Chicken and Dressing – Free Download

Considering the holidays, and some folks, due to no fault of their own, not knowing how to make cornbread dressing properly – I saw where one lady said she was gonna use Jiffy Cornbread Mix in hers! – my members are making a draft chapter of my narrative cookbook, Food Is Love, available for free download.

It gives you the story behind my memories of Chicken and Dressing and includes recipes for Southern AF cornbread, as well as Chicken and Dressing (and a variation if you want to use pork sausage, like my momma does, instead).

I’m working on a book full of meals and stories like these, and if you want to know how to support that work, get early draft copies of chapters like this in your inbox, and more, you should become a member – you can learn more about that here. If you just want to thank me, you can buy me a cup of coffee or share this post with a friend.

You can download the free PDF file here – no tricks, no spam, and no need to surrender your email address. It’s a pure gift.

I hope your holidays are marvelous, and that you get to celebrate them with the people you love.

Guardian Angels

A thing I do, when overwhelmed by the pain of the world, is to look through the memory box I carry around in my head and try hard to remember everything I can about a particular thing.

Last night, processing the shootings and the huge loss of life, I closed my eyes and went back through time to Strickland Road, in Desoto County, MS, and I was maybe 8 years old and in my Aunt Louise‘s house – a house I have not set foot in for more than 38 years.

The house, which had been her husband’s house before his death, and his parent’s house before it had been his, was a converted dogtrot house. A dogtrot is a style of farmhouse popular that existed in the hot and humid south before air conditioning, where the building was a rectangle, with a room on either end, and the center was a covered porch. For the most part, the real living was done under the covered porch, where you could take advantage of the dominant breezes, but the bedroom and sitting rooms were capable of being secured.

When AC came along, many dogtrot houses had the center room boxed in, so now you had three rooms, and not two. Which was what had happened to this one. The house had a long covered screened-in front porch that had been added later, and when you walked across the front porch and through the front door, the room you came into – the former porch of the dogtrot – had no windows, so it was always dark.

In my mind’s eye, I can see it still – the beadboard paneling, the high ceilings, the hard, uncomfortable couch with the scratchy upholstery on the far right, along the wall, and on the left wall a couple of chairs and a table with a record player on it. We virtually never sat in this room.

Except when there was a storm. Because there were no windows and it was in the center of the house, if there was a bad thunderstorm, she and I would sit in the living room on that scratchy couch, and I would curl up next to her, and she would shut the doors to the other rooms so we wouldn’t see the flashes of lightning and the thunder was muffled and we and the dogs would sit in that room and wait the storm out, and I always asked her to tell me the story about the kids in the picture.

I don’t know how she came about it – it was a dollar store print with a heavy gilt frame – 18 inches by 24, including the frame – that hung on the wall opposite the front door of her house, the first thing you saw when you came in. And when we were in the living room – which we only were when there was a storm and I was scared and most likely the power had gone out and we were sitting in candlelight- she would tell me stories about the people in the picture.

It showed two small children on a bridge – a sketchy bridge, at that – and in the background was an angel, watching over the children, ready to swoop in lest they be in danger. It was a popular print in Appalachian America during the first half of the last century, and somehow, she had ended up with a copy on her wall.

The stories she told me varied. Sometimes the little boy had gotten lost, and his sister had found him and was bringing him to safety. Sometimes the sister was scared and he was walking over the bridge with her so she would feel safe. Sometimes, the kids were late getting home, so they took the sketchy bridge to save time. But always, the guardian angel was watching out for them.

My aunt was agnostic, but her theology of angels was strongly an interventionist one. I was evangelized to believe, in that paneled living room, sitting on a scratchy sofa, while looking at a dollar store print in candlelight, that we were cared for and watched over by guardian angels, who cared for us and protected us. And if I ever came to doubt, she would tell me that the guardian angels were watching over us right now, and soon the storm would end and the sun would come out and the power would come back on and we would be safe once again.

And then it would happen, just like she said it would. I mean, how can you argue with that?

When she died suddenly when I was 12, I got that print – it hung on my wall over my bed all through my high school years. I then got put in a closet in my parent’s house, and last year, when they were cleaning out a room there, Mom found it and called me to ask what she should do with it.

