Sunday, April 10, 2016

Southern Comfort -- Food Memories of Days Gone By

Ever since I can remember there have been family dinners.  Family come to visit for holiday meals, such as Thanksgiving and Christmas.  Family gather together for births and deaths, and there is always food involved.  Graduations and other celebrations also bring family together, and with that gathering, there is again, always food.  It would seem that the food is the glue that allows the people in my family to sit down and take the time to talk to one another.  Family dinners have come to symbolize togetherness and are a celebration of those days when life didn’t get in the way of family ties.

When I was a child, my family and I moved around on a nearly annual basis.  As my father was retired and decided to become a writer, our moves became more “inspirational moves” rather than “government dictated moves.”  Through my childhood years, I would hear tales from my mother about family gatherings at her grandmother’s house and the Sunday dinners that were a weekly event and a fond memory of mother’s own childhood.
Family Photo - Sunday at Grandmother's House

Southern families are rooted in tradition.  “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” my family always says.  Traditionally my mother, along with her sister and parents, would travel each Sunday to Reynolds, Georgia, to have Sunday dinner at her maternal grandmother’s house.  Grandmother Wilson was a widow, and this was an opportunity for her two daughters to bring their families together and visit, as well as check on Grandmother and see how she was faring.  Along with the tradition of gathering together, there was a tradition of what was consumed at these dinners, and it was typically the same thing every week:  chicken, black-eyed peas, green beans or butter beans, yams or squash, collard greens and always corn bread or homemade muffins.  “The importance of food to southerners is perhaps best revealed in [the] proverb: a full belly makes strong arms an’ a willin’ heart.”  (Joyner, 17.)  I’m not too sure what that proverb means other than if you’re hungry enough to eat, your heart will be into putting in the work that is required to grow or kill your own food.  And that is just what mother’s family did back in the day.  They raised and prepared all their own food.  My mother recalled:

We never bought anything from a store.  In fact, I think I was twelve or thirteen years old before I ever entered what would be considered today as a grocery store.  We grew our own vegetables and raised our own chickens, and we ate what we cultivated.  Everything was fresh and every meal was made from scratch.

What is now considered a time honored tradition of preparing from scratch meals made from home-grown fruits and vegetables was actually necessity back in those days.  As mother mentioned, they didn’t have the luxury of shopping in grocery stores as we do today.  Taking the time to make favorite family meals, and making them from fresh ingredients, keeps alive the memories of days long gone by.

Personal Family Photo - Lackey Farm

Not all dinners at my great grandmother’s house were fried chicken, though that was the favorite and traditional meal.  Mother recalls a time when dinner was actually at Uncle Elmer’s house and the dinner was a hog.  The change in menu makes that day stand out in mother’s memory not merely because they ate hog instead of chicken, but the events that led to eating that hog.  And here we get the story of Elmer’s Hog.

We had a big group for lunch that day.  There was daddy and mother, Judy and myself, along with Uncle Ken, his wife and children, Grandmother, and then of course Elmer and his family because we were at Elmer’s farm.  Elmer was Grandmother’s younger brother.  Well, the menfolk decided that they wanted to have pork chops or ham that day.  So daddy, Uncle Ken and Uncle Elmer tried to kill this hog.  It was Elmer’s hog from his herd of hogs and pigs.  They get him and somehow he gets away.  They try shooting him.  Now, my daddy’s a crack shot, but he wounded him!  And so that made the hog mad and he was running around like a nut!  So, daddy shot him between the eyes and he said, “You know, we shouldn’t have made such the mess that we did killing this hog.”

Well anyway, they strung him up to a tree and they gutted him, and then they took his intestines and passed them through the kitchen window to the women who were already preparing the table for this stuff.  Here they washed the intestines out and they were already working on the stuffing.  This is how sausage is made.  I had no idea!  I’m looking in the window.  I didn’t eat sausage for years and years and years after that!  Meanwhile while the women were preparing the sausage, the men had carved this hog up.  Some of it was smoked but other parts were going to be cooked.  It took the whole day, so we ate very late.

