Y’all are invited
to my place
Saturday at 6 pm.
On the Menu
Bring your appetites.8
We’re going to have us some good ol’ Southern eats.9
I hope you can come.10
1 My grandmother loved hush puppies and telling how they came by the name. The story goes that, back in the day, the dogs would be in the kitchen howling for food. To hush their whining, the person making cornbread would drop spoonfuls of batter into hot oil and toss the tender nuggets to the dogs. This technique works on humans, too.
I like them with green onion and lots of spice. Mmm. Gets my mouth watering.
2 One of my favorite foodie memories from childhood was when Mom threw a shrimp boil. She used a propane burner and a huge stockpot to heat up lemony, super-spicy water (a giant bottle of Tabasco was only one of the incendiary ingredients). She threw in red potatoes for a while, then ten or twenty pounds of shrimp, and, last of all, added corn on the cob. She put on the lid and turned off the heat and let the pot sit for half an hour or so, long enough for the spices to soak in good. Then she asked Dad to drain the pot and pour the contents out on a newspaper-covered picnic table along with squeezable butter, cocktail sauce, and piles of paper napkins. Seems strange to me that my own three daughters detest shrimp.
The feasting began with the hot shrimp and lasted for a couple of hours. Guests peeled their shrimp, discarding the translucent carcasses on the newspaper, talking, laughing, singing, dancing, and telling stories. Whenever friends and family came to one of Mom’s parties, they felt welcome and happy.
I’m going to try to duplicate a shrimp boil minus the propane burner, and we’ll put butcher paper on the table and use a platter.
3 Ambrosia was one of my grandmother Theresa’s signature dishes. She made it for Christmas every year. It wasn’t the fabled drink of the gods of Mount Olympus. Better than that. She served the salad of fresh oranges, pecan halves, coconut, and maraschino cherries in a cut-glass pedestal bowl. Grandma labored over the concoction, peeling the Florida oranges, then removing every speck of white pith from the juicy sections. (To Southerners, the only true orange comes from Florida.) Everything, even the breaking of the sections into bite-sized pieces, had to be done by hand.
I’ll do the 21st-century version: use a knife, add some crushed pineapple to those drier California oranges, pith can stay. Pecans will come from Costco instead of the backyard tree.
4 Million-dollar pickles, Grandma claimed, came from a treasured family recipe, and she’d promised never to share it. Once she had me type up the secret recipe that began with several jars of Nalley dill pickles. She’d doctor them up with spices and sugar and put them in Mason jars so the recipients thought they were homemade. I loved that woman.
My pickles, however, won’t even look homemade. I’ll claim that’s because I’m more authentic or honest, but really I’m not willing to put in the effort. Grandma wouldn’t have used paper plates for company, either.
5 What Southern party doesn’t include a classic potato salad?
Mine will be like Mom’s, creamy, with sweet pickle relish, eggs, and lots of mustard. A sprinkle of paprika on top will turn it into freckled sunshine.
6 When we visited, my great-grandmother Lina (rhymes with dinner, which always confused me because my Yankee great-grandmother was named Nina which rhymes with china. Mom’s dyslexia must have trickled down the family tree from a couple of branches higher) made her famous date pinwheel and lemon tea cookies.
We still have the recipe for the date pinwheels, but no one hung onto the recipe for the tea cookies, which were my favorite.
7 When that lemon tea cookie first came out of the oven, the citrusy tang of the lemon peel made sprinklers go off in your mouth, but a few days later, the flavor was sweet and mild, the crispy cookie soft and tender.
Since I don’t have the recipe, I’ll have to provide the lemony pucker through liquid libation instead.
8 Generosity and hospitality are two hallmarks of Southerners. I picture my mom, my grandma, and my great-grandma in the kitchen with me, “putting on the whole hog,” as they’d say. Neither Mom nor my grandmothers ever had a kitchen big enough to hold four Southern women at once. Of course, Dad and my husband say no room in the world is big enough for that.
I’m going to cook like a true Southerner.
9 It never happened, but if the four of us were ever in a kitchen together, each woman vying for center stage, the temperature would rise. Tall tales (which always begin “You’re not going to believe this, but I swear it’s true”) and family history and juicy bits of gossip (“bless her heart, that baby is ugly as homemade sin”) would start spitting like bacon grease in a hot skillet. Pockets of resentment and anger would bubble to the top, too. A working mom, a divorcee, a young widow—survival demanded these three have cast iron spines, forged with determination, spunk, and more than a touch of orneriness. Cast iron is strong but it doesn’t bend. The perfection the three women expected of themselves was also imposed on their spouses and children. Criticism, corporal punishment, and passive aggression were served up daily alongside generous helpings of comfort food. The children were expected to translate. Fortunately, tartness mellowed with age, allowing the granddaughter to love and forgive when the daughter couldn’t.
I tried making different parenting choices with my own daughters. My mistakes were different, too, but still hurtful and stupid. I hope they’ll forgive me, understand how much I love them. I’ve observed these women I admire but I still don’t know the answer: When a daughter rejects what the mother values, makes different choices, how do they avoid wounding each other?
I wish we could all be together in my kitchen–my mom, my grandmothers, and my daughters–chopping onions, bell peppers, and celery, sharing tips for making a good roux, sampling and enjoying what each has created.
10 Like the three women who formed me in their images and who still inhabit my heart, at my dinner party I’ll serve heaping helpings of gustatory lovin’.