Essay: The Soul’s Food

Photo: Judd Pilossof

My grandmother had a grudge against hamburger.

When I was growing up, Granddad would make a meatloaf every so often, but if Grandma was going to cook beef, it would be in the form of a roast or a steak.

Gammy had grown up poor and was acutely aware that she came from a proud line of Southern aristocrats who, by the time of the Great Depression, were just a step above gator hunters.

“I could feed the family for a week on a pound of ground beef,” she’d boast about the lean years running a household on a Navy salary. Ground beef was something she’d had her fill of. It was a poor person’s food, she reasoned, and if she couldn’t be wealthy, she’d at least be rich in flavor. So, like Scarlett O’Hara pledging to never go hungry again, Gammy swore off hamburger.

And oh how we ate!

Grandma’s kitchen — the center of our family’s orbit — dished out all manner of Southern food and comfort. Barbecued pork ribs. Glazed ham and deviled ham. Chicken that had been soaked for a day in salted buttermilk then dredged and fried to golden perfection. Slow-cooked molasses baked beans and potato salad made with boiled eggs and sweet pickles. There were green beans and collard greens and mustard greens cooked with bacon fat from a tin that sat next to the stove, and buttered peas that we’d picked and shelled on the screened porch that very afternoon.

Grandma’s table always offered a variety of cold pickles she’d put up herself — dill and sweet and bread ’n’ butter and watermelon rind and pickled green beans and pickled beets and even pink pickled eggs, made special for my little brother.

She made pimiento cheese sandwiches on white bread with the crusts cut off, the little triangles of sandwich carefully wrapped in waxed paper and packed off in the pockets of grandchildren or neighbor kids headed to church camp or the park or off to play in the ditches and gullies around Gammy’s little farm. We clamored for breakfast “recipe” — well-buttered grits mixed with a chopped hard-fried egg and crispy bacon, with wedges of buttered toast to sop the plate with.

She fed us like rich folks, too, and we grandkids thought we were, dining on bacon-wrapped filet mignon, veal and duck liver pâté while our playmates ate Hamburger Helper. Gammy offered us all manner of seafood — shrimp, crab, sole, halibut and even once fresh steamed lobster, which none of us knew quite what to do with.

We had fish and fowl stuffed and wrapped and basted and broiled and elaborately sauced. We were offered cheesy, creamy delights served in individual ramekins — those gifts of food in their own little dishes made with love and received with love.

I was nurtured on an old breed of Southern hospitality — the kind that offers a seat at the table to whoever may wander in and keeps so-and-so’s favorite bourbon in the bar because you never know when he might stop by. Gammy taught me to make enough for everyone to have seconds and then some, and to keep a chunk of good cheese in the refrigerator so there’s always something to offer an unexpected guest. For her, food — and feeding — was an expression of esteem.

I learned to cook at my grandmother’s side, measuring seasonings in a cupped palm and tasting liberally just as she did. She cooked by the seat of her pants, she said, and I do the same, re-creating from memory the flavors of my past.

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