Mamaw never learned any advanced techniques. She never did a croquembouche. She never drank a latte. What she did was honest southern cooking and she did that so darned well. I was really lucky. She made her foods from unprocessed ingredients and hardly ever did anything out of a box. The only thing I remember her ever doing out of the box was Kraft Macaroni and Cheese. That was a rare treat.
Mamaw was born near the Texas, Arkansas and Louisiana meeting point, called Three States. I think it lists Ravanna, Arkansas as her birthplace on the birth certificate I have for her. She had 13 brothers and sisters that made it to adulthood. He mother was a tiny thing who outlived two husbands and taught my grandmother to cook on a wood stove. Mamaw worked hard as a child. She took care of the farm animals, helped out around the farm, picked cotton and helped deliver it to Jefferson for sale. She didn’t stop working until old age finally caught her, at around age 95. Before that, I seldom saw her sitting still.
Back to her cooking! I miss her very simple pinto beans. She only used a few ingredients but somehow it was the best thing I ever ate as a kid. Her hot water cornbread was AMAZING. I can’t forget the crispy texture and the goodness of it with her fresh cooked yellow squash. I will ALWAYS make my fried okra in her style. The other stuff reminds me too much of the bagged junk that SYSCO churns out and people rave about. Blech.
Mamaw always disdained fried food. I guess she was ahead of her time. We ate it very seldom. Generally it was fried chicken, which she had cut up herself. I remember pulling the wishbone with my Pawpaw. He always got the breast. It was his favorite. I got the drumstick for a long time, till I decided it was yucky. I don’t remember when that was. We ate fresh food every day. For most of my life, that was food that we had grown, unless it was winter time and we had not put up enough for us to have. In the early years, living in that New Moon trailer, we couldn’t put up much. Once Mamaw and Pawpaw got their place near Atlanta, Texas, we could do more. They bought a huge upright freezer and Mamaw filled that thing up with the good food that she and Pawpaw grew. I worked in that garden more than I wanted to, but now I know that I actually loved it. I wish I could do it again.
The way my grandmother cooked was simple. She didn’t like complex meals. In general, her dishes featured bell peppers and onions cooked with something else. Tomatoes mixed with those could be used to make spaghetti sauce or added to ground beef and okra to make a filling “gumbo”. Mix up the onions and bell peppers with chayote squash and you have a tasty treat, add tomatoes, even better. That simple combination has carried me to places I never thought it would.
Mamaw never let me cook with her. She worried that I would cut a finger or burn myself. I watched her though. I watched her skillfully handle a stovetop full of pots and pans. I watched her mount a huge effort for Thanksgiving and Christmas. She could make cornbread stuffing that would put any chef to shame. We would fight over it as the supply dwindled. She made the most amazingly delicious sweet potatoes with just pumpkin pie spice, brown sugar and some margarine. Not sure what her ratios were to this day and I can’t make it the same. I can’t make any of it the same, no matter how I try. I have not been able to crack her simple code. Maybe it was just her love for me and my love for her that seasoned everything so well.
In spite of the fact that I can’t match her dishes, I still try. I also have branched out and tried all kinds of cuisines and techniques that she would never thing of attempting to cook, let alone eat. Be that as it may, the things that I love to make the most and the things that go deepest to my heart are those simple dishes she made so lovingly well with fresh, simple ingredients and years of love for me and the rest of her family.
I miss you, Mamaw. Happy Birthday.