It hangs now on my wall in my bedroom. I look at it every night before I go to bed – not because I believe in literal angels out there, watching over me, ready to catch me when I fall off a sketchy bridge, but because I absolutely believe in the power of story to make us feel safe and loved when the world is conspiring to make us feel neither.

The Ice Cream

I have written before in these pages about my Aunt Louise. My great aunt, really – Dad’s mom’s sister – she died when I was 12, but until then was one of my biggest influences.

She lived on 40 acres, 10 miles from a town of 800 people, and while she owned a car, she could not drive. It never occurred to me at the time, but she was intensely lonely out there.

Lonnie was her second husband, and he owned land out in rural Desoto County, Mississippi so when they got married she moved from Memphis to his house. It had been his parent’s house, actually. Lonnie had grown up in it and then had lived in it with his first wife, and when he moved Louise in, she insisted on major changes. The kitchen was moved to another room, the bathroom was upgraded, and she turned the old kitchen into a storage room.

I asked her one time why she moved the kitchen.

“There wasn’t anything wrong, really, with the old kitchen. But it wasn’t mine. It was hers”, she said, meaning the first wife. “I told him if I was moving in there, he was going to make the house the way I like it. “

And he did. Aunt Louise took no crap.

She had lived in town all her life – in Dyersburg, and then in Memphis. And so moving to the middle of nowhere was a big deal for her. And when he died in 1971, she was alone in that house, with her two dogs – Festus and Princess.

I only knew her alone. We would go over on Saturday and take her grocery shopping in town, and occasionally we took her into Memphis to her doctor’s appointment, and often I would spend the night there when Mom and Dad went out somewhere and would be home late. I loved staying at Aunt Louise’s house.

Virtually every woman I knew was in some way defined by a man. Mom was married to Dad, and did things that benefitted him. Monty was married to Mr. Doc, and cooked and did his laundry. But Aunt Louise just took care of herself. She was the most independent woman I knew growing up.

Sometimes she ate cereal for supper. I told her that everybody knew that cereal was for breakfast, and she told me she was a grown woman and could do whatever she wanted to, and that the worst reason to do anything was that everyone told you you were supposed to do it that way.

She had a 4 cup coffee maker, but she only drank three cups of coffee every morning. The remaining cup she mixed with Pet milk, and poured it over a handful of crushed crackers after it had cooled down, and she served that to her dogs. Yes, her dogs got coffee for breakfast each morning.

She kept a gun in her purse, drank whisky like water, and would, when she got down, drunk dial her friends back in Memphis. She read Earle Stanly Gardener and Agatha Christie, watched Barnaby Jones and Perry Mason, and cooked for herself and her dogs.

Once, when I was staying over, Mom had dropped me off after supper, and so we were sitting at her table, watching Barnaby Jones waiting to go to bed when she announced she was hungry. I told her I had already eaten, and she told me that she had too, but that a nice thing about living by yourself was that you could absolutely eat two suppers if you wanted to.

She got up and rummaged around in the pantry, and pulled out a can of Showboat Pork and Beans. She put them on the stove to warm, and then she pulled a package of hot dogs from the freezer and took two out. She sliced the frozen dogs directly into the beans, and then covered them as they simmered.

After we had eaten, she got out a half-gallon of vanilla ice cream and a can of Hershey’s syrup, and we gave a scoop of ice cream to the dogs, because of course we did, and we ate ice cream and watched Perry Mason and I told her I was always going to live alone, so I could stay up late and eat ice cream whenever I wanted.

“You don’t have to live alone to stay up late and eat ice cream whenever you want”, she told me.

“It’s just easier if you do.”

The Bird Project

Mr. Doc died when I was 10, and it was way before that. I was probably six or so when I first learned about birdwatching.

Mr. Doc was my elderly neighbor, the retired farmer who, along with his wife Monty, acted as my surrogate grandparents when I was growing up, and who often kept me after school. She was, without question, the best cook in the world – or at least, in my world, but he was the lord of all other domains.

