An American Woman

She was slight. Elderly. She had an old kitchen that was lit up with smells and colors.

There is no place better than the humble kitchen of an American woman. If there is, I wouldn’t care to know about it. The linoleum floor. The enamel table with chipped edges. The stove with the stubborn oven door. Brillo pads in the sink.

And Lord, the smells. I could live and die in a good kitchen.

She was dusting her counters with flour on the day I interviewed her. She covered those countertops in snow, the way our ancestors have been doing ever since they deboarded the ark.

She wore one of those aprons that looks more like a cobbler’s apron. Two pockets. Floral print. She kneaded dough with frail hands. If you are ever lucky enough to see an elderly woman take out her aggression on a lump of lifeless dough, you are lucky enough.

When I visited her little kitchen I was on a long drive from Atlanta to Birmingham. Her son asked me to visit. I only had thirty minutes to spare.

The reason she told me to come was because she wanted to make one of my favorite casseroles, one she remembered that I mentioned in my books a few times.

I don’t even know what the casserole is called. I’m not sure it even has a proper name. It has little diced potatoes, mountains of cheese, and—this is the crucial part—Kellogg’s Corn Flakes on top.

When I was a kid, there was a lady in our church named Miss Patty who made this casserole for every get-together. As an adult, I have yet to find it again. I guess it’s an outdated church casserole now. It’s probably not stylish for modern women to put cornflakes on top piles of cheese anymore.

She made more than just casseroles. She cooked for local funerals, baby showers, anniversaries. And if you needed a wedding cake for your big day, but didn’t have much cash, she had you covered. You bought the ingredients; she made the cake for free.

These were real wedding cakes too, not the amateur variety. They were simple, pretty, and I understand they tasted incredible.

She had a photo album of the wedding cakes she made over the years. Polaroids, black-and-whites, and glossy photographs. Some photos dated back to the ‘50s.

The best part was that the cakes in the photos all looked the same. Everything else in the pictures changed as the years progressed—furniture, fashion, eyeglasses—but her cakes didn’t age.

She had a squadron of recipes. Batter frying was another specialty. She fried anything from yardbirds to watermelon rinds. Her butter beans were made the traditional way—nine beans, fifty sticks of unsalted butter.

“I cook by feel,” she told me in the interview.

I ended up staying for several hours in her kitchen while she cooked. At first I was taking notes on my legal pad for a story about her. Then I got swallowed up with the smells.

When the cornflake casserole was done, she covered it in foil and handed me the glass dish. She said, “Promise me you won’t eat it until you get to your hotel and you’re off the highway.”

A mother through and through.

We said goodbye, I drove away. The casserole sat in my front seat. When I hit Douglasville, I peeled back the tin foil, just to look. By Villa Rica, I dug in with a plastic spoon and drove with my knees. By Tallapoosa, half the casserole was gone and the other half was on my shirt.

I wrote a column about her. Then I sent it to her. She read it and told me liked it, but it embarrassed her. So she asked me not to publish it.

Here’s how our phone conversation went:

HER: Sean, it was a sweet story, but I’m afraid that if you publish it, well… All my friends will think I’m stuck up… And I just don’t want anyone thinking I’m proud.

ME: Yes, ma’am. I understand.

HER: I’m sorry, I know you worked real hard on it.

ME: It’s alright.

HER: Did you like that casserole?

ME: I absolutely adored it.

HER: Did you wait until you got to the hotel to eat it?

ME: I absolutely adored it.

I told her I wouldn’t run the story, but we kept in touch by email. Mostly, she sent me chain letters or forwarded corny jokes from her friends.

Here’s an actual joke she sent:

“Two old women were out shopping, spending big bucks, having a great time, buying shoes and clothes when a funeral procession drove by.

“One old woman paused to bow her head and close her eyes as the procession passed. The old woman’s friend said, ‘Oh, that was a very respectful thing to do.’ The woman answered, ‘Well I was married to him for thirty-seven years.’”

She probably sent that email while one of her cakes was rising.

I got another email this morning. It was an email sent by her son to her whole family. Attached was an unpublished story that had been written a few years ago by some nameless writer who visited her kitchen. There was an accompanying note which read: “She was the best woman I ever knew, we will miss her.”

I would tell you more about her, but she wouldn’t want anyone to think she was proud.

I hope God likes cornflakes.

36 comments

  1. jstephenw - January 7, 2020 6:48 am

    Once again Sean, my allergies are acting up. The water in my eyes is allergies, not tears. Thank you once again for taking me back to my childhood, my now deceased, great cook-by-touch mother and my Southern roots. Please keep it up. I have shared your stories and books now with hundreds, if not thousands, on Facebook, Instagram, e-mails etc. As one attorney friend of mine said after I sent him a great column which made him sign up by e-mail, ” I now start my day with Sean as a sort of devotional because I know it will lift my spirits.” Thanks to Jamie for her support and continued patience.

