Living poor had its drawbacks, but it also had its rewards. The twelve of us kids learned to work hard and to value work and the rewards work provided. We valued the school clothes that we worked to pay for, and the meals we raised together in our garden. We had chores to do in the mornings and evenings, and we are better people because we were taught to work and be responsible. At the end of the day, we shared stories and adventures as we sat around a large table for a family meal.
Mom loved variety and she loved to try things. She loved to read recipe books and loved to experiment with different flavors. She was blessed to be married to a man who also liked to try things, and he encouraged her culinary experiments. Sometimes he would bring things home for her to try. Once when we were chopping Johnson grass from a patch of cotton, he took home some Johnson grass roots for her to cook. They were not good! Another time he decided that squash blooms looked like they would taste good, so Mom battered them and fried them. They were better than the Johnson grass roots, but once was enough! We thought they made better food as squash, so we let them grow.
Like other families from those times, we were raised on beans and cornbread. We never resented that, maybe because Mom was such a good cook that her beans and cornbread were special. Or maybe it was because she gave us enough of a variety that we never got tired of one kind of food. When we had beans, we usually also had taters and salad, or some of Mom’s pickled beets, or a different variety of pickled vegetables. My older sister tells me that when we lived in California Mom would go to the nearby creek and pick water crest to use in salads. In my memory, at one end of the long table sat a large pot of seasoned, boiled potatoes, and at the other end a large pot of brown beans. In the middle was an 8” x 11” pan of scrumptious cornbread.
This may seem plain and boring to some, but it was GOOD! In the winter we often enjoyed meals of cornbread and milk, mush (made of cornmeal sprinkled in boiling water) served with butter, salt and pepper or sugar, depending on preference, or vegetable soup. Sometimes Mom would deep fry mush into a type of cornbread to serve with vegetable soup or homemade chili.
We were taught to eat what was set before us and not to complain. In the case one of us disliked a certain kind of food, which was unusual, Mom set more than one recipe on the table. We were expected to try whatever she cooked, and we learned to enjoy a wide selection of cuisine.
Another thing we enjoyed was when Mom cooked a huge pan of biscuits to go along with eggs (when we had them) and gravy. She made the best biscuits and gravy! Once in a while we were treated to Mom’s Chocolate Gravy, which was made a little like white gravy, but instead of grease she used butter, and she added cocoa and sugar to the flour, a little vanilla flavoring, and milk. Served on hot biscuits with a dab of butter, and oh my!
Every once in a while, Dad would save the crust of his biscuit and let us dip the crust in his coffee and eat it. We also made what we called coffee shakes, which was sweetened coffee made in a glass of cold milk, or ice coffee which was sweetened coffee in a glass of ice water. Sometimes we mixed coffee and cocoa to make Mocha. We realize now that the same types of drinks have been made popular on modern markets. Wow! We should have sold our recipes! In all this, there were times we had nothing to drink but water and nothing to eat but vegetables, but we never went without a meal. We had nourishment, and with Dad’s hard work and Mom’s creativity, we ate well.
When we had milk, we made our own butter and sometimes even cottage cheese. Mom would sour the cream just right, and then the rest of the job belonged to the kids. The cream was put in a half gallon jar, and the shaking began! Shake, shake, shake! When the arms of one kid became tired, another took over until the cream turned into butter. Then the butter was removed from the jar and washed until all curdle was removed and the butter was a smooth yellow, ready to use.
Making cottage cheese didn’t happen often, but Mom’s homemade cottage cheese was much better than what we could buy at a grocery store. Just add some salt and black pepper, and it was delicious. Anyway, that’s the way I liked it.
Learning to cook and trying things in Mom’s warm, inviting kitchen gave us so many memories and stories to share with our children when we grew up. Wonderful lessons from a wonderful teacher were invaluable to our lives. We were rich in nourishment for our bodies and souls without even realizing it!