When I was a child, we had three meals a day, just like all other families. But here in the Ozarks, we called them breakfast, dinner, and supper. Breakfast was always a large meal consisting of homemade biscuits, white gravy, eggs, bacon or sausage, whole rolled oatmeal or pancakes, honey or molasses with butter, and fresh milk to drink — coffee for my parents. Sometimes we had pork tenderloin strips (with red eyed gravy) or salted fatback instead of the bacon or sausage.
Every morning, mother would put a pot of beans on the gas cookstove (she used the cast iron wood stove in winter. The picture is of the actual stove she used). Mother only cooked with cast iron, stainless steel (the real heavy duty stuff), or glass bakeware. No aluminum pans (or tin pans as we called them). The beans simmered until noon and were flavored with used "grease" she kept in the grease bucket. This began as home rendered lard, and the bacon, sausage, pork, fatback, etc, added to it. She reused this grease for every frying, as well as seasoning the beans. We had fried potatoes every day, and mother said that frying those potatoes "refreshened" the grease without detracting from the flavor. After a few weeks, she poured the grease out and started over.
Daddy came home every noon for dinner. It too was a big meal consisting every day of beans, cornbread (baked in a cast iron skillet) and fried potatoes. Added to this were two extra sides, either two vegetables or one vegetable and macaroni and cheese (not from a box), a salad made from our garden, or potato or macaroni salad. And there was always a fresh homemade loaf bread. We always had meat — home raised chicken, pork, beef, or squirrel, quail, or fish from our pond. And of course there was always a dessert. Mom made wonderful pies and cakes. My favorite was Mom's custard pie, and Daddy loved raisin pie.
Cookies were Granny's specialty, though she was also an excellent cake baker. I used to sit on the counter and watch her make the cookies. She would take the flour container from the shelf, make an indention in the flour (she called it a "well") and start by cracking two eggs into it. Then she added sugar, vanilla, butter or lard, honey, molasses or peanut butter, and sometimes cinnamon, some baking soda, a little milk, and began to mix it with her hands. She would rake in a little flour from the sides of the well as she went until she got the dough the consistency she wanted, then lifted the whole thing out onto a large board. The flour was left completely clean without any trace of dough. Then she simply put the lid back on the flour container and either rolled out the cookies to cut, or made balls of them. They were absolutely the best!
Supper was a lighter meal. Leftovers from the noon meal, omelets, or cornbread in buttermilk. We ate this way because of the life we led. Daddy got up at 4:30 every morning to milk, then on the road by 7 a.m. to run the bus route. Working in the bus shop was physical labor, sometime lifting heavy parts and machinery. Then he was back in the barn by 6 that evening. He needed the strength and energy those big meals gave him. So did Mom. Mom was a meticulous house keeper. She not only swept the floors every day, but the front porch as well. She cooked, she baked, she did laundry nearly ever day and hung it on the line. She ironed that laundry and worked in the garden. She sewed by hand — quilts, patched clothes, and even some simple dresses for me. They believed a simple light evening meal would provide a good night's rest so they could start again the next day.
Mother was a phenomenal cook. We could have unexpected company arrive, and within an hour's time she would have a groaning table ready to serve the guests. One of her secrets was the fact that we had a freezer full of homegrown meat, and a pantry full of home-canned vegetables from the garden. Our house was unique because it was built around the pressure tank for the well. It was a center room with a cement floor and shelves along three walls and the huge chest-type freezer along the fourth wall. It was always cool in there because the well was directly underneath the pressure tank, and perfect for a pantry/root cellar. A jar of home-canned green beans tasted just as fresh as a basket just picked from the garden.
My husband Greg drew this picture. It is accurate to what we both remember.
Oddly, my Mother never taught me to cook. She was very jealous of her kitchen and only grudgingly shared it with Granny. I was not allowed to do anything but wash dishes. At the time, I didn't care. But shortly after my marriage, I realized what a handicap that was. I could not cook. I made some of the awfullest meals from box mixes. I could not figure out how to fry chicken so it would be done all the way through. My cakes were dry and nasty. Pies never set up. Vegetables were either too raw, or overcooked. For the first three years we lived on hamburger helper, tuna helper, and Kraft mac & cheese simply because they were the only things I could get to turn out right. And Greg, bless his heart, ate everything I put in front of him without complaint. Over the years my cooking got somewhat better through trial and error, but nothing to compare to Mom's. In fact, Greg used to joke that he only married me for my mother's cooking.
Mother in her kitchen
Then about fifteen years ago, something happened to change all of that. The wonderful older lady who owned the company I was working for brought this giant box of Gourmet magazines into the break room and said we could have them. I had forgotten my book that day, so I sat down and began to look through one. And I was hooked. After a few weeks when it became apparent that no one else was interested in them, my manager told me I could take them all home. It was the beginning of a new love for me.
I dug out my mother's Methodist Cookbook and Granny's Watkin's Cookbook, and together with these new magazines, I began to painfully teach myself to cook. At first, I had very few successes, but as I read and studied I began to see the pattern. Cooking is like painting a picture, or writing a good plot. Certain spices and herbs compliment each other as well as different kinds of meat. Sauces need certain thickening agents and some work better with butter, others with oil, and others with milk. Eggs are the glue that holds everything together. As I learned, I began to get enough confidence to experiment. I learned how to tweak a recipe. My mother-in-law taught me that you can substitute mayonnaise for oil or shortening and it makes the cake or cookies moister. She also taught me how to regulate burner temperatures. I discovered that cooking something on low brings out flavor. And then Greg bought me the cookbook I cannot live without: Forgotten Skills of Cooking: The Time-Honored Ways are the Best - Over 700 Recipes Show You Why by Darina Allen. Just click on the link to take you to Amazon. She even trumps my other favorite, Julia Child.
Some people are just born cooks and bakers. My mother and mother-in-law were two of them. So is my daughter. I was still finding my way when she was a teenager and I determined to teach her to cook. I taught her the basics as I knew them, but before long she was making crepes and stuffed chicken breasts, and a fantastic Swiss steak all on her own. Things I could not teach her. She truly has a gift that puts me to shame. Some people are naturals.
Now that I am no longer employed full-time, I am getting to indulge in some of the things I love best. Teaching Sunday school, reading, writing, and cooking. When Mom died, Greg joked with me that since he married me for my Mom's cooking, he was now in real trouble. (And at that time he really was!) But just the other day, he looked at me after our evening meal and said “You know, I married you for your Mom's cooking, but I stayed with you for yours.” What a nice way to say I love you.
A family dinner — from left to right: Daddy, my son Alan, my daughter Aubry, my Mom, Aunt Freda Spears, Granny, Uncle Bill Spears, and my husband, Greg.
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