    Reply
  2. Dawn A Bratcher - January 7, 2020 7:35 am

    God bless the humble!

    Reply
  3. Lita - January 7, 2020 8:03 am

    <3

    Reply
  4. Lita - January 7, 2020 8:04 am

    I big heart this.

    Reply
  5. Barbara Pope - January 7, 2020 10:28 am

    You are a cook’s dream–you savor the food and the experience with such veneration that it almost seems holy.

    Reply
  6. Nina - January 7, 2020 11:00 am

    Oh the precious memories this article brings. I make that casserole (the corn flakes are what make it!). In our family, it’s called Dottie Potatoes. My mother’s friend, Dottie Lee, made it for every covered dish get together. It is my daughter’s favorite and is always present on our Thanksgiving table. Ms Dottie has been in heaven for years, but I give thanks for her every time I make her potatoes.

    Reply
  7. turtlekid - January 7, 2020 12:30 pm

    Lovely tribute. Recipe forever lost. 😢

    Reply
  8. Gary Earl Jones - January 7, 2020 12:38 pm

    Sean that sounds like a Hash Brown Potato Casserole and brings back fond memories of growing up. Here is the recipe from the Opp Cookbook.

    1 2-lb. pkg.of frozen hash browns, thawed
    1/2 c. softened oleo
    1 can cream of chicken soup
    2 c. grated cheddar cheese
    1 t. salt
    1/4 t.pepper
    2 cartons sour cream
    1/2 c.chopped onion may be used

    MIx all of the ingredients. Place in buttered casserole.
    Sprinkle over top: 2 cups crushed corn flakes mixed with 1/4 cup softened oleo.
    Bake 45 minutes at 350 degrees.
    Freezes well before cooking.

    When recipes were being gathered for the Opp Cookbook five different ladies submitted the recipe!

    For the sweet lady in your post —

    Father of all, we pray to you for all those whom we love but see no longer. Grant to them eternal rest. Let light perpetual
    shine upon them. May her soul and the souls of all the departed, through the mercy of God, rest in peace.
    Amen.

    Reply
  9. Heather - January 7, 2020 12:40 pm

    That cooking and gracious worrying sounds like my “Aint” Lorene of Winder, GA. She was my daddy’s aunt though the same age, what with him being the son of a younger daughter and her being the wife of his mama’s oldest brother by at least 15 years. By the way Sean, did you watch or get a general idea of the recipe so you could share?

    Reply
  10. Clark - January 7, 2020 1:41 pm

    ❤️❤️

    Reply
  11. MermaidGrammy - January 7, 2020 1:50 pm

    Hashbrown potato casserole

    Reply
  12. KRISTINE D SCHMELTER - January 7, 2020 2:08 pm

    Thank you for the lovely tribute to a fine lady! To recognize and appreciate true hidden gems like her in life is the ultimate gift❤️!!

    Reply
  13. Peg Begley - January 7, 2020 2:21 pm

    My heart aches for her and all who knew her and a thousand corn flake casserole baking church ladies like her.

    Reply
  14. Beki - January 7, 2020 2:28 pm

    My grandparents called what she said she didn’t want to be portrayed as “putting on airs”. God bless all the folks like this one who lived their lives without “putting on airs”. Oh how I wish we had more of them nowadays.

    Reply
  15. Robert Chiles - January 7, 2020 2:29 pm

    Gary, thank you for the sweet Episcopalian prayer

    Reply
  16. Tim Peace - January 7, 2020 2:35 pm

    This lady you wrote of might as well have been my Grandma. She cooked “by feel” and as far as I know never used a written recipe of any kind. Fried pies. Thin, stacked, apple pies. Sweet potato pie (with dishwater gravy). Rolls, cookies, fudge, jam cakes, regular cakes, strawberry shortcakes, Dutch Oven-roasted beef and pork, garden vegetables galore, piping hot cornbread…all of this and so much more…served with a glass of sweet tea poured from an antique pitcher. I can smell her kitchen today and she’s been gone for 20 years now. Thanks for the memories!

    Reply
  17. Jim Thomssen - January 7, 2020 3:02 pm

    Well dang it all. Tears with breakfast. Soggy cornflakes….

    Reply
  18. that's jack - January 7, 2020 3:04 pm

    Thanks for a good read my friend. Just so you will know one of ’em American women has owned me for over 63 years. She don’t want anyone to think she is proud or stuck up either.

    Good one my friend, made me think of mama too!
    Sherry & jack

    Reply
  19. kellygirlteacher - January 7, 2020 3:38 pm

    Tender memories, the love of a mother is shown in her kitchen more than any room in the house. ♥️

    Reply
  20. David - January 7, 2020 3:43 pm

    We call them Cheesy Potatoes. They were served here at Thanksgiving and Christmas.

