I grew up in a country home in the suburbs of America. What I mean is, my parents were both country people, mountain born and bred. However, when they met they were living in the city, and continued to live in urban or suburban environments for the rest of their lives. When they married they were both living in Richmond, Va. That’s where they stayed, and that’s where I grew up. We lived in a northside residential area known as Lakeside, average family dwellings, but with no lake. Our upbringing (by “our” I mean myself, my sister and my brother) was in many ways typically suburban and middle class. But there was a difference…
You see, though living near the city, my parents never became completely citified. Oh, they probably appeared that way to the kinfolk still living back in Bacon Hollow or near Buck Mountain. But the truth is they never lost their country ways, not really. That is the reason I grew up eating and acting and thinking “countrified” in a lot of ways.
Did you hear me say “eating”? Yep. We definitely ate country. And I loved it. I still think that there are no cooks like country cooks, and no country cook was better than my Mama. Mama could make a brown milk and flour gravy that you would die for. I have never found another person who could make gravy like she did. Back then we had gravy with most meals. I still would, if I could. I loved Mama’s gravy poured liberally over biscuits, corned bread, fried potatoes, mashed potatoes, fried apples, roast beef, pork chops, or even tomatoes. Tomatoes? Yes sir! If you’ve never tried a good gravy over fresh sliced tomatoes, you have missed a heavenly treat. (It took a while, but I have converted my wife to my way of thinking on this matter.)
Most meals were wondrous affairs as far as I was concerned. But the climax of feasting, the apex of the culinary week, the mother of all meals was Sunday dinner. That was an affair to be remembered all your life. Mama was of the persuasion that it was impossible to fix too much food for Sunday dinner. When I first heard the term “groaning board,” I immediately understood what it meant. That was our dinner table on Sunday afternoon. Fried chicken, crispy and brown. Sliced ham. (If you’ve never had real country ham from Virginia, you have absolutely no idea what you’re missing!) Mashed potatoes. Sweet potatoes, baked whole and steaming hot. Corn bread, right out of that old cast iron frying pan. Plus biscuits. And usually loaf bread too (just to make sure there was enough bread). Stewed tomatoes, sweet and tangy. Corn dripping with butter. A mess of greens swimming in an aromatic pot liquor that was potable all by itself. String beans, rich with fat meat seasoning. My! I get hungry just thinking about it.
Being countrified meant that we sometimes ate things that our neighbors didn’t. I can remember by grandmother (who lived with us) eating chitlins, or calf brains and eggs for breakfast. Mama liked pig’s feet, and pig ears. I still relish the taste of fish roe cooked in scrambled eggs. And I when I think about it, I think I can almost taste that delectable, pungent flavor of cooked cress seasoned with salt pork. (Mama called it “cree salad.”) Mmmmm. We also were exposed to some wild meats that the other children at Lakeside Elementary School wouldn’t have wanted on their lunch trays. I remember having eaten deer, bear, raccoon, squirrel, rabbit, dove, eel, and who knows what else.
I distinctly remember the ‘coon pot pies Mama once made when a bunch of cousins dropped by unannounced. The thing was, these were some of our uppity cousins, who mostly lived in New Jersey. Their taste buds were acquainted with steaks, seafood, pasta or chicken. Not raccoon. But the refrigerator was a little bare, and Mama wouldn’t think of not providing an ample meal for any guest, much less family. So down to the freezer she went, to return with a couple of frozen ‘coons we had been given. After being thawed and cut into chunks, they went into a baking dish with veggies and a crust to make two huge pot pies. The cousins loved it. Said it was the best beef pot pies they had ever eaten. Mama just stood in the kitchen and chuckled.
Not only did we eat country, but we talked country. I still do in many respects. My wife has always laughed at the way I say “breakfast.” My pronunciation, which I think I got from my father, is closer to “brack-fest,” with a strong accent on the first syllable. I also leave the plural ending off of “cents,” e.g., “That cost 5 cent.” And as a true southern, I firmly believe that the contracted form of “is it not” is “idinit.” For example, “Idinit it a shame that a brackfest biscuit now costs 89 cent?” But I never have figured out where I learned to pronounce “syrup.” Most people say “sir-up.” I say “sear-up,” like you were braising the outside of your pancakes before you ate them. I guess it came from some Appalachian dialect, somewhere back in them thar hills.
Having rural roots means I also grew up with a body of accepted folk lore and rustic beliefs that were just part of being a child in a countrified home. My childhood imagination was peppered with images of ghosts, witches, folk magic and superstition. When I was a child, I was certain that if a bird flew in your house it meant someone was going to die. I knew that there was a real man in the moon. He was sent there under divine judgment for burning brush on Sunday. Thunderstorms were demonstrations of God’s power and wrath—to be endured in silent reverence and with awe-filled solemnity. (I remember once several of us children laughing and cutting up during a thunderstorm. During our giggling merriment, lightning came down the wire from the TV antenna and blew up our television. We were certain it was the retribution of the Almighty enacted against our impiety.) Witches rode unsuspecting sleepers to their deaths. Ghostly visions of dead loved ones appeared to frighten, or comfort, the bereaved. Animals attracted lightning. If you put salt on a bird’s tail, it would stand still and allow you to catch it. (I emptied many a salt shaker in vain attempts to prove this hypothesis.)
It is funny how each region has its own myths and lore. We were always told that when it rains while the sun is shining that it means the devil is beating his wife. The meteorological evidence of this bit of luciferic spousal abuse was pointed out every time we saw this phenomenon. I thought such a belief was universal. When I moved to the mountains of Pennsylvania, I was surprised to discover that people in this region of Appalachia have never heard of such a thing. Or perhaps the heat and humidity of the South make Satan more irritable down there during unusual weather. Who knows?
As a child growing up in suburbia I can remember times of embarrassment caused by my family’s ways. The way we talked, the food we ate, and our behaviors were sometimes different from my school friends. They didn’t understand our ways. And there were times, I am now reluctant to admit, when I looked on my parents as hicks, and was ashamed of their country ways. What fools we often are as youths! Now I realize that while growing up I was gifted with a rich heritage and precious legacy, for which I will always be thankful. I now cherish my country roots. Indeed, the older I get more I wish I could return to some of those country ways. As life moves along, I realize that there was much wisdom and insight and prudence in the ways of my “hick” parents, and much that I can still learn from their memory.
If any of you are like I am and you too have country roots, I invite you to celebrate your heritage. Treasure it; don’t despise it. Plunge into the joys of what it means to have such a wonderful legacy passed down to you. It is a gift from God.
So pull up a rocking chair. Enjoy a dipper full of cool, bracing well water. Ladle up a steaming bowl of pinto beans. Spread that fresh churned butter liberally over your corn bread, taken straight from the cook stove. Serve yourself up a mess of greens, and another of string beans. Listen to the mockingbird sing outside your window. Watch the sun as it sets over the mountain ridges. And enjoy life. For you are blessed.