Tag Archives: Southern Foodways Alliance

One More for the Memory Book

One More for the Memory Book

As we close out 2013, I’ve been thinking a lot about memories, how some stay and some go, how some come back to us in the strangest ways. A few days ago, I was back home in southern Missouri and my grandfather stopped by to visit. He is 92 (I think?) and sometimes he is himself, sometimes he isn’t. But even on a good day, he’s hit that stage where he repeats himself, his mind settling in on a memory that he needs to retell over and over. I have seen this before in older relatives who talked seemingly in circles, frustrating their listeners, but I understand that it’s part of closing out a life, of pulling together those threads. My grandfather was telling stories about his friends when he was young, about a dangerous boat outing at Table Rock, about a woman he dated who went on to marry an abusive man who maimed her face nearly beyond recognition, about my grandmother and the day she found out she’d been disinherited in her father’s will. The night before, my father had fried catfish–his specialty–and my boys happily gobbled up the golden strips of cornmeal dusted fish, chasing it with biscuits popped out of a can and flipped in the same oil so that they taste almost like a New Orleans beignet. I didn’t grow up with my father’s fish fries because, back then, the memory of the summer he worked on the catfish farm–pulling the fish up out of the water, skinning one slick creature after another–was still too fresh in his mind and he was glad for the beef that was more plentiful, thanks to my grandparents’ farm. Time passed, of course, and the memory seems to have faded for him of that hot and miserable summer, of the money he surely didn’t keep for himself, but handed over to his mother and father to help keep the family afloat. Now, we enjoy that catfish (and I promise you, there is no better fried fish around than my dad’s) and he teaches my sons how to light the cooker outside, how to throw the match on the oil to see if it will flame up, a sign that the oil is hot enough. While my mother makes the slaw or the beans inside, he takes the boys and shows them how to measure out the cornmeal, eye-balling it, and add a little salt, but nothing more. This is a simple dish and too much of anything will surely ruin it. The boys make the runs of hot fish into the house, delivering it in a banged up cake pan and my mother takes it and puts it on a platter and covers it with foil to keep warm until every last piece is done.

So many memories begin and end with food and today I found a poem that seemed to speak to this reality in a way that is worth your time. (It is, I should note, a rare thing for me to find a poem I really love, one that makes perfect sense. When I find such a rare animal, I like to pay tribute to it.) I found this one in *Gravy*, the publication of the Southern Foodways Alliance, an organizations I have written about here before. The poem is by Sandra Beasley. Enjoy and blessings on you and yours as we cross into this new year, this 2014.




My father will never enjoy

the heavy, sunrise sweetness

of a golden tomato dashed with oil,

layered in basil.  As with spinach,

as with olives, he tastes only

the claustrophobia

of salt his Texan mother

unleashed from a can

a half-century ago, feeding

four children on a budget.

We talk little of this:

the foods our parents

cook to mush, pepper to ash,

flavors forever rendered to chore;

that this too was a form of love.

What I remember is how,

during a snowstorm that stranded

our school bus, I hiked

to my grandmother’s instead.

And she made me not chicken soup from scratch,

or a braise of bacon and cabbage,

but rather a tray of tater-tots

straight from freezer to oven.

They goldened like July.

We ate them with our fingers

while we played Scrabble, waiting

until it was safe to take me home.




Last week, I was down with a monster of a cold, one that made me too sleepy to read for much more than ten or fifteen minutes at a time. That was a real shame, because I’d just started reading *The Revenge of the Radioactive Lady* by Elizabeth Stuckey-French (so fun, so satisfying) and longed to get back into its pages. Thank God for magazines. Not only did a new issue of Southern Living and Hobby Farms land in my mailbox–along with a mountain of catalogs, packed full of summer clothes I probably don’t need–but a lovely little booklet, Gravy, published by The Southern Foodways Alliance. A booklet! Just the right size for holding in my hands as I lay propped up in bed on about 17 pillows, the articles only two or three pages long and exactly the right length for a girl liquored up on Nyquil. “Booklet” is such a lovely word and one too often replaced by the more literary chapbook (though my husband holds that “chapbook” sounds like some awful skin condition that happens to you in winter). It’s a surprise, really, how much I like this abbreviated format of writing. Generally speaking, I ascribe to the idea that if a little of something is good, then a lot of it is even better. You can’t have too much cake, too many gorgeous dresses, too long a trip to the beach.  And on the writing front, I’ve become an adamant opponent of flash fiction, especially its mini-cupcake version, micro fiction. For me, there’s nothing that can compare with the long, messy version of the short story or the novel. There just isn’t. I get plenty of small images delivered to me each and every moment of my life, but it’s the culmination of experiences, of days running into years and into decades, that delivers to me the fuller picture, the meaning behind the scenes. Stories and novels weave together ideas and scenes in much the same way, leaving me as satisfied as I would be at the end of a finely prepared meal.

Still, Gravy hit the spot. With articles about lemon chess pie and Mexican ice cream and a woman who dreams of leaving her job at a television station to make fried pies full-time, these small articles were enough to make me stop feeling so sorry for myself. Though only a couple pages long, each little article was complete, giving a small history of the person interviewed, while remaining focused on the central purpose of the article: to explain how a really awesome scoop of ice cream, or a sno-ball laced over with sweetened condensed milk and a crumbled praline, or a well-made fried pie can change the course of a life. The articles are an extended look at a single detail, the micro and the macro all in one–the perfect short read.

(As a side note, The Southern Foodways Alliance is a wonderful organization dedicated to the preservation of food traditions all through the American south. Gravy and a super cool bumper sticker are just two perks of membership. Check them out at http://www.southernfoodways Read the rest of this entry