Monday, September 11, 2017

Cookbooks and Memories

It is said that smells trigger memories. I believe that. I can smell a fresh-baked cinnamon roll and I instantly transport back to primary school days. We were staying temporarily near family in Arkansas while Daddy was overseas. One of my aunties worked in the school cafeteria and (this is back when they served a great breakfast in schools) she made sure that I always got a cinnamon roll and the chocolate milk.

Certain sights can also send me back into my vault of memories. This can sometimes work in a strange way. If I see an elderly woman posturing in a particular way - holding her purse just so, or fanning her face with a piece of paper - I think of all the church ladies from my childhood. Don't even let me see some old lady wearing a bad wig! I immediately remember a specific church sister who I'll leave unnamed.

My biggest memory tweaks come from food and cooking. My mother was a wonderful cook. She was a natural in the kitchen. I don't think I ever saw Mama measure anything. Many years back, one of my sisters-in-law decided that she was going to write down Mama's recipes. The only way she managed to do so was to wait until Mama visited. My sister-in-law would stand by with pen and paper while Mama cooked just so she could eyeball the measurements Mom used in her dishes. Thankfully, my sister-in-law did get down a lot of the recipes and I have a copy that I left behind with the nieces in Anchorage. I'm going to need them to send me another copy!

I was thinking of my mother the other day when I unpacked a cookbook I bought a long while back. I had to order another copy because I want to share it with some relatives. Going through this cookbook is like flipping through a mental photo album of memories.

 I tell people that this is not just a cookbook for African Americans but a cookbook, history course, and cultural gem for all people. The collection is from the Tuskegee Institute and there are a lot of historical photos and little anecdotes included. But it's the recipes that stir my memories...

My mother was from Texas and she and her Mexican friends would joke about the blacks and Mexicans boosting the rice economy every time they shopped. I myself preferred (and still do) pinto beans and rice.

I love neck bones. I can skip the rest of a  meal and just eat some neck bones. When I was in Anchorage, I'd pick some up at least once ever couple of weeks. It was such a habit of mine that whenever I took my little nephew  DJ with me to the store, he'd ask if we were going to get my neck bones! 
 Salmon croquettes was never a favorite of mine, but all the rest of my family really likes them. You can bet that the Alaska fam makes croquettes whenever they snag some fresh salmon.

 I have tasted pickled pig. Can't remember if it was a foot, tail, or toe, but I did taste it. I'm not a fan, but I have an uncle who will make a sandwich with pickled pig parts. Ugh.

The whole "Aunt Bay Bay" thing made me do my Jeff Foxworthy imitation. "If you've got relatives named Bay Bay, Peaches, or Skint, then you might be a black Southerner." I'm being silly, but I bet that barbecue sauce is the business though!

One of my favorite "Mama dishes" was navy beans served with hot water cornbread. Another was smothered potatoes and onions with hoe cake. I know how to make the navy beans and hot water cornbread, but trying to find a hoe cake recipe made the way mom did it is driving me crazy. Most recipes I've seen use cornmeal or cornmeal and flour. Mama's bread was made with flour, no cornmeal. Basically, Mama's cakes were similar to Naan only a bit heavier. I don't ever remember eating a cold hoe cake; Mama always served them warm right out of the skillet. As a child, I ate hoe cake with those potatoes or with gravy or even with just some butter and syrup.

Probably good, but it's not
 my mama's recipe...
Mama's hoe cake recipe was simple, from what I recall. Just flour, water, and some lard. I always thought they should have been called "Po' Cakes" as in cakes for poor people. Here's a fact about military families of the past: a lot of us were just as poor as some civilian families.

My mother was truly a genius at feeding 6 kids and 2 adults. We ate a lot of greens - collard, turnip, mustard - and potatoes fixed in more ways than you could imagine. I remember a lot or meals where the main dish was cabbage or one of the "greens" and a ham hock or smoked neck-bone was the only meat. When we did eat meat, it was mostly chicken - smothered, fried, baked, or boiled with some dumplings. I do not remember eating very many hamburgers unless we were having a backyard cookout. (I also didn't eat McDonald's until I was in my mid-teens. What-a-Burger was my childhood "fast food" treat.)

Anyway, I was going through that cookbook and feeling all emotional until I remembered that it had no recipe for my mama's style of hoe cakes. (The one thing it does get right is the way hoe cakes got their name.)

Just like my mama told me

I've recently ordered a vintage cookbook and it's taking 2 days short of forever to get here.  I don't mind the wait though because I snatched up a spiral-bound first printing copy for $17. One day, you won't be able to get near a copy for under around $100-$150, I bet. I don't even want it for the potential future value. The first reason I wanted it was because the cover photo reminds me of my aunt (the one with the cinnamon rolls and chocolate milk!).

The other reason is because of the title. I remember my mother saying something similar - not about food, but life and people in general: "Be of a good heart and a light hand."

My best and favorite memories of my mother are those of her in the kitchen. If she wasn't cooking, she was sitting at the table, sometimes with friends, having coffee. Or she'd be reading her Bible while waiting for a cake or pie to come out of the oven. I used to tell people that my mother's Christian ministry was in feeding people. She would feed anyone. As poor as we sometimes were, my mother could stretch a meal. It would seem she had just enough food for us until someone dropped by, then she could feed twice as many people. I don't know how she did it.

A couple of days ago, I made some chicken and dumplings. I don't even particularly like chicken and dumplings! As the food cooked, I'd take the lid off the pot every now and then just to smell the memories.


UPDATE: The other cookbook arrived today (A Good Heart and a Light Hand) and I am so happy I could weep. There are 2 hoe cake recipes: one with flour and one with cornmeal. The flour hoe cake recipe sounds exactly like what my mother used. Others I found would use cold water to make the dough...

 When I cook some, I will be sure to let you all know how they turned out! And, you know what, I 'm going to go ahead and post a photo of the recipe. Couldn't help myself.

The book is a little beat up, but it is a first printing from 1968 (and a from the "Educational Materials Center Tucson Public Schools") so I'm lucky it held up as well as it did. I notice that it was originally meant to be priced at $3. So $17 isn't that bad all these years later. I am going to hold this book precious until the day I die.