What We Ate: Life stories told from the table
By Susie Bell
Until I was nearly 11 years old, suppertime involved a careful exercise of running my tongue through each bite of meat or fish on my plate. This was to root out any little balls of buckshot that might be hiding, or, in the case of fish, any bones that could get caught in my throat. It was best to do this ritual before chewing each bite. Otherwise, teeth could be cracked or fish bones lost in the shuffle of chewing.
We each spit our buckshot onto our plates, making a “plack” sound as each little ball hit the melmac or “ping” if we were using the good plates, the pink-flowered stoneware that arrived one piece at a time in our laundry soap. The rhythm of “plack” or “ping” as we ate our evening meal would bring giggles and smiles all around the table. It seemed that we were singing the supper song in our own intimate supper language. We were fed, and delighted at being so, together, as a family.
Whatever was prepared for the evening meal, it tasted good, and it took me some years to develop the discipline to patiently wade through each bite before devouring it. I have felt the pain of chomping onto a metal ball, seen adults crack their molars, and was once taken to the emergency room for a fishbone lodged in my throat. I managed to swallow it just as we arrived in the parking lot.
While my father provided the meat for our table with guns and fishing rods, he worked as a butcher at Kroger, barely able to shelter and feed his family with his take-home pay. He was allowed to take home large greasy boxes of scrap meat for his hunting dogs. Dad made ends meet by hiding packages of meat for his family inside of these boxes, and hunting when he could. Moving us to the country meant that he could go hunting more often and risk his job less frequently. In Atwood, we enjoyed a diet that was both varied and uncommon to city palates.
My mother knew how to fry pork chops and make gravy. Mix flour with salt and pepper. Dredge the meat in that, then fry it in a skillet containing about a half-cup or so of bacon grease. Fry the chops about 15 minutes each side, with a lid on the pan only for the first side. Remove the meat from the skillet and sprinkle the hot grease with flour, and stir. When the flour has begun to bubble and turn brown, stir in some milk, and salt the hell out of it. Add plenty of pepper, more than once or twice.
Fried, with gravy, was the only method that Mom believed suitable for pork chops. And as long as one is making gravy, one might as well put together some biscuits, these being made with a lot of the same ingredients already out for the frying of meat: flour, salt, and milk. All she had to get out was the shortening and leavening.
If I had to chose one food to live on, it would be biscuits; soft and light, both sweet and salty, with the bready smell of hearth. Buttered with jam or honey, molasses or sopping gravy, Mom’s biscuits tasted of a humble heaven.
Mom taught herself how to cook real food from scratch, with a few lessons from Papaw on southern style. We never knew canned biscuits or store-bought cakes. Mixes and prepared foods were for those poor women who didn’t know how to cook. We often had a homemade cake or pie sitting on the counter. Perhaps she thought enthusiasm in the kitchen would keep her man at home. She prepared everything for us, and nearly all of it the hard way: gardening, canning, and starting from scratch. She tried.
She applied her frying and gravy skills to the preparation of rabbit, squirrel, pheasant, quail, frog legs, and venison, and these made pork chops taste like paper in comparison. Game were the meats with flavor, the meats with personality. Mom endeavored to make them civilized, but these were unmistakably wild in flavor.
I sat on the steps between the garage and the kitchen, and watched my father complete a ritual that I knew in my own body to be primal. “Dressing” the game was an undressing, a removal of fur and skin, heads and guts, scales and fins. He had hunted, killed this, for me, for us, to eat. The gamey game, the stuff of earth and sinew, the meat that smelled and tasted strong, was brought to us from my powerful father, the man with the gun and the dogs and the sure sense of what he was doing. I was in awe of him, squatting there on the garage floor, pulling some string of fish from a bucket or gutting a dead rabbit.
Vegetables from our garden completed our meals. Our garden covered a half-acre of land off to the South of the house, between us and the McComas neighbors, and not far from the road. My eyes wandered to the passing cars as I knocked potato bugs into old coffee cans with kerosene in the bottom. Jennie and Beth and I would steal the saltshaker and go eat in the garden on summer days. We pulled onions and avoided most of the dirt by peeling the skins back, popped tomatoes and beans off the vines, and tried most everything raw sitting there in the sun, getting blistered and wearing vinegar to bed that night. Food is also medicine.
Dad planted the usual natives: peppers, tomatoes, potatoes, beans, corn, squash, pumpkins, and onions, as well as the European lettuces, cabbages, carrots, turnips, mustard, and spinach. One year, Dad planted 13 rows of green beans and Mom dutifully canned them all. We ate so many green beans that year, that I couldn’t eat green beans again until I was nearly 30 years old. We grew and ate southern foods such as limas, okra, and collards, the foods brought to America by slaves, because Dad’s family was from the Deep South. His dad, our Papaw, grew peanuts and sugar cane, and we indulged in these marvels when we visited him in Somerset, Kentucky.
