I am in the kitchen with an elderly woman named Pauline. And, dear Lord, can she cook.
Her son, Don, brought me here. He tells me his mother’s downhome fare is good enough to coax even the most depraved human being into behaving like a Pentecostal.
This is Pauline’s old home. She raised a family here. She doesn’t live here anymore, she’s too old. She’s in the retirement home.
This house sits vacant most of the time. Old photos line the walls. Bed sheets cover furniture. The last time they used this place was for a family reunion last year.
I arrive at eight in the morning. The smell of bacon hits me like a freight train. Crackling eggs. Biscuits. Grits. Holy Chet Atkins, I’m home.
Pauline is wearing 1962—red polka-dot apron, pearls. She’s all business. The woman is a feeder. If you don’t know what that is, have a seat at her table.
Her food is breathtaking. Her grits contain so much butter I need to say three Hail Marys and two Our Fathers when I’m finished.
After breakfast, she takes a breather. We wash dishes.
“Now,” she announces. “Let the REAL cooking begin.”
Class is in session.
I’m here as an observer, watching a feeder teach her son to make pound cake. It’s a private moment. I feel privileged to see it.
Don is beside her, paying attention. She uses no recipes. She goes by feel.
“See,” Don tells me, “I always wanted to learn Mama’s poundcake. It’s the best there is, ask anyone, I just wanna carry on her legacy.”
You’ve never met her, but you already know her legacy. She represents every kitchen queen there ever was.
She is frilly aprons, Thursday-night Civic League, pear salad with cherries and shredded cheese on top, and an accent that makes your heart sore.
She cooks by handfuls, gut feelings, intuition, and can cure broken hearts with enough bacon grease.
Pauline learned to cook when she was ten. As a girl, she fed six brothers. As a married woman; three sons and a husband. Her whole life has been behind a stove.
“It’s what I am,” she says. “I feed folks.”
Her hands don’t work like they used to, and she gets winded after talking too much. She is not just an old woman. She is old America.
Her husband was a pipe welder—the backbone of this country. Pauline was his lumbar muscles.
Every day, another elderly woman like her crosses The River and the world loses another recipe index.
Pillsbury tube-biscuits are taking over the universe. Shoot me.
After a full day of baking, Don is testing his pound cake. His mother samples bites like a county-fair judge.
It’s impossible not to smile in this kitchen.
The old woman chews slow. “You DID it,” she says. “I’m so proud of you, Donnie.”
Don becomes “Donnie” again. I see it on his face. Even though he’s old enough to file for AARP, Mama’s pride reduces all grown men into little boys.
She kisses him. The day is over. They send two cakes home with me. They shut the lights off to a vacant house.
I’m eating cake while writing you. My lap is littered with crumbs. I’m no expert, but this cake has a familiar taste. I can’t pinpoint the flavor. It hits the gut first. It’s sweet.
I know what it is.
This cake was made with the same ingredient all feeders use. The only ingredient that matters in this life.
Hug your mother today, if you have one.