I had an interesting weekend with my Mom. She rarely gets to stay with us, usually reserving her visits when I am staggeringly overmatched by our son, Nolan. I give credit to my mother for teaching me how to cook, how to combine ingredients, usually very cheap ones, in order to get the most calories possible out of them while still bearing some semblance of healthy food. She’s constantly surprised, I think, that the lard and pig fat that she bemoaned using when we were children, along with whole milk containing fat solids for fear of health risks is now showing to be the opposite.
She rarely cooks during these visits, which are usually short, maybe one night and the next morning, choosing instead to bring leftovers such as chicken and dumplings, cheeseburgers, potato chips, canned soups and other delicacies that are always at home in her pantry.
She was famous, as famous as you could be in a coal town in the 1980’s for her sourdough bread. All of us, her children, have tried with varying degrees of failure to replicate it over the past ten years. She kept the starter for nearly forty years, then one afternoon, just like that, she threw him away. We all bemoaned the loss of “Herman” as she had named him, but Mom was unfazed. “I don’t have the room, energy, or time to bake all that bread every week.” She added another sentence which stunned me: “Nobody really likes it. ‘Foodies’ as they call themselves, prefer to see that their bread came from a great stone hearth where hickory blazes.” She pointed at my firepit – kind of like that, she said.
She continued on: “I’ve cooked for over Forty years. Closer to Sixty. When I started cooking, we had too. We weren’t given a choice. I was shown how to make biscuits, once. My stepfather bounced them off the floor the next morning like rocks and I cried. Then I made better biscuits.” With words and expression and memories, she led me through a lifetime of cooking. She did not wax nostalgic. She did not remember the days spent harvesting hogs as being pleasant ones. “It was cold. My hands would run raw under the boiling water and my back would get so sore I could barely stand for days.” She went on to say that the butchering would go on almost all night sometimes, especially if there were multiple hogs and it had been a good moonshine year. She said that she would finally manage to slip away in the night while everyone was drinking and eating heavily and sleep under the eaves of their house to get out of the smell of boiling hog, hair, moonshine, blood and mud.
She sharply remembers trying to save the partially cooked pigs one year when the festivities had gotten out of hand in the small hours of the morning. She said that men were beginning to stir about in horror as they realized that much of the meat that they had already sold on the hoof was now frozen in the early morning. She talked of helping get their fires restarted and water boiling, an arduous task under any circumstances, made doubly so by the lack of clean water and a roaring fire. They had to break ice in the local stream to get water boiling again, which took them up until nightfall on the second day to finish.
I remember the smell of fresh sourdough bread as I crept down my ladder in the mornings, knowing it would be hot and fresh and there would be sorghum molasses with peach jam made the previous spring. She remembers all these things too, but she also remembers how hard it was to feed seven children in the winter on a coal miners strike rations. I remember the smell of wood smoke with nostalgia and the endless splitting and harvesting of it with fondness. She remembers keeping a fire going at three in the morning while snow raged outside our door.
Once a summer, for two weeks, my mothers entire family would descend on the farm to pick, can, string, dig, pluck, dry, pickle, blanch and put every single bit of food available for us to feed our families. We would have jars and jars of chow-chow, pickled beets, carrots and cucumbers. We would can vast amounts of venison stew, freezer stored until canning where it would be prepared for the advent of another hunting season. My cousins and I hosted games of hide and seek, storytelling and speared fish in the local streams. We would try to gig frogs, another skill set entirely. It was our prerogative to return to shuck corn, break beans, dig potatoes, pull carrots and other such chores that were safe enough for a dozen curious children to descend on.
We would go home for good after these two weeks, the adults tired of one another, the work and from chasing the kids around. The men would have long abandoned the tasks for more manly work, such as cutting the endless firewood required or checking the price of beef, pork and lamb obsessively.
My mom said she was glad that I had taken so much from my childhood and remembered it well. She is dubious over the term “foodie.” I’ve not liked the term or what it seems to now symbolize food as a hobby: as collecting restaurants, different meats and even chefs in their collective social media sites. I have noticed a growing trend of “Only Pictures of Plates.” As people wealthy enough to do so travel here and there “experiencing” local foods, it seems that something is being lost yet again. The art of cooking is dying, once required of the poor to survive, now enjoyed in upper circles of increasingly snobby so-called chefs.
Is our heart in the right place? I think so. We just need to remember that these things, these cooking methods and food items, are a product of a long lineage of hard work. The next time you take a selfie in a restaurant with your chicken liver, don’t worry if the black guy washing dishes thinks it’s funny. It is.