Editor’s note: This essay is reprinted with permission courtesy of Algonquin Books from “Dimestore: A Writer’s Life,” by Lee Smith (Algonquin, 2016).
My mother’s recipe box sits on the windowsill in our North Carolina kitchen where my eye falls on it twenty, maybe thirty times a day. I will never move it.
An anachronism in my own modern kitchen, the battered box contains my mother’s whole life story, in a way, with all its places and phases, all her hopes and the accommodations she made in the name of love, as I have done, as we all do.
I can read it like a novel – for in fact, our recipes tell us everything about us: where we live, what we value, how we spend our time. Mama’s recipe box is an odd green-gold in color. She “antiqued” it, then decoupaged it with domestic decals of the fifties: one depicts a rolling pin, a flour sifter, a vase of daisies, and a cheerful, curly-headed mom wearing a red bead necklace; another shows a skillet, a milk bottle, a syrup pitcher, three eggs, and a grinning dad in an apron.
Oh, who are these people? My father never touched a spatula in his life. My mother suffered from “bad nerves,” also “nervous stomach.” She lived mostly on milk toast herself, yet she never failed to produce a nutritious supper for my father and me, including all the food groups, for she had long been a home economics teacher. Our perfect supper was ready every night at six thirty, the time a family ought to eat, in Mama’s opinion, though my workaholic daddy never got home from the dimestore until eight or nine at the earliest, despite his best intentions. Somewhere in that two-hour stretch, I would have been allowed to eat alone, reading a book – my favorite thing in the world. My mother would have had her milk toast. And when my father finally had his solitary supper, warmed to an unrecognizable crisp in the oven, he never failed to pronounce it “absolutely delicious – the best thing I’ve ever put in my mouth!” My mother never failed to believe him, to give him her beautiful, tremulous smile, wearing the Fire and Ice lipstick she’d hurriedly applied when she heard his car in the driveway. Well, they loved each other – two sweet, fragile people who carefully bore this great love like a large glass object, incredibly delicate, along life’s path.
My mother’s father had died when she was only three, leaving a pile of debt and six children for my grandmother to raise alone on Chincoteague Island. Grandma Annie Marshall turned their big old Victorian home into a boardinghouse, and it was here in the boardinghouse kitchen that my mother had learned to cook.
Her recipe box holds sixteen different recipes for oysters, including Oyster Stew, Oyster Fritters, Oyster Pie, Scalloped Oysters, and the biblical-sounding Balaam’s Oysters. Clams are prepared “every whichaway,” as she would have put it. There’s also Planked Shad, Cooter Pie, and Pine Bark Stew. Mr. Hop Biddle’s Hush Puppies bear the notation, “tossed to the hounds around the campfire to keep them quiet.” Mama notes that the favorite breakfast at the boardinghouse was fried fish, cornmeal cakes, and “plenty of hot coffee.” These cornmeal cakes remained her specialty from the time she was a little girl, barely able to reach the stove, until her death eighty-four years later in the mountains so far from her island home. I imagine her as a child, biting her bottom lip in concentration and wiping perspiration off her pretty little face as she flips those cornmeal cakes on the hot griddle. Later, I see her walking miles across the ice in winter, back to college on the mainland.
Her lofty aspirations were reflected in her recipes: Lady Baltimore Cake came from Cousin Nellie, who had “married well”; the hopeful Plantation Plum Pudding and Soiree Punch had both been contributed by my Aunt Gay-Gay in Birmingham, Alabama, the very epitome of something Mama had desperately wanted to attain. She wanted me to attain it, too, sending me down to Alabama every summer for Lady Lessons. The Asparagus Souffle recipe came from my elegant Aunt Millie, who had married a Northern steel executive who actually cooked dinner for us himself, wearing an apron. He produced a roast beef that was bright red in the middle; at first I was embarrassed for him, but then it turned out he’d meant to do it that way all along; he thought red meat was good, apparently, and enjoyed wearing the apron.
Here are Mama’s bridge club recipes, filed all together. My first idea of an elegant meal came from this bridge club, whose members met every Thursday at noon for lunch and bridge, rotating houses, for years and years until its members began to die or move to Florida. I can see Mama now, greeting her friends at the door in her favorite black-and-white polka-dot dress. I sat on the top stair to watch them arrive. I loved the cut flowers, the silver, and the pink cloths on the tables, though it was clear to me even then that the way these ladies were was a way I’d never be.
