Ray and Kathie on the farm in 1946
Ray, another near twin, and I would both say our first food memories started with Becky, our baby sitter and a wizen, eccentric, story telling woman who stayed at our farmhouse during the week when we were 5-6 years old. Postwar Kentucky was a depressed area and our father had gone to Ohio for work. Mother was teaching in a one room school house, and Becky filled in taking care of us kids. I mentioned Becky to The Mother tonight and her first words were “Do you remember how she would pour the bacon grease in her plate and sop it up with a biscuit?” Followed, of course, by smoking a hand rolled cigarette. Until electricity came to the farm, meals were cooked on an oil burning stove and ice blocks delivered from town chilled the ice box. We had a smoke house as well as a cold cellar dug into the hillside to keep the canned goods over the winter, a cow, pigs, chickens, and a walnut tree behind the barn. Ray and I would sit under that tree with our hammer, cracking open the walnuts, unaware we were in the middle of a planting of Jimson weed -- a hallucinogenic plant -- grown for sale to pharmaceutical companies. We let the adults have the fried frog legs from the back pond, and it wasn't easy to eat our chicken friends beheaded for dinner.
Grace, the maternal grandmother, lived over the hill on the outskirts of Vanceburg, Kentucky, an Ohio River town. She cooked until she died in 1968 on a wood burning stove - baked and everything without temperature regulation, low, medium, high, or anything. I can still smell the toast from the oven. I remember Aunt Eloise for her chicken and magical lemonade. Aunt Thelma - her two inch high biscuits. But best about our family gatherings was the cousin pack -- Gary, Pruet, George, Kathleen, Georgie, Tootsie, Alan, Shirley Ann, Doris, and LeeAnn. In those pre-television days we played, swung on the front porch, caught lightning bugs, gathered around for stories from Jacob, our Appalachian storytelling grandfather, and checked out Uncle George’s pornography magazines and short wave radio.
Alice, the other grandmother, had no signature dish, but I recall one Thanksgiving at Alice’s house in the late ‘40s our father was excited about having lobster! Lobster in Kentucky, how did they do that? A strange Thanksgiving food, unless you take into account that side of the family had all immigrated from New England.
We had many years of family gatherings in Kentucky, but our father never found the steady work he’d had during the war at Pratt and Whitney in Hartford, so he moved us to Ohio where our only family was Aunt Jeanette, Uncle George -- and three cousins! More cousins! We still had family gatherings, time to play with cousins, but the food was not memorable. Neither Mother nor Jeanette were exceptional cooks but in about two years grandparents Alice and Raymond moved to our village, and we had gatherings for another 2-3 years until Raymond suddenly died. From then, the gatherings were no more and the family began to scatter. The cousins have lost touch. Grace’s turn of the century house was demolished to make way for a freeway. Alice’s elegant home on the Ohio River has become run down.
Our feasts have moved to San Diego and Charleston where the real chef of the family is Michael, Jessie’s husband. If you can’t get to Charleston, call him and he will give you an entire menu including directions on how to cook everything.
As for me, cooking is like being back in the chemistry lab except I can get out a beer and put some music on the Bose. With some family coming, it’s like those days more than a half century ago.