When the clock on the table in the living room hit three, he and I would go outside to sit in the shade on the north side of the house, where it was far cooler than it was in their un-airconditioned small farmhouse. He wore a battered straw hat when we would go outside, to keep the sun out of his watery eyes, and he and I would sit in metal yard chairs that were old then, and the cool kids would powder coat and sell them on eBay as “retro” now.

The fencerow on that side of the house – the one that separated their lot from the 3 acre field that was always strawberries in the spring and then black eyed peas in the late summer – had a hedge made of wild plums, from which Monty made jelly each summer, and overhead, a power line that ran along it to the yard light that illuminated their backyard. And nearly every day of my life, on that power line, sat mockingbirds.

We would sit out there in the shade of the late afternoon, him and I, and watch the mockingbirds and listen to their songs. Sometimes the blackbirds or the blue jays would come and try to chase them off, but the mockingbirds would not have it – no sir.

When I told my Aunt Louise about the mockingbirds, she told me there were people called birdwatchers, who went to faraway places to look at birds through binoculars and write it down in their notebooks. Wasn’t I lucky, she said, that I didn’t have to go anywhere at all but the north side of Mr. Doc’s house.

We didn’t have any binoculars, but she did have an old pair of opera glasses she let me borrow, and I would take them to Doc and Monty’s and sit in that yard chair and look at the different birds, giving them names and making up stories about them. Mr. Doc would show me how to bust up dried corn on a flat rock with a claw hammer, and then I would make piles of it on the ground, far enough away for the birds to feel safe from me, and they would fly down, skittish and fearful, and eat.

We were rich as lords.

I haven’t done any birdwatching in at least 40 years. I mean, don’t get me wrong. I love birds, and I plant my yard heavily in their favor. Sometimes we will sit on the yard swing and watch the cardinals in the magnolia tree, and the deck I built in 2020 is always a haven for grackles and cedar waxwings, and we get hummingbirds in the salvia I planted just for them. But I don’t go looking for them. They are something like happy accidents I sorta planned for.

But last week I came across a German woman who lives in Michigan and who takes pictures of the birds that show up at her birdfeeder. It’s pretty stunning. And faster than you can say hyperfocus, I have spent literally every spare hour researching how to do this.

I mean, it ties in with a lot of my existing projects, like building a yard that supports wildlife, and I figure I can share the pictures on my sadly neglected Instagram account, which I think a subset of you would also appreciate, and then maybe periodically give updates on the project itself, which gives me things to talk about on my blog, and plus, I know the names of like six different kinds of birds. It would be a chance to learn new things.

I like learning new things.

So, stand by for bird updates. This is how ADHD works, y’all. Despite the fact that 7 days ago I had zero interest in birds in any specific way, I spent the afternoon today researching feeding setups and action cameras. I don’t make the rules – it’s just how my brain works. You can fight it, but 49 years of owning this brain have taught me to hang on and see where it shakes out.

In Praise Of Letters

Are you a Sloppy Joe or a Neat Pete?

That was the sign on the wall of my fifth grade public school Language classroom. It was the first year I was to attend Public School after my formative years at the segregation academy, and culture shock was hitting me hard. But while the Christian School had given me no tools to live well in a multi-racial world, it had given me damn good Language skills – or at least, as long as the language we were discussing was American English.

My spelling skills were miles above the other fifth graders, who were spelling words like “WAGON”, while the year before one of our weekly words was “ANONYMOUS”. It had also given me above average penmanship, seeing as how we were plunged into cursive writing in the first grade. The Bible-based curriculum we had been steeped in sought to get you to writing script as early as possible – I am unsure why that was, other than a sneaky feeling I had that Jesus loved everyone, but must have preferred people with neat handwriting.

So, when that sign on the wall asked me to proclaim my camp, I was Neat Pete all the way.

I never had beautiful handwriting – it was quite utilitarian, but clear and legible. I had none of the loops and whorls that set my Aunt Louise’s fine Palmer-Method hand apart. She had been born left handed but made to convert as a child, which was common in those days, and could write equally well with either hand.

