A friend, en route from Charlotte to Atlanta, stopped to spend the night with me. I knew she needed more than a comfortable bed. She needed a hot meal. That’s Southern hospitality as we’ve taught to practice it — the comforts of our home shared with a friend.
Deb is a country girl, raised in the mountains of North Carolina, so I felt pretty confident that I could cook up a country dinner and she’d appreciate it. And she did. I simmered a pot of Crowder peas — a neighbor had given them to me from their garden the previous summer and I had blanched and frozen them — potatoes chopped fine, fried with onions, flour-coated okra mixed with peanuts and fried and a thick cake of cornmeal with a handful of butter mixed into the batter. I ate like this nightly, growing up, but these days, it’s only an occasional treat. The experts say that such food, eaten on a daily basis, is bad for you, but Mama and most of her people lived well into their late 80s, some into their 90s. And trust me — Mama never met a tablespoon of grease she didn’t eat.
Mama used to make fried biscuits because she could stir them up quickly and fry them fast as opposed to making them the traditional way. I called her one day to ask how she made the batter.
“Do I work the shortening in, just like I do when I’m baking them?” I asked.
“Oh no,” she replied. “You don’t put shortenin’ in them!”
“Because you’re frying them in grease. You don’t want shortenin’ in ‘em, too. That’d be too much shortenin’.” I laughed. I never suspected that Mama thought there was such a thing as “too much shortening.”
Every time I cook like that, it brings back strong memories of Mama. How she rose before the rest of the family every morning and cooked a hot breakfast of eggs, sausage, sawmill gravy and biscuits. By the time I was a teenager, I was so sick of cornbread, pinto beans and the such that I swore I would never eat them again. Now, I often crave them.
“I can tell you right now,” Deb said when she saw the humble meal, “that I’m gonna make a pig of myself.” She pleased me by loading down her plate then filling it up again and eating every bite.
I served the meal as Mama always did for the family — in pots and pans on the stove.
“Dip yourself up a plate,” I said with a smile, echoing Mama’s words. With her, it was always “wash up,” “clean up,” “dip up,” “cook up,” “make up,” “take up” and such.
We sat there in the kitchen, at the island, and savored the taste of our childhood suppers, pulled back in time by the taste of grease and a summertime garden. Long pauses of silence fell between Deb and me as we savored the taste of years gone by and thought back to those days.
“It’s just like supper when I was growing up,” she said at one point.
When supper ended, I put the food away and, instead of using the dish washer, I filled the sink and began to wash by hand as we shared stories, laughing and learning. Just like back in the days in Mama’s kitchen where there was not a dishwasher, but always plenty of conversation.
A few days later, Kim, a high school friend, emailed to say that her dishwasher had gone out so she spent a few days, hand-washing dishes.
“It took me back to Granny’s kitchen and those pearls of wisdom she’d give me as we performed this after supper ritual,” she wrote. “I was almost sad to buy a new dishwasher.”
Yeah, I thought as I read it, I know what you mean.
Ronda Rich is the best-selling author of “What Southern Women Know About Faith.” Visit www.rondarich.com to sign up for her free weekly newsletter.