I got a letter from Mona, who writes: “Sean, will you write more about food? It makes me feel better during these scary times.”
Mona, as it happens I am looking at a cookbook right now. The cookbook I am holding is old. It is every hometown recipe book you’ve ever seen. Spiral bound, thick, stained, and there is a sketch on the cover featuring stately oaks draping over a shaded street.
Inside are the four gospels: church food, wedding food, funeral food, and congealed salads.
You won’t find many things holier than these recipes. They are American history, described in standard measurement form.
I once knew an old Sunday school teacher who made buttermilk pie that made grown men loosen their neckties. Once, at a Fourth of July supper, she gave me a slice and told me:
“God wants all his children to be a little soft in the middle.”
And I’ve always believed that.
This particular cookbook I am holding, however, comes from the Brewton Civic League. The recipes within are everything you need to find a happy life.
Cheese grits, Squirrel D’ete, Congealed Cantaloupe Salad, mint juleps, Miss Paula’s pickled shrimp, and Coca-Cola salad—whatever that is.
None of them use the word “margarine,” but “Oleo.” And in this book, you will also find the secret to perfect fried chicken—peanut oil and Jesus.
You will discover that measurements are open to loose interpretation. A “handful” here, a “passel” there. A “dash,” a “pinch,” a “dusting,” or a “touch.”
Also, there are a dozen variations of chicken-broccoli casserole. Though, the only discernible differences are the varying amounts of cheese.
In this book you will find the exact deviled eggs approved by the Methodist church.
But anyway, I have a long history with homemade cookbooks. In fact, the article you’re reading was typed on a manual typewriter that once typed a similar cookbook.
Many moons ago, I typed 418 recipes using only my index fingers. The recipes were then fed through a Xerox machine which resided in the church office.
After that, the finished recipes were placed into position based on pure favoritism according Mrs. Bellmaker. And a cookbook was born.
The women’s Baptist Bible study group reimbursed me 4 dollars for the sleepless hours of work I put into it. And it was a pleasure.
Some younger people might not remember this, but long ago, recipes were not handed down to us by former celebrities with TV cooking shows. Our recipes came from white-haired oracles who knew how to pronounce “ambrosia,” and could make white barbecue sauce with a blindfold on.
These women could transform cholesterol and bleached flour into miracles. Women like my mother, who could use simple ingredients to cure everything from malaria to a broken heart.
They showed their affection in calories. With this fare they could give you the courage to ask Laney Tyler to the dance, or instill within you the confidence to try out for the baseball team.
In my life, I cannot recall an afternoon that my mother didn’t dirty a kitchen counter. And if I had room in this column, I could replay for you my whole life, one dish at a time.
Mama’s ham-hock-and-navy-bean soup, the drop biscuits she prepared when she was in a hurry and didn’t have time to roll any, her homemade bread.
I will forever recall the sweetness of the chocolate cakes she made for my birthdays, and how every year she would decorate them with Superman insignias until I was 35 years old.
These are holy women. They will mash potatoes if they see you wearing a frown. Before they leave town to visit their dying aunt, they will place foil-wrapped casseroles in the freezer.
Freely, they leave us their wisdom in nondescript cookbooks, similar to the one I am holding.
The book belongs to my wife, but it sits above our oven for quick reference. Time has faded the cover. Inside are the secrets to the universe, the key to happiness, to love, to life, and the pathway to type-2 diabetes.
I flipped through the pages just before writing this. I found Triple Orange Ambrosia, Red Beans and Rabbit, Miss Genie’s Crack-a-Lackin’ Cheese Biscuits, Miss Ruby Hagood’s Old-Fashioned Tea Cakes.
I will never be able to taste them all, but I can hold them in my hand, and I can think of the matriarchs who have gone to the other side.
Also, I can remember a boy who believed in food so much that he once typed 418 recipes for a bunch of beautiful white-haired cheapskates who only paid him 4 lousy bucks.
But that boy is not complaining. No. It was worth it. For books like these are not just old recipes, you see.
They are proof that God wants all his children to be a little soft in the middle.