And Monty, my surrogate grandmother who had lived next-door to us my entire childhood, who was a farmer’s wife and scratched out a mean existence all of their life, had a lovely, quite readable script she used in her weekly letters to me late in her life while I was away in the Marines.

It was, of course, a different time then. For instance, people actually wrote letters to each other. As late as the end of the 1990’s I still regularly received letters from people – handwritten, because typewriters were business equipment, and computers at home were rare. In fact, until the proliferation of smartphones in 2008 or so, handwritten correspondence was still an occasional thing.

In college in the mid 1990’s, it was not uncommon to be required to turn in first and second drafts of papers in handwriting, using only the computer lab at school for the final draft. If you did not have access to a computer of your own, you would have to either que up at the lab, waiting your turn and saving your efforts on floppy disks when your 1-hour timeslot was up, or you could come late at night and share the lab with the Gophernet nerds.

But the letters. My mom’s parents would write me from outside Dallas when I was a child, filling me with tales of their Border Collie, King, and his adventures. There was the man who worked at their post office, a Mr. Prince, who had noticed my grandmother writing Mississippi so often, and she told him of me and my nascent interest in stamp collecting, and Mr. Prince became my pen pal until his death, sending me stamps with interesting stories long after I was no longer interested in philately.

And there is nothing like a handwritten letter to woo (or un-woo) your love interests. There was the girl I had met at Bible Camp the summer I turned 15, and who wrote me very chaste letters long after I had forgotten what her face looked like. The Baptist preacher’s daughter who I loved fiercely, and who wrote me a letter in response to my declaration of love with a note telling me she was “in like” with me. The girl I had a crush on all through High School that I was too shy to ask out, who wrote me a letter the summer after she moved away and told me she had been desperately in love with me and always wondered why I hadn’t asked her out.

But one huge advantage to written letters is that people sometimes say things in letters they cannot say elsewhere. The distance and the physical action of shaping the letters add nuance and feelings in a way hard to convey by email or text message. Like the letter from my Dad he sent me in Boot Camp, telling me words I needed to hear – then and now:

“Just remember, everything is temporary. Take it one day at a time. I have all the confidence in the world in you. I know you can handle it. Sometimes I have not told you how proud of you I am of you. I really am.”

Texting has nothing on that.

The Pie That Isn’t There

It’s not much to look at.

It’s a spiral bound church cookbook that the church of my childhood put out in the late 70’s as a fundraiser. It’s blue, with a drawing of the church on the front – the church as I remember it, before the fellowship hall was built, and the new sanctuary, and the new electric sign.

This cookbook – the Country Cookin’ Cookbook, the title proclaims, was the bible of the meals of my childhood. My mom was not a natural cook – she can do it, but derives no joy from it, and is as happy to warm something up as she is to make something from scratch. At times, she would get creative, leading to… unusual combinations. My Aunt Louise once said Mom was “slap-happy” in the kitchen, because she would slap anything together and call it supper.

So when this cookbook came out and you suddenly could make dumplings like Ms. VanHook, or a caramel cake like Mary Elizabeth, or a sad cake like Sister Betty’s, well, now you are onto something. And frankly, our suppers improved somewhat.

It has spots and stains, more on some pages than others, so you can track our preferences and dislikes, each spotted page a vote for the dishes on that page. It suffers from specificity of categories, having chapters for Pies, another for Cakes, another for cookies and Candies, and then yet another for Desserts, just in case some sweet managed to slip through uncatalogued otherwise.

But the recipe I have made most from this cookbook isn’t in there. It’s for Ms. Dunning’s Fudge Pie.

Don’t get me wrong – should you manage to somehow acquire a copy of the 1978 edition of the Emory Methodist Church’s Country Cookin’ Cookbook from Watson, Mississippi, you will find, right there on page 144, a recipe labeled Chocolate Fudge Pie, submitted by Jeanette Dunning. But that recipe will not work. It’s missing things. You try to make it like that and you will have pudding in a pie shell.

There were rumors in the church that Ms. Dunning left things out on purpose so as nobody could make a pie as good as hers. I don’t believe it – I’m willing to extend her some grace and just assume she just forgot to tell them everything.  Those Methodists are all about grace except when it comes to dessert.