The food my mama gave the bridge club was wonderful. They feasted upon molded pink salad that melted on the tongue (back then I thought all salads were Jell-O salads); something called Chicken Crunch (cut-up chicken, mushroom soup, celery, water chestnuts, Chinese noodles); and Lime Angel Cloud. All the bridge lunch recipes required mushroom soup, Jell-O, Dream Whip, or pecans.
But the recipes Mama actually used most – these soft, weathered index cards covered with thumbprints and spatters – reflect her deep involvement with her husband’s family and their Appalachian community: Venison Stew, Gaynor Owens’ Soup Beans, Ava McClanahan’s Apple Stack Cake, my grandmother’s Methodist Church Supper Salad, and my favorite, Fid’s Funeral Meat Loaf. A ham was also good in case of death, glazed with brown sugar and Coca-Cola. Mama’s recipe for Salvation Cake had a Bible verse listed beside each ingredient (the almonds came from Genesis 43:11), and the only instruction given for baking was the cryptic Proverbs 23:14. Fat content was never a consideration. Biscuits called for lard, and Chocolate Velvet Cake required one cup of mayonnaise. A hearty beef and cheese casserole was named Husband’s Delight.
I, too, have written out my life in recipes. As a young bride, I had eleven dessert recipes featuring Cool Whip as the main ingredient. Then came the hibachi and fondue period, then the quiche and crepes phase, then pasta, and now it’s these salsa years. Just this past Christmas, I made cranberry salsa for everybody. My mother would not have touched salsa – let alone sushi! – with a ten-foot pole. One time when we all went out for bagels in Chapel Hill, she said, “This may taste good to someone who has never eaten a biscuit.” Another thing she used to say is, “No matter what is wrong with you, a sausage biscuit will make you feel a whole lot better.” I agree, though I have somehow ended up with a wonderful husband who eats rare meat, wears an apron himself upon occasion, and makes a terrific risotto. We share the cooking. I seldom have time to bake these days, but sometimes I still make Mama’s Famous Loaf Bread upon occasion, simply because the smell of it baking takes me straight back to that warm kitchen where somebody was always visiting. I can still hear my mother’s voice, punctuated by her infectious laugh, her conspiratorial “Now promise me you won’t tell a soul ...”
On impulse I reach for Mama’s recipe box and take out one of the most wrinkled and smudged, Pimento Cheese, everybody’s favorite, thinking as always that I really ought to get these recipes into the computer, or at least copy them before they disintegrate completely. On this card, Mama underlined Durkee’s Dressing, followed by a parenthesis: “(The secret ingredient!)” Though I would never consider leaving Durkee’s Dressing out, I don’t really believe it is the secret ingredient. The secret ingredient is love.
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Lee Smith will read from her latest book at 7 p.m. May 5 at Flyleaf Books, 752 MLK Jr. Blvd., Chapel Hill.
Mama’s Famous Loaf Bread
From Lee Smith of Hillsborough.
2 (1/4-ounce) packages yeast
1/4 cup warm water
2 1/2 cups milk
3 tablespoons sugar
1 teaspoon salt
4 tablespoons Crisco
2 eggs, beaten
7 to 8 cups flour
Margarine or butter
Add yeast to water and stir to dissolve. Set aside.
Place milk, sugar, salt and Crisco in a saucepan and bring just below a boil and take off heat.
When milk mixture has cooled to lukewarm, add eggs and dissolved yeast. Place liquid in large bowl, add 7 cups flour and mix by hand. If it is too wet, add up to another 1 cup flour, 1/4 cup at a time. Knead well until dough develops. Cover and set in a warm place and let double in size.
Punch down dough, divide in half and shape into loafs. Place in greased loaf pans and let rise until it again doubles in size.
Bake in an oven heated to 350 degrees for 35 to 40 minutes until well browned. After loafs remove from pans, brush with melted butter and margarine. Cool completely.
Yield: 2 loaves.
Mama’s Pimiento Cheese
From Lee Smith of Hillsborough.
1 teaspoon yellow or Dijon mustard
1 (4-ounce) chopped pimientos, drained
1/4 teaspoon cayenne pepper
1/2 cup mayonnaise
1/4 cup Durkee Famous Sandwich & Salad Sauce
2 garlic cloves, minced
1 pound shredded cheddar cheese
Mix together all ingredients.
Yield: about 4 cups