(Not So) Common Sense
There’s no cook like a Southern cook
By Carole Townsend
Is there a person on this earth who doesn’t believe that their mom is the best cook to ever grace a kitchen? I know I did, and even though my mother passed away when I was just a teenager, I remember her cooking tips and tricks, and many of her recipes, even now.
She was a Tennessee girl by way of Virginia, so fatback, Crisco and recycled drippings topped her list of go-to ingredients.
Sounds terrible, doesn’t it? Still, some of my favorite childhood memories are greasy ones, at least as far as food is concerned. In my mother’s kitchen, vegetables were cooked to the point of being unrecognizable. If she was serving green beans for Sunday dinner, she started cooking them Wednesday morning. If a vegetable went into a pot, it was accompanied by a slab of fatback (the fatty part of the bacon, I think). If a piece of meat went into a pan, it was fried.
Every meal consisted of a fried meat, a limp vegetable or two, a “starch” (some form of potatoes or white rice. I had never heard of brown rice until I was an adult), bread with butter (sometimes, even the bread was fried), and a dessert. The tea was sweet, and I mean sweet. There was never a choice of sweet or unsweetened tea. If water was on the table, it was for looks only. Nobody ever drank it, for heaven’s sake.
I have a theory about why old school Southern cooks fry meats. Fried meats produce drippings, and with drippings they make gravy. Gravy is in a culinary category all by itself, as far as I’m concerned. It’s served with breakfast whenever sausage is served, and it’s generously ladled over homemade biscuits. It’s served whenever fried chicken or country fried steak is served, smothering both the meat and the starch. Gravy is quite possibly singly responsible for the abrupt rise in heart disease in the United States in our lifetime. Nonetheless, a true Southern cook serves gravy with most meals and if she’s experienced it is never, ever, lumpy
I’ll never forget the first time I traveled to New York City. I was in college, not even twenty years old. I sat down to Thanksgiving dinner with my boyfriend’s family, and I nearly cried. His mom served green beans that were crunchy. I had never eaten green beans – “string beans,” they called them – that weren’t limp and sort of brown. The turkey was stuffed; they had never heard of cornbread dressing. My mother’s voice echoed in my head as my boyfriend spooned a thimble-full of stuffing on my plate: “Stuffing anything inside a turkey is just unsanitary. People have died from eating it!”
His mom made cornbread, I suppose to make me feel at home. It was sweet, like a dessert cake. I couldn’t find any evidence of cornmeal in it, and I looked. The sweet potatoes looked like sweet potatoes. There was no orange casserole with a crunchy pecan/brown sugar topping. I ate less that Thanksgiving than I ever did, before or after that year.
I used to cook like my mother did, minus having the old Crisco can under the sink (anybody remember that one?). I realized years ago that if I continued to do that, I’d be dead before I hit forty, and my children would develop poor nutritional habits that would haunt them for life. Now, I cook for the fun of it. I enjoy color and texture and presentation. I fry one time a year, and that’s when our homegrown tomatoes are fat and green, and when our squash is ready to pick. On one night, I make fried greed tomatoes and squash for dinner. We indulge in those delectable treats, clean the kitchen (frying grease gets everywhere, even the ceiling), and we’ll do it again every year as long as I’m able.
There is one thing my mother used to cook that I miss this time every year, and that’s cobbler. She could turn out a peach or cherry cobbler that’d make you cry, it was so good. When she died, I was too young to understand that her recipes were treasures to be kept. Over the years, her little yellow recipe box, stuffed with handwritten recipes, disappeared. I think a sister-in-law made off with it, but I don’t know. No one admits to it. I’d love to have it, if just to have her cobbler and caramel pie recipes. I’ve never been able to match either, no matter how hard I try.
Anyone out there have a cobbler recipe to share? Caramel pie? I’d be grateful for the nostalgic memories, and for the first time in his life my husband could eat a fruit cobbler that tastes like my mom’s. I guarantee he’d be grateful, too.
Carole Townsend is a Gwinnett author and freelance writer. Her fourth book, BLOOD IN THE SOIL, was published April 2016. It is the true tale of a crime that took place in Gwinnett County nearly 40 years ago. Her other three books are MAGNOLIAS, SWEET TEA & EXHAUST; RED LIPSTICK & CLEAN UNDERWEAR; and SOUTHERN FRIED WHITE TRASH. Carole often appears on network television talk and news shows, as well as on national true crime radio shows. Her books can be found in bookstores, on Amazon.com, Barnes & Noble.com, and at www.caroletownsend.com. When she’s not writing, Carole travels throughout the southeast, talking to groups about women, children and the family. For more information, visit www.caroletownsend.com. For more information, visit www.caroletownsend.com.