Anyway, after this cookbook showed up, we started having chocolate fudge pies at every holiday gathering and potluck dinner. Wherever 3 or more were gathered, there was a fudge pie. Birthdays, Christmas, Thanksgiving? Fudge pies.

The recipe in my copy of the cookbook has been so altered, with additions and subtractions and alterations made over the ensuing 40 years in various inks that it’s not really fair to call it Ms. Dunning’s recipe anymore.

But because I want to help folks, and I shudder at the thought of one of y’all coming across a copy of this cookbook in the wild and trying to make a fudge pie that won’t turn out, I have decided to make things right and release the proper recipe into the wild.

Now, the original recipe is for two pies – that’s what it says, anyway. But remember, this recipe was released in 1978, and it was old then. It was made for 8-inch pie crusts, and they don’t make those any more. I recently tried to buy some 8-inch pie pans, and was gonna make crusts, and had a devil of a time trying to find any. It seems our pies have all super-sized now, with 9 or 9.5 inch pans being all there is. So, over the years, we have modified this somewhat to work with one 9-inch premade frozen pie crust.

What you’re going to need:

  • 1/2 stick butter, melted. I ain’t even going to lie – most often this was margarine growing up, but it’s butter now. When you know better, you do better.
  • 1 1/2 cup sugar
  • 3 Tablespoons of cocoa powder. I recommend sifting this. If you don’t have a flour sifter, you can put it in a sieve and tap it until all the cocoa comes out the bottom. Or hell, you can just dump it in and take your chances and probably be OK.
  • 2 eggs, beaten
  • 1/2 cup PET milk. Now, I’m afraid I better explain, as somebody out there is going to put kitten milk in this with who know what consequences. PET milk is what old people call evaporated milk, because PET was a brand name down here.
  • 1 teaspoon vanilla. Don’t cheap out here – use the real stuff.
  • 1/4 cup flour
  • pinch of salt
  • 9-inch unbaked pie crust. You can make it from scratch, or you can use one of those frozen ones from the store, or you can buy one of those that you roll out yourself from the cold box at the store by the whop-em biscuits. I won’t blame you, whatever you do, having done all of the above at various times. Do know that the frozen ones are often “deep dish” pie crusts, and this won’t fill one of those up, but will still make a tasty, albeit thin, pie, none-the-less.

What you do

If you got a frozen pie crust, set it out to thaw. It won’t take long – it will probably thaw during the 10 minutes it takes you to mix this up. Otherwise, put your crust in a 9-inch pie pan. Then, turn your oven on to 350.

In a mixing bowl, mix the sugar and the cocoa until they are well blended. Then add the melted butter, and stir it all until well mixed. Now, add everything else, and stir until well blended. You don’t need to buy a mixer for this – just a whisk or wooden spoon will do fine. It’s pretty forgiving – my sister-in-law once forgot the salt and added it after it was in the pan and it still worked out.

The mixture is thin – you will be pretty sure you screwed it up. Nope, it just looks thin. Now, put your pie pan on a cookie sheet, and then pour the mixture into the pie pan. The reason for putting it on the cookie sheet is because it’s easier to pick up a cookie sheet than it is a pie pan.

Slide the cookie sheet in the pre-heated oven on the bottom shelf, and set the timer for 35 minutes. It won’t be ready in 35 minutes, but it will be getting close. It will probably take closer to 45 or 50, but it has snuck up on me before and been burned as a result. You will know it’s done when it’s firm in the middle – at 35 minutes, the center will probably still jiggle when you shake the pan.

Another reason for checking on it around 35 or 40 minutes is to make sure the crust doesn’t burn. I take a sheet of tin foil, bigger than the pie, and crease it corner to corner, and then lay it on top of the pie around the 40-minute mark to keep the crust from burning. Creasing it keeps it off the top of the pie filling – you don’t want the foil to touch the surface of the pie or else it makes an unholy mess. It will still taste good, but you would dare bring it to the potluck for fear of the talk that would follow you.

