food, plates of leftover breads and biscuits, and an occasional mouse.
My nose remembers these rooms best: open Granny’s big freezer, and you smelled frost and blackberries. The refrigerator held the sharp tang of the pitcher of iron-rich well water cooling there. The kitchen was saturated with years of cooking, a dark, rich scent of frying fat and spice overlaid with the delicious smells of whatever was being prepared for dinner that day.
Almost everything was raised by my family and if not fresh, had been frozen or canned by Granny and the aunts. Meat was the anchor of the noon meal, and there were three possibilities: chicken, pork, or fish. The fish, caught by my Aunt Sarah from the Ogeechee River, were delectable when dredged in flour or cornmeal and cooked in Granny’s heavy cast-iron skillet. (Did you know, the best part of a fried fresh fish is the tail, as crunchy as a potato chip?) My favorite dish was chicken and dumplings. Granny made the dumplings by hand, forming the dough into long, thick noodles to be stewed with the chicken until they were falling-apart tender.
There was bread, though nothing leavened with yeast. Instead, there were biscuits, rather flat and chewy, speckled brown and gold. We had cornbread at every meal, but it wasn’t “risen"; we had hoecakes, light and sweet with the flavor of fresh cornmeal, cooked quickly on a cast-iron griddle. There was always rice, cooked to perfection and topped with gravy or butter, as you preferred. If we were eating fish, we fried some hush puppies along with it, airy puffs of cornmeal and onion.
And the vegetables! Granny’s table had an infinite variety: fresh green beans, black-eyed peas, crowder peas, lima beans. Collard, mustard and turnip greens had been picked last fall and stored in the mammoth freezer. Okra was stewed with tomatoes, boiled with butter, fried to a crisp or just sautéed until it fell apart. Fresh tomatoes were served cold, sliced, and dusted with salt and pepper. There were yams, candied or simply baked and buttered. Green vegetables were cooked a long time with salt pork—no hard, unseasoned Yankee beans for us, please.
We washed it all down with heavily sweetened iced tea served in mismatched jelly glasses, or aluminum tumblers in jewel colors, or in that cliché of all down-home clichés, Mason jars.
Desserts were simple, probably because too much baking would heat up the house. There was an abundance of fresh fruit—peaches and watermelons were favorites, with or without store-bought ice cream. My aunt Camille would sometimes bring a spectacular caramel pecan cake with dense, sugary icing. Aunt Carmen was known for her sour cream pound cake. Granny often made a huge blackberry cobbler, served drenched in milk. I was torn between by love of its flavor and distaste for all those little seeds that got caught between my teeth.
As small children, we cousins ate at the kitchen table, watched over by the women. It was a day to remember when you were finally thought old enough to sit at the big table in the dining room, and since all of us were all within a year or two of each other, we graduated pretty much en masse. In adolescence, we cousins often preferred to perch in the living room to talk, pawing through Granny’s photo albums to laugh at our parents’ (and be embarrassed by our own) baby pictures. We returned to the big table more often as we moved through our teenage years, and one day, as a married woman in my twenties, I looked up from my fried chicken to see a kitchen table ringed with my cousins’ children. The cycle was completed.
(More from Millen after the jump...)
But say I’m eleven.
Debbie and Brenda, Bonnie and Helen, Becky and Winnie and I have finished our dinner and are contemplating one more piece of pound cake. Outside, the heat of a Georgia July afternoon is blazing. Inside is hot, still, and stuffy with that peculiar dust that seems to reside in old maroon mohair living room suites. Do we have that extra piece of cake, or do we hightail it out to play before our little cousin Danny can escape from the kitchen and want to tag along?
Granny’s yard is our playground. Under the huge oak trees is an assortment of fascinating toys. We could go for an imaginary drive in one of our uncle’s trucks, or pretend to float away in one of the rowboats. We could ride the big silver propane tank like a horse, drumming its sides with our heel until the grownups yell, “There’s gas in that thing! Do you want to blow us all up?”
The yard is a huge sandbox. We can build castles or sculptures. We could help Granny by taking her “bresh broom”—made from a bundle of twigs tied together—and sweeping the yard into beautiful patterns of curves and swirls. We could go back to the fig trees behind the house and pick figs and catch June bugs. (Tie a thread to a June bug’s leg and you have a little airplane that circles you, buzzing.)
We could think up a play to give for the grownups later, or think of recitations that we learned in school. We could play the best game of all, which is pretending to be other, more interesting, people and acting out their stories for ourselves.
By this time, the table’s been cleared and the grownups are drifting out to the porch. Those that don’t have to get back to work settle themselves around Granny for the afternoon, with dishpans of peas and beans to shell or snap. The kids hover close to the porch to hear the stories they tell; stories of death, sickness, tragedy and hard times. The grownups ply their funeral home fans, which have pictures of small children crossing rickety bridges over raging rivers, accompanied by their guardian angels.
As the afternoon heat increases, the women will retire from the porch into Granny’s room to gossip and watch soap operas on a tiny black-and-white TV with two fuzzy channels. We children will try on Granny’s lipstick, powder, rouge and jewelry until our mothers tell us to stop and Granny says, “now you let the little girls have fun. They’re not hurting anything.”
When the sun got lower, aunts and uncles collected their children and headed home for supper. Supper at Granny’s is quite a different thing from the lavish dinner at noon: A couple of cold biscuits and jelly, a cold piece of chicken, and whatever other leftovers there might be, and that was that.
Night came on. A long shaft of golden light stretched across the yard from the front door. It was time for bed again, to dream of the long fascinating day ahead of me.