When she wasn’t cooking for the family she was fixing something for Sunday guests. And at least once a year Mom joined forces with Mrs. Yarbrough to serve some of their most-asked-for dishes at the yearly PTA fundraiser.
Whether those two were feeding a table of 12 for Sunday dinners or 75 paying guests at the annual smorgasbord, Mary and Dorothy felt at ease in the kitchen. And quantity never seemed to be an object.
Mom grought her chop suey and Dorothy came bearing buttery homemade crescent rolls and big pans of Swedish meatballs. Other mothers in the community added their offerings to the serving tables: jello salads with fruit cocktail (served on leaves of iceberg lettuce and topped with salad dressing). Mounds of creamy mashed potatoes sat next to filled-to-the-brim bowls of rich brown gravy. Nut-filled Waldorf salads offered the sweet crunch of apples and grapes. Bowls of home-canned green beans, peas, carrots and corn rounded out the vegetable offerings. Mouth-watering berry pies and tall chocolate cakes weighed down the dessert table.
Parents supporting the teachers ate to their fill and raised a friendly ruckus in the Elementary School lunchroom. It was a highlight of the year, as least to me.
I remember kids running wild through the halls while parents visited in the lunchroom. Boys (more than girls) pounded on lockers as they ran past, feeling wild and free in the very halls that, during the week, required us to walk calmly and quietly.
Last year, as David, Katherine and I prepared for our move to Ecuador, I went through all my papers and came upon one of mom’s journals. In it she had written out the menus, itemized the groceries and detailed the total expenses for two or three of the annual community smorgasboards.
Pork roast cost $0.39 a pound. Onions and vegetables for the entire crowd weighed in at cents, not dollars. When a cup was broken and a bowl cracked during cleanup, mom itemized the cost of replacement. This down-to-the-penny accounting speaks to me of a different age. Where thrift and honesty, sharing of resources and community were stronger.
It wasn’t a perfect time by any means, but it was different. Quiter. Calmer. Like Mayberry and Opey. Like Aunt Bea.
I look at kitchens today with six-burner professional stoves and multiple sinks. Double ovens and islands for extra counter space. How did Mary and Dorothy and all the other women in the 50’s manage? Our kitchen had very little counter space and very narrow cabinets. A tiny four-burner gas stove seems inadequate for the volume of food mom cooked. Our brown (or was it green?) refrigerator stood alone on the wall next to the back porch/pantry/laundry room. A trash-can-size tin of lard stood sentry next to the cabinets, an arm’s length from where mom mixed up her pastries.
Lard is what made mom’s biscuits, piecrusts and fried chicken so good. Not canola oil, not peanut oil, not safflower oil. Good ole creamy white lard. It made her biscuits fluffier and her crusts flakier. Of course, it also choked our arteries.
The basement door, next to our round oak kitchen table, led down to the cellar where shelves were lined with jars of canned green beans, corn, tomatoes and beets.
Mom often served us succotash, a dish made of corn and lima beans made popular during the depression. The combination of grain and protein met our dietary needs without much cost. But oh, I hated lima beans. I didn’t know the history of the dish nor did I care. I just knew it was hard to swallow. Mom adjusted the recipe, substituting green beans and I was able to clean my plate without a problem.
One of my very first lessons about what it meant to be an adult involved mom and grapefruit.
Most mornings as a child I would sit down to breakfast with half of a grapefruit at my place. Mom had taken the time to cut each section and remove the seeds. I ate mine with salt and gusto.
I scooped out each section and then, when I had worked my way around the half, I’d take the rind in hand and squeeze any additional juice into my bowl. Dad did it best. He had a method. And though I tried to follow his lead, I could never squeeze out as much as he could.
I was in my late 20’s and living in Atlanta when I developed an intense craving for grapefruit like we used to have at home. I went out and bought a five-pound bag of the pink kind. My favorite. I woke up early the next morning, eager to dig in to my half of a grapefruit. Only then did I learn the bitter truth. This fruit I loved did not grow with pre-cut sections.
Mom wasn’t there. If I wanted to taste the goodness I had to do the work myself.
Adulthood for me began that morning.