Now, some warnings: The surface of this pie might crack. That is not a defect. I have had days when it took almost an hour of checking to get this pie done. I can’t explain why, as I do it exactly the same way every single time. Were I still a Methodist, I’m sure I would find a way to blame the vagaries of my oven on the Baptists, but as I’m not, I have no explanation for it. The ways of both the Lord and fudge pies are mysterious. Just check every five minutes or so after 35 minutes and see if the center is still jiggly. When it quits jiggling, it’s done. It will firm up a bit when it’s cool, but not enough to take a chance on a jiggly pie from the oven.

Growing up, we often put Cool Whip on this, but we all did things when we were young we are ashamed of later. Now, I like homemade whipped cream, or, on the third day after Thanksgiving, will often eat it straight from the pie pan, while leaning against the counter.

Why Do You Like to Cook?

Kaylee, age 13: Uncle Hugh, how often do you cook?

Me, age 49: I cook something almost every day, and some days I cook two or three times a day. Why?

Kaylee: Well, I could tell by the way you stirred the food around that you know what you are doing. Do you like cooking?

Me: I do. I really do.

Kaylee: Why?

Me: Hmmm. Well, there are several reasons. The first is that when I left home, I could suddenly eat anything I wanted. But most of the food I could afford and had access to wasn’t very good. So learning how to cook was a way to be kind to myself. I deserved to have good food, and the only way I knew to get it was to cook it myself.

But more than that, it was that there were people in my life that I dearly loved, and now they were gone. And when I thought back over my memories of them, most of those memories involved food. Like today, we ate chicken and dressing. I can never eat chicken and dressing without thinking of Aunt Louise. But how often in your day-to-day life do you get to eat chicken and dressing? But by knowing how to make it, I can feel that good feeling any time I want to. Knowing how to cook is like having a photo album filled with people you love, that you have an opportunity to see any time you need to eat, which is multiple times a day.

Another reason I like to cook is that most of my adult life has been trying to solve unsolvable problems. Like, no matter how hard I work, people are still hungry, still homeless, still lonely, still addicts. You can work hard all day, all week, all month, even, and at the end of that time feel like absolutely nothing has changed.

But I can have some rice and some sausage and a pepper and an onion and a few other things, and it doesn’t look like anything at all, but if you know how you can turn that pile of random things into jambalaya. I can start with chaos and end with something that tastes good, that reminds me of people I love, and that makes other people happy and fills your belly in the process. It’s the one part of my life I can fix. I can turn the chaotic into something good, and I can usually do that li less than an hour. How cool is that!

But my favorite reason? Today. We sat around a table, and we ate food that was good, and we talked about stories from our past, and people we missed who were not there, and the food reminded us of meals we had had like this before, and the people who had been there, and for a minute, we all felt very loved. I love knowing how to make that happen.

The First Tree

It was a cold day, as I remember it.  We had more of those then, and they came earlier in the year, too. You could see your breath that day, and I pretended I was smoking a cigarette, holding a stick between my fingers the way my Aunt Louise did. Well, I did that up until momma caught me doing it, and then I had to hurry up and get in the truck after hearing a sermon about the evils of smoking.

We lived on 30 something acres in the hills of North Mississippi, and had carved a few acres out for the house and yard, and the rest was fenced off scrub oaks and pines and cedar that we let a cousin lease and he ran a few cows on it. When Daddy put the chainsaw in the back of the truck, I knew we were up to something good. Then he put the old single barrel shotgun that had been his daddy’s behind the seat and we set off.

The truck was an old Ford dad had bought from work when they finally decided it was too ragged out to make sense to keep fixing it. It was red, like all their service trucks were, and had a vinyl bench seat with cracks in the vinyl that hurt your legs if you were wearing shorts, and if you were wearing jeans, like I was on this particular day, then bits of the yellow foam that was beginning to deteriorate would stick to your pants.

We drove up the path, along the massive ravine that ran down the middle of our property that had more than one junked car pushed off into it, past thickets filled with elm seedlings and blackberry canes and sedge grass. Our property was on the southern side of a massive hill, and our house was about midways up it. This day we were headed uphill, to the area at the edge of our property, next to the old cemetery where generations of Black folks were buried, and whose origin story nobody ever told me.

Because that is where the cedar trees were.