    Reply
  21. Lori Brown - January 7, 2020 3:57 pm

    You made me smile… and cry. She sounds like my Grandmother Robertson. What a woman! I’ve missed her and her kitchen for over 40 years <3

    Reply
  22. Sharon Brock - January 7, 2020 4:00 pm

    My Texas Panhandle Granny had a chest freezer full of casseroles (including my favorite, chicken enchilada casserole) baked ahead for funerals, church suppers, new babies, shriner meetings, etc. No cornflake topping but chicken, corn tortillas, onions, green chilis, and cream of mushroom soup.The smell of that casserole cooking could raise the dead. I have been making it in the 40 years since her death and my youngest granddaughter conned me out of that recipe and the ones for my hash brown casserole, and Granny’s Texas version of a cherry cheesecake served on a crust consisting of butter, pecans, and brown sugar. My son favors HIS Nana’s medley–a casserole created from hamburger, cheese, tomatoes, onions, and macaroni. The food from my childhood which I haven’t made since my Mother died 17 years ago because the smell of it cooking breaks my heart.

    One of my prized posessions is one of Granny’s 1950s flowered aprons and one she made for my late Mother. My granddaughter uses them all the time.

    Reply
  23. Edna Barron - January 7, 2020 4:05 pm

    A wonderful story about a beautiful woman. Thank you. You have a super day, hugs, Edna B.

    Reply
  24. Linda Moon - January 7, 2020 4:27 pm

    “I cook by feel” could’ve been spoken by my mother, her sisters, and my mother-in-law. If your column is a veiled obituary for this American Woman, then you are allowed the evasive answer (lie?) about “adoring” the casserole the second time. God will overlook that because he likes cornflakes. If he didn’t like them, he wouldn’t have gifted us with the Woman and others like her. Modern women, remember that! Thank you for sharing her story, nameless writer!

    Reply
  25. Julie - January 7, 2020 4:52 pm

    What a beautiful woman! Thank you for preserving her memory.

    Reply
  26. julie - January 7, 2020 4:55 pm

    One of my favorite memories was having my grandmother teach me how to french cut green beans. I thought I was so smart – first college-educated person in my family. But my grandmother’s knobbly arthritic red hands could cut those green beans in a fraction of the time it took me! She would chuckle and show me how to do it. We didn’t really talk- just enjoyed each other’s company.

    Reply
  27. DDC - January 7, 2020 10:07 pm

    Good read “again” today. IMO: “deboarded the ark” could’ve been written ‘disembarked the ark’ for pure hilarity sake alone. 😉

    Reply
  28. Brian - January 7, 2020 11:10 pm

    I remember that casserole at church suppers, but cannot remember who made it.

    Reply
  29. Chasity Davis Ritter - January 8, 2020 12:44 am

    Beautiful memory of a special lady. I didn’t even know her but I’m crying all the same. Prayers for her family. May they always hold on to those amazing memories.

    Reply
  30. Lynda - January 8, 2020 12:54 am

    Dear Sean,

    Enjoyed this article and so many of yours. But I have to say this: I know you were being funny on purpose, but surely you know that butterbeans contain no butter. Whatsoever.

    Reply
  31. chip - January 8, 2020 1:49 am

    I knew that fine lady or maybe it was another, just like her – but the cholesterol numbers on the folks wearing wings and playing harps went up a few points when St Peter held open the door to heaven’s kitchen for that no-longer frail angel as she ran her hands over the front of that apron and brushed back that wisp of once-gray hair from her forehead …

    Reply
  32. Norma Williams - January 8, 2020 1:59 am

    This one made me cry a little. We still do those casseroles in Gantt. I will make you one if you stop by when you are in this area again. We live just off HWY 29 on Point A Road
    Never stop writing, I read every thing you write. I know exactly where you are coming from. Been there, done that!👍👏🙏🇺🇸❤️

    Reply
  33. Sally T. - January 8, 2020 12:59 pm

    Lynda, I put butter in butter beans and everyone laps them up!

    Reply
  34. Connie Havard Ryland - January 11, 2020 2:33 pm

    What a sweet tribute. Women like her hold us all together in ways that can’t be measured.

    Reply
  35. Carol - January 11, 2020 7:17 pm

    Please let us know the name of her casserole!
    So that we can all honor her , by making it in her name for our family!!
    Thank you Sean!
    Love ya !
    Email petepar63050@ail.com

    Reply
  36. Anita Green - January 12, 2020 6:09 pm

    In Southern Missouri, that casserole is called Hash Brown Casserole. It has so much butter and cheese in it, your arteries clog while you are making it. But, boy is it good! I still make it, mainly at holidays, it is my kids, and grandkids favorite! Thanks for honoring ladies, such as this one! We still exist in the world!

    Reply

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