Our neighbors and Papaw raised milk cows, and we often drank fresh milk with the cream stirred in from the top of the bottle. When the milk clabbered, the old folks drank that as buttermilk and Mom used it to make biscuits and pancakes. We ate sorghum molasses on these breads. This was beaten with a fork into a pat of butter to make it thick, so it didn’t run off the biscuit. We also had homemade jams and jellies, sauerkraut, and home-canned vegetables. We ate figs and pecans brought back from visits to Papaw’s kin in Dothan, Alabama. Mashed potatoes from the garden, with butter pooling in a center divot, sat on nearly every dinner plate placed before me in those years.
When Mom left Dad, in 1966, our diet changed considerably. We left the world of meats and ate at the table of poverty. Food commodities and food stamps were available in this country since long before I was born, but my family was sure that those were for other folks, for the lowest class, for lazy ne’er-do-wells. I believe it never occurred to my mother to apply, despite the four of us living on fifty dollars a week.
We had a routine, the meals predicting the days of the week. One night a week, we ate SOS: chipped beef (something like soft jerky) from a four-ounce jar, mixed with milk gravy and served over toast. The SOS stood for “same old slop” or “shit on a shingle,” depending on one’s class and gender. We never called it anything but “SOS.” This was best served with canned asparagus.
Campbell’s Tomato soup and grilled ham and cheese sandwiches made a weekly appearance, much to my disappointment. We made the sandwiches using hamburger buns, American processed cheese food, and half of one eight-ounce package of sliced ham, the latter meant to last two meals. The cheese was carefully peeled from a block and the block re-wrapped in its plastic and then in a piece of foil. The ham was sliced into two stacks, one half slice being applied to each bun, one stack reserved. The bun was slathered with margarine and stuck under the broiler. Still, it was just one can of soup shared four ways, and a meager sandwich for each of us. I was always still hungry after this meal.
Macaroni and cheese was a favorite, sometimes with a small can of tuna mixed in, and always served with canned peas. While the noodles cooked, a roux was made, and cheese from the block of American processed cheese food was stirred in and melted, and the cheese sauce was then stirred into the cooked, drained noodles. We usually had this for two nights. Mom grated a piece of white bread over the top of the leftovers she had spooned into a casserole pan. The bread crumbs, which were considered a gourmet touch, toasted on top as the mac and cheese heated up for the second night, and the top noodles developed an interesting crunch. Mac and cheese was best the second night, and not bad the first.
One night a week, we pulled the key from the top of a can of Spam, stuck it onto the little tab on the side of the top, and twirled that can open. I liked to do this. The Spam would come out in one block, leaving a jelly lining the can. We didn’t eat that part, but I found it fascinating. Mom sliced the block of Spam and fried the slices in a skillet, then poured a can of applesauce over this, sprinkling cinnamon and sugar on top. We gave it the elaborate name of “Spam and Applesauce.” This was my younger sister’s favorite meal, and I always liked it just because it made her so happy. We ate this with a can of Italian green beans, the wide, flat kind from the grocery that look most like home-grown. We missed our garden and our game meats.
Sometimes, on a splurge, Mom made cheeseburgers. We ate this with a salad of iceberg lettuce and carrot strips. We ate liver and onions every now and then, too, always with mashed potatoes. We ate meatloaf or roast chicken on Sundays, and saved half for leftovers on Monday night.
Mom never fried fish for us again, and I suppose that was one of those things she was glad to leave behind with Dad, along with all the gutting and skinning and beheading of small animals, the scaling of fish, and exhausting preparation of home-canned goods on hot summer days inside an un-air-conditioned kitchen. But we missed those meals. We missed those fried meats and the gravies, the frequent biscuits and varieties of vegetables and fruits. To this day, I miss the spitting of buckshot onto our plates, the levity that this would lend to any meal. I would not eat that well again until I left home and began cooking my own dinners, raising a garden and canning my own foods, though I have not enjoyed such variety of game since my childhood.
My mother never got over her divorce from Dad, and still loved him when she died. She cried into every pillow we owned, playing the same sad songs on the record player over and over, wearing the grooves off her Ray Charles album. Jumping from the frying pan into the fire, she re-married too soon, again to the wrong man. She became anorexic, though not the nervosa kind. She wasn’t concerned about her weight; she just did not have an appetite.
With a second income in the house, we could afford a little better quality at the grocery. Pork chops, for example, made their way back to the menu. But quantity was lacking. Mom didn’t seem to realize that we were three teenagers, or that a single pound of meat and two cans of vegetables might not be enough for a family of five.
All she could think of was her failing second marriage and Jennie’s move to live with my father. Mom was in some sort of emotional distress or turmoil throughout her brief time as a single mom and her ten-year second marriage. I suppose she thrived on drama all those years, but the rest of us couldn’t live on that. Indeed, we began to suffer other kinds of hunger. The starvation of spirit, the need for love; eventually, these sent each of us out on a different sort of hunt. We needed sustenance of every kind.
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