Later, when I was studying such things, I would be fascinated to learn that they weren’t cedars at all, but Juniperus virginiana, also known as the Eastern Redcedar. Several years ago, after having learned this, I told Dad they were Junipers and not cedars, and he said, “Not here they aren’t. Here, we call them cedar trees.”

I guess that settles it then.

We were out on this cold Saturday afternoon hunting for our Christmas tree. We understood that there were people that lived in cities that bought trees out of a parking lot, and we also knew some rich people that had artificial trees. But being neither of those, and having 30-odd acres full of cedar trees, this is what people like us did.

Up by the cemetery was a huge field, perhaps 5 acres wide, of nothing but sedge and cedars. And daddy stopped the truck, told momma to look for a tree she liked, and he took the shotgun and my hand and we headed into the woods.

“What are we doing, Daddy?” I asked.

“Hunting”, he said.

This excited me to no end. All the old men I knew hunted, even though Dad did not.

“Are we hunting quail”, I asked?

“No, son. We’re hunting mistletoe.”

Mistletoe is a semi-parasitical plant that grows in deciduous hardwoods, like pecans, hickories, and oaks. And in the wintertime, after the leaves have fallen, you can see it in the treetops. You can, if you are a bit crazy, climb up in the tree and cut it down, to hang in your Christmas decorations.

Or you can be like Dad and just shoot it out of the tree with birdshot.

When we got back, me holding the mistletoe (after a warning to not eat the berries) and Dad holding the shotgun, Mom was standing beside a tree about six feet tall.

“Is that our tree?” I asked.

“That’s it,” Mom said.

As we rode back down the hill to the house, Mom was holding the mistletoe in her lap and me, I was on my knees looking through the rear glass at the tree I had “helped” cut down, holding on to the back of the seat and swaying as the old truck jostled.

I couldn’t wait for Christmas to arrive.

I still can’t.

Biscuits I have known

When I pulled out of the cheap motel I had spent the night in the outskirts of Charlotte, NC, I couldn’t wait to hit the road. But first, I had to refuel. I grabbed some gas at the gas station, and spied a McDonald’s across the way. Say what you will about them, but they are reliable, if nothing else. I grabbed a sausage biscuit and coffee and hit the road.

It wasn’t all that good. Again – reliable, though. Like, you know how bad it’s gonna be in advance, and can brace yourself for it. And as often happens when I eat a food that is filled with memories, I reflect on previous meals I have had with that same food. And perhaps no food has more memories attached to it for me, in as many places, as do biscuits.

My momma didn’t make biscuits. Heresy, I know, but she wasn’t a natural cook. She married way too young, after a childhood of moving often as part of a military family. She had no traditions when she married dad. Dad’s mom died shortly after that. And we had to make it on our own, with nothing but church cookbooks, Southern Living, some elderly neighbors that loved us, and the back of boxes to guide us.

Mom never really enjoyed cooking. It was a thing she did, but you got no feeling she derived any pleasure from the act, nor appreciated the attention that comes from doing it well. It was a chore to be done, like washing the dishes or sweeping the floor, and gave her about as much pleasure as either of those tasks.

But Dad – now Dad could make a hell of a biscuit. Big, fluffy cathead biscuits, big as your fist. He didn’t do it often, but when he did, they were amazing. I remember weekend mornings when Dad would make breakfast – rarely, because when he worked for the gas company he worked Saturday mornings, and up until 14 or so we went to church regular as a family (one day, I’ll have to tell you the story of why we stopped. Or maybe not – some things are best handled around a table, late into the night). But when he did, you knew you were about to get fed. As a child, he taught me to make biscuits and scrambled eggs, because then you could always feed yourself for cheap, he told me.

My mom’s stepmother was a tiny woman who had grown up in the city, and while she loved me fiercely, she couldn’t make a biscuit. When we would go visit them in the summertime outside Dallas Texas, she would make sausage gravy and whop-em biscuits – called that because to open the can, you whopped em on the side of the counter – and they were a novelty for us. They were the cheap canned biscuits, small and round and flat topped, with a layered nature one never saw in a real biscuit. It almost felt like eating desert.

