There are few things in life that are as vital to our daily lives as food. There are also few things that are more controversial. Food keeps us alive, but can also kill us. It is used as a reward, but also as punishment. It’s the focus of most celebrations, but it also helps us mourn. Let someone hurt us and we’re elbow deep in Ben and Jerry’s finest!
Food is also one of the foundation pillars of our economy. The growing and processing and transporting and selling and cooking of food provides a livelihood for millions of people. What we eat and how we eat it is even symbolic of our culture and our status in life. It is not surprising then that many of my memories of childhood are somehow linked to food.
My earliest memories are of food in its natural form, hanging from a vine or a tree. I went to the fields with my parents as soon as I could walk. Most of the things that they harvested were edible and I did a lot of tasting. I loved grapes and peaches and strawberries.
My earliest memories are also of Mom in the kitchen, usually wearing an apron. My mother taught me to cook as soon as I was old enough to stand on a chair next to the kitchen counter. She made buttermilk biscuits every day. They were light, fluffy, and absolutely delicious. She also made wonderful cornbread. I can still smell it! Bread, jelly, fried potatoes, and pinto beans were the staples of our diet. We had fresh vegetables in season and fried chicken when we could catch one.
Our meat was usually in its “natural form” too. I followed Dad out to the chicken house to watch him chop the head off our supper. I went hunting with him and we brought back fat squirrels and rabbits. Sometimes he would hang a hog from a tree out by the barn and gut it before it was cut and wrapped for the freezer. We weren’t often blessed with a hog though. Mom and I spent a lot of time plucking chickens and ducks, and skinning rabbits.
When we lived in Highway City, California, we worked in a cotton field near Wong’s Market. At lunch time Dad would send my brother and me to the store with a dollar and we would bring back a loaf of bread, a pound of bologna, and a jar of mayonnaise. We would sit under the shade of a huge eucalyptus tree and eat our sandwiches and drink tea out of a jug.
My father has always had very definite ideas about food. He liked it fresh, spicy, and hot. He hated leftovers, with the exception of spaghetti, which he ate for breakfast, and he disliked sandwiches unless we were out in the fields. He used a quart jar for his tea and he wanted lots of ice in it. We usually made or bought ice in blocks that had to be chipped with an ice pick for each meal. Dad also loved cookies, crumbled in a bowl with milk poured over them. A celebration of any kind was a good excuse for homemade ice cream and he preferred vanilla…still does.
I’m not a very good cook. Those of you snickering (my children) can be quiet and show a little respect. I don’t think I’ve ever claimed to be a good cook. I can read a recipe and put a meal together. I’ve even created a few decent dishes on my own. But I suppose my children seldom sit around and think fondly of the macaroni and cheese I made when they were children. They probably don’t get nostalgic about my peanut butter sandwiches. I don’t know what happened to me because I was surrounded by good cooks all of my life. My mother, grandmothers, aunts, even a few uncles and cousins were all great cooks.
Bigg Mama, my great-grandmother, made a pecan pie that was the highlight of every major holiday celebration meal. She always had pumpkin and lemon meringue and mincemeat pies sitting on the sideboard too, but I made sure the golden brown pecan pie was there before I sat down. After I “cleaned my plate” Bigg would cut a thick slice of pie for me and top it with a scoop of vanilla ice cream. My mouth waters now just thinking about it.
My Mamma Della’s dill pickles were her culinary claim to fame. I not only loved the taste of the pickles, but I was fascinated by the process of making them. When we were in Oklahoma we usually ate Sunday supper at Mamma Della’s house. The regular crowd of children and grandchildren included about thirty people so it was “potluck”. Sometimes the fare would include Papa’s homemade chili or Mamma’s fried chicken, but there was always chow-chow, dill pickles and tomatoes. The table overflowed with food and the house overflowed with people and laughter.
“Uncle” Jack, who was actually a friend of the family, introduced authentic Italian spaghetti to our diet. When he stayed with us at the ranch he showed us how much garlic to add and how long to cook the slender noodles. He gave us long loaves of thick crusty bread. He also tried to teach us to drink wine and eat raw oysters, but there were some things Mom didn’t think we needed to learn!
My Grandma Bea was the official “best cook” of the Simmons clan. She was famous for her chicken’n’dumplings, lasagna, and chocolate pie. She owned a café for several years and later cooked at a truck stop. She knew how to feed a crowd! And because she survived the depression she always kept her cupboards well-stocked. I could count on her refrigerator and her cookie jar to be full. The only thing I ever held against her was that she made hominy- tubs and pans and buckets of the awful smelly stuff!
My own eating habits today are very different than when I was a child. I eat less red meat and fat. I seldom use sugar and I don’t even buy salt. I like bagels and cream cheese for breakfast. I love artichokes and snow peas and fried rice and lentil soup and gnocchi and tacos. I have embraced the foods of several cultures because of the places where I have lived. But sometimes on a cold winter evening I make pinto beans and fried potatoes and buttermilk biscuits, and I drink tea out of a quart jar, with lots of ice, just to keep in touch with who I am.