It is not unusual for food memories to play a role in our lives.  The smells of certain foods (or the mere thought of them) can bring back a flood of memories, such as the sausage did for my mother.  Such memories can be fond or humorous, like remembering how the men had a difficult time catching the hog, while the same memory can be a deterrent from eating anything related to that memory, i.e. sausage.   These memories can affect what we choose to include in our current diets.  Mother still loves yams and black eyed peas, but it took her years to try another sausage.  Oddly enough, it wasn’t the killing of the hog that turned her off, but knowing which parts of the hog that were in the sausage that made her sick at the thought.

Traditionally, as stated in this story, the men did the killing and the women did the cooking.  In my family that didn’t change much until about 20 years ago.  Until about the 1990s, the women in my family would slave away in a hot kitchen and dining room in an effort to make things “just right” for visiting family.  Even women who arrived for the visit set to work helping out while men sat and caught up on current news.  Back in the 1950s when mother was having Sunday dinners at her grandmother’s house, she recalled that the women would be preparing the meals while the men sat out on the porch and chitchatted.

My father and the other men would sit out on the porch and rock and talk about, you know, the world problems, and smoke cigars to keep the gnats and flies away.  My father only smoked cigars on Sunday.  Only on Sunday and only in the country at Grandmother’s to keep flies and gnats away.  And only the men folk would do that.  And he wore a blue striped seer sucker suit with a straw hat.  And they always had their straw hat on.  Anyway, I always remember the men sitting out there rocking and talking.  When the women finished, they would come out and rock and talk and have ice tea.  There was a porch swing, and we used to just love to sit and swing and laze around.

Why do Southern women go to such trouble for their men?  It is all a part of Southern hospitality.  “Southern hospitality is the gentle art of sharing.  It is the noble gesture of putting another’s comfort before your own.  It is taking the time to make others feel good about themselves.”  (Jenkins, 13.) This idea of giving is not foreign to me, and that may be because I was raised to “do for others.”  I must say, however, that the twenty-first century has changed the dynamics of who is working in the kitchen or preparing the meals in general.  Today it is common for the men to stand over a flaming grill as they prepare the bar-b-que feast for guests.  The gender roles of responsibility have melted together and there is not so much the expectation of who is working while someone else is doing the visiting, just as there is little expectation that my husband or brother will step outside and kill a hog for dinner.

But there are things that do remain the same.  Family meals are still together whenever possible.  The prosperity of the past century has divided families geographically as jobs have required household transfers.  When family does get together, for holidays and special occasions, those special meals that help us recall our days together are prepared as a symbol of our togetherness – a celebration of sorts. 
Our children won’t remember dinners at Grandma’s house because Grandma lives two thousand miles away.  They probably won’t have Sunday dinner memories because those traditions faded away as the families moved farther and farther apart.  But they will have memories of family get-togethers, and in those memories they will recall stories, smells and even foods that they will go on to celebrate with their future generations.  And who knows, maybe a story they will share will be the one their Grandmother told them about Elmer’s hog!   

Today's entry was written in 2008, just a year before my mother's sudden passing.  I hope you enjoyed reading about her memories in rural Georgia.  If you liked today's post, please feel free to share with your readers by clicking on the share buttons below.  I would love to hear from you!  Please leave me a message below and tell me if this story sparked a memory of your family meals from when you were growing up! 

  Works Cited
Stratton, Ginger. 2008.  Tape recorded interview.  24 May.
Joyner, Charles. 1999.  Shared Tradition: Southern History and Folk Cultures.  University of Illinois Press: Urbana and Chicago.  17-19.

Jenkins, Emyl.  1994.  Southern Hospitality.  Crown Publishers, Inc. New York.  13.

 Works Consulted

Botkin, B.A.   1932.  A Treasury of Southern Folklore.  Crown Publishers, Inc. New York.

Brunvand, Jan.  1998.  The Study of American Folklore.  W.W. Norton and Company. New York. London.