The Matriarchs

This essay is dedicated to my Grandmothers. Granny, I hope you are diving into a red velvet cake headfirst and licking your fingers. Sadie, I hope you are enjoying a fantastic old-fashioned caramel cake and that they got the icing right this time.

I blew my Mom’s mind sometimes. She’d shake her head and ask me, – “where in this world did you come from, that’s not how we do it in Lexington.” Mom was missing a big piece to the puzzle.

My grandmothers, while unique in their own right, could not have been more different. Some may even say they were from different sides of the tracks. I am not too fond of that phrase and its negative connotation as there was nothing negative about these two remarkable women. They were similar in personality, and both were beautiful, charming, strong-willed with overflowing hearts of gold. They just operated from different envelopes of knowledge. They had different upbringings, life experiences, and opportunities. These influences led to different ways of expression. 

They had one thing in common; neither could cook a lick. That might seem odd as all grandmothers can cook, right?. I mean, my friend Lisa’s Grandma made Sunday Sauce every Sunday. My friend Becky’s Grandma had a Lazy Susan fill with biscuits, homemade jams, and chow chow. Not ours! 

And, it may have been an obstacle for a grandmother not to be able to cook. But not to these ladies – they just kept plowing on like it was completely normal to burn eggs or hire a full-time cook. They had their lives to live.

The day my Granny met Granddaddy, he asked her, “Edith, why on earth do you have your fingernails that gosh-awful red.” Granny replied, “Harris, they are my fingernails, and I will paint them any color I want.” Three days later, they were married. 

And that my friends was my Granny. She was a feisty broad, all 4′ 9″ of her. Her nickname was wimp, but there was nothing wimpy about her. She washed her car, standing on her old wooden step stool. Her vegetable garden was spectacular and could feed the town. She shelled pecans from her big tree in the back yard by hand. She had a Β½ a beer every Saturday after mowing her yard. She listened to every Atlanta Braves baseball game on her transistor radio and write to me in college – play-by-play, signed, love, Granny. And without fail, every Spring, I’d get a phone call – “my pansies is so pretty you gotta come now, I’ll have supper ready.” 

We’d spend just about every weekend at Granny’s. There were no rules except to behave. And if not, Granddaddy would “tare your ass up.” There was no bedtime and manners smanners — eat with your hands if you like. 

We’d rise to a robust cup of hot coffee with tons of sugar and cream, accompanied by scrambled pancakes with tons of butter and warm maple syrup. Or our all-time favorite, Granny’s burnt fried eggs with crunchy buttery brown edges. While burnt to some, they were perfect to us. Funny, they are all the rage now and called “crispy eggs.” 

Ah, and her bitter collard greens – the story goes Granny did this on purpose because Granddaddy came home drunk one afternoon with a truck bed overflowing with fresh-picked collards. By goodness, she’d get him. So bitter they were, from that day on.

Funny thing is we did not know any different cause we were young. Granny plated and served them right up as if she was serving royalty. And to her, we were. And with a smirk, she’d declare, “I fixed ’em just like your Granddaddy likes ’em.” And to this day, this is how we prefer them. 

 I’d share a few recipes, but there are none. The best I can do is provide you a link to Smitten Kitchen for the “crispy egg.” It was fly by the seat of your pants and throw it together. And if it worked out great, if not, so be it. We were all together, and we were having fun, and that was all that mattered.

Things were a little different at Sadie’s – for lack of a better word – more proper. Dinner was lunch, and supper was dinner. We had a dinner fork, a salad fork, and a dessert fork. We had a plate for our bread and a bowl for our salad. And you never had a beverage with a meal as it disrupts the digestion. 

Sadie was the “original Sara March” and a tough act to follow. At her funeral, I read Ecclesiastes 3 “A Time For Everything” because Sadie always knew what time it was and always had a plan. There was nothing spontaneous about this lady. She had her rituals and was set in her ways. She was adamant about brain health and stood on her head 30 minutes a day to get the blood flowing. She took line dancing for exercise and taught us how to do the Electric Slide – gyrating hip movements and all. She had 2 ounces of bourbon every afternoon – no more, no less. And she treated herself to two hotdogs, “all the way” with an order of fries every Saturday.

Sadie was extremely curious and always on the tipping point on the next thing (odd for someone who was not spontaneous and could not watch a Tarheel basketball game without covering her eyes). She studied gardening, religion, and culture. Sadie collected hair from the beauty parlor and fish heads from the seafood guy for her compost pile before anyone knew what a compost pile was. She devised a brilliant “netting” plan for her coveted fig bushes, as she was not about to share her figs with birds! They had biblical symbolism, aided digestion, and were mighty pleasing on top of boiled custard, which was the cure-all for whatever might ail you. They were not for the birds.

As for cooking, she didn’t even try. She just hired a cook. Granddaddy had died young, and she was raising two girls and taking care of Great Grand Mommie. It made perfect sense to her and would certainly not be snubbed as a societal faux pas. Instead, an ingenious way of making it all work.

Ethel B was a mighty fine cook! They made a great team. With Sadie’s not so subtle direction and Ethel’s infallible execution – some of my favorites came out of that kitchen. I just loved hanging out in the kitchen with Ethel B listening to stories of her childhood as she scraped the milk out of the corncobs for her famous creamed corn. 

I admired the determination and love she showed as she prepared Sadie’s favorites out of the two cookbooks Sadie owned. In Sadie’s treasured Charity League Cookbook, Ethel B could find Sadie’s scrawled notes by recipes with her version of how they should be prepared. And Kitchen Klips had an index page at the front where she listed her favorites. There were scrumptious tasty treats like Annie Maide’s Fig preserves and Miss Mary Bell’s Perfect Caramel Icing. The trick to the preserves was that you had to let the figs sit overnight in sugar. If I got wind preserves were in the making, I would promptly schedule a slumber party with Sadie so that I could sneak a few (or all) of these delicacies during the night. Then there was “Mrs. Phipott’s” favorite, Stuffed Green Peppers, handwritten on crumbling browned paper. I have my version now with tangy capers and salty olives. I am not sure if she’d be mortified or proud. Ah, but the most notable of all and not in either cookbook, is Ethel’s tomatoes. Summery goodness right out of the garden, you could feel the warmth of the sun as you ate them.

Did my Grandmothers influence my love of food? No. They let me in on a few tricks of the trade for this thing called life, which just so happened to include food. They shared what they loved with the people they loved, each in their own way. They shared themselves fully and with humility. They shared their humanity. However different and each her own – they had a love for life, and their aim was always true.

So to answer Mom’s question, I come from both sides of the tracks. Life is subjective – no room to judge – just room to learn. I dye my hair purple hair because it’s my favorite color. I prefer the Red Sox to the Braves (sorry, Granny). I, too, watch Tarheel basketball with my hands over my eyes. I prefer my eggs fried with lace and poached over toast. I like my collard greens bitter with fatty ham hock and chopped into a salad with warm bacon dressing. 

And yes, that was me dancing, singing, and stomping my feet in the aisles, singing Alleluia at Ethel B’s funeral. I caught you watching, and I knew you wanted to be dancing too.