Food carries memories. I’ve suspected that our fondness for foods foreign to us is, in part, that they don’t carry our memories. But what about the recent nostalgia for distinctively American food, for Midwestern home cooking, square meals, and blue-plate diner specials? Have we succeeded in drawing halos around the past during which we forked in those mashed potatoes and gravy?
In 1944, the next-to-last summer of the war — I was three, going on four — my mother tosses my father out and takes me to her mother in Arkansas. My grandmother works a shipwreck of a farm on forty hilly acres in the northern part of the state. When my mother hikes her skirt above her stocking tops to pull herself up into the rusted-out pickup at the crest of the drive, I do not know I will not see her again until two months before my sixth birthday. I break out in boils anyway.
My grandmother is sixty-five in 1944. Twenty years earlier she had chucked my mother’s father, a Folger’s coffee salesman, in Indianapolis, left my then-six-year-old mother off in a Roman Catholic convent in Albuquerque, and followed her man (“My man, I love him so,” she sang, “I’ll never let him go”) to Los Angeles, where they opened a popcorn stand, and then on to the Klondike in Alaska, where they panned for gold. Since the late Thirties, she has lived alone on the farm with her two hired hands, Bushels and Buckles.
I call her Grammy, this little squat tub of a woman. She is brutal, powerful, and repulsive. She never feeds me a bad meal.
On the red-checkered gingham tablecloth, Grammy sets down meals that stick to the ribs and do not hide the hard facts of the heavy thingness of things. Her cooking does not conceal being born, hard work, and bloody death; it does not deny its roots, does not smother its origins with sauces. It smells like itself. It uses lard, thick cream, the fatback off the hog, and butter, yellow cornmeal, and flour that comes in cloth sacks from which tea towels and children’s nighties are made. It is mixed with the hands and fried in iron skillets.
Its preparation is improvisational; it goes something like this: For withered lettuce, take a head of green or red leaf lettuce, preferably red. Wash, dry, and tear leaves. (Don’t cut or chop the lettuce.) Add a bunch of thin-sliced radishes and four or five green onions to the lettuce, which you should put in a big bowl. Mix it with your hands. In the skillet — you must have an iron skillet — fry a quarter-pound of thick-sliced bacon, cut into inch-long pieces, until crisp. Take out bacon and set aside on paper towel. Let bacon grease cool. To cooled bacon grease, add one-half cup cider vinegar, four tablespoons sugar. Stir well with a big fork and bring to a boil. (Once I didn’t wait until the bacon grease cooled, and when I added vinegar, steam rose up and burned my face.) Just before dinner, pour this, boiling, over lettuce and green onions, and radishes. Add bacon pieces. Serve immediately. The grease hardens quickly.
Nothing goes to waste. When Grammy butchers hogs, she pickles the cloven feet (trotters), the pointed cartilaginous ears, and the curling bone and gristle tails. She packs head cheese into the long-snouted hog’s head. Any pork remnants she grinds down into sausage, which she stuffs into the hog’s intestines. The last renderings and bacon grease, hoarded over the months in Mason jars, she turns into a smoke-blackened iron pot of swilling lye to make soap.
Milk is never let go bad. What Bushels and Buckles do not haul up to the road in sweating metal jugs for the dairy driver to pick up, what we do not drink, what is not poured into a trough for the piglets, Grammy churns into butter, makes into egg custards and puddings. She separates curds from whey, hangs the curds out on the clothesline in a cheesecloth clabber bag. More whey drips on the ground. On the table the next day, there is a bowl of soured clabber milk whose tender pebble curds you strew with sugar.
It is slow food, somebody’s-at-home food, and takes its time on back burners and low flames. Cooked vegetables are overcooked. The liquid left in the pot after cooking vegetables is called pot likker and coats your mouth with a taste that is undomesticate, mineral, dark and green, musty. You dip squares of cornbread or a rolled-up slice of light bread in the pot likker.
There is breaded tomato, made from tomatoes canned in August. Pools of melted butter percolate from the khaki bread crusts onto a lake of tomato juice. It is like eating scenery.
Grammy stands in the walk-in pantry and gazes at her Mason jars packed with whole pickled peaches stuck with cloves, bread-and-butter pickle, lye-soaked pale green and paler pink watermelon rind pickle, golf-ball-size pickled beets, pickled okra pods with frills of dill head. Standing with her hands on her broad hips, she will count the quarts of Bing cherries, white Royal Annes, boysenberries, blackberries, red and black raspberries, pie cherries, cling peach halves, and whole ivory Sickel pears, stem on, suspended in clear juice. When her best friend, Stell Ellis, comes to visit from Springfield, Missouri, Stell will say to my grandmother, “Let me look at your canning, doll.’’
In the iron pot, a stewing hen floats and bobs on her own bubbling juices. Her goose-bumped skin sweats yellow fat. Grammy has scooped out from the hen's mysterious jumble of guts, gizzard, liver, gravel, a handful of embryonic eggs with yolks no bigger than marbles, and has set them aside for gravy. As the hen simmers, her wings slowly loosen at the joint and lie out on either side of her high-peaked breast like blunted angel wings on the gold-flecked broth, and the pure white dumplings puff up into summer clouds.