In the Marines, the mess hall would have biscuits, but they were square, for some reason known only to God and the Commandant, and I’m sorry, but you can’t really enjoy a square biscuit, even if it didn’t taste of too much baking powder, which these did.

Some years back, Renee got a biscuit cookbook and learned how to make amazing biscuits, a lot like the ones Dad made all those years ago. And they are huge and puffy and have little peaks and knobs, and because they are made with love and practice by someone who loves me, I love them.

But my platonic ideal of a biscuit is none of those.

Her name was Montaree, but we all called her Aunt Monty (pronounced Ain’t Monny). She and her husband Doc lived in a 900 square foot house they built on three acres my grandmother sold them at a time when our money was tight. My Aunt Louise’s husband had built and wired the house for them, and it had pine floors with amber shellac. And growing up, they played the role in my life grandparents would have traditionally, had my folks not all died off when I was little.

Monty made biscuits every morning of her life up until Doc died and she moved to be with her son in Jackson. But that wouldn’t be until after I left – my whole childhood, she made biscuits. She had a five-gallon sized metal bucket, with a tight fitting lid, she kept in the cabinet under the counter that she kept her flour in – self-rising flour bought in 25 pound sacks made from cloth, that had a dish towel that came with it as a premium. I don’t think she ever had a purpose bought dish towel.

She had a large bowl not used for anything other than biscuit making, and she would scoop out flour from the bucket, and put it in the bowl, making a depression in the middle of the pile of flour, into which she took a small lump of lard in the winter (after hog killing) or shortening in the summer (after the lard ran out) and massaged it all in, so it looked like corn meal when she was done. To this she added sweet milk a splash at a time until it was right, and then massaged it into a wad of dough.

She then floured the countertop and patted out the dough until it was thin and used a tin can with the ends cut out (that resided in the flour bucket, along with the biscuit bowl when not in use) to cut out the biscuits. She would place the biscuits on a small cookie sheet, perhaps 8×16, that was so old its origins were lost to history, and before putting them in the oven would smear a light coat of whatever grease she was using, lard or shortening, on top.

I must have watched her do it a hundred times. There would always be scraps of dough left over, which she would fashion into a small freeform biscuit that was meant for me. These were not elegant biscuits. They were not even all that pretty. They were flat, perhaps ¾ of an inch thick, the size of a regular tin can, with none of the knobs and bumps of the biscuits Dad made, and which I saw in magazines. They were lightly browned on the bottom and golden on the edges of the top, and had a crumb that reminds one visually, but not texturally, of English muffins.

These were not fancy biscuits but daily biscuits, which fed a well digger for 50 years and were literally their daily bread. It was the bread with their meals – they were made fresh and eaten hot for lunch, their big meal, and leftovers were eaten cold at supper and for breakfast. I can close my eyes and smell the hot bread and the plum jelly, made from the wild plums by the clothesline, and feel the melting butter run over my fingers and drop off my chin.

I love to cook. I derive pleasure from it, and pleasure from being good at it, and while I can make a passable biscuit, I have never been able to make a biscuit like Monty’s. Lord knows I’ve tried. Hell, I’ve never even seen another one like it.

I guess those biscuits will just have to live in my memory. But this fall, I did plant some wild plums out by the fence line, so at least one day I can have some decent jelly.

For childhood memories of Thanksgiving

On the 24th day, I’m grateful for childhood memories of Thanksgiving.

Until the age of 12 or so, we spent every Thanksgiving at my uncle’s house in Memphis.

He was my Dad’s half-brother, from my grandmother’s first marriage, and he was 23 years older than older than Dad. After her first husband’s death, she had refused to remarry until her son was out of the house, as she thought it would be unfair to him, and from concerns that any new father would treat his step-son differently from his natural children. She had had a wicked step-mother herself, and knew the risks.

My uncle was a good man, tall and handsome, with shocking red hair and long deft fingers. He was a butcher, and had worked as a union meat cutter until he opened a barbeque restaurant, and was solidly middle-class. His wife was a short woman with a lot of improbable blonde hair that was always tortured into shape and held against its will by a generous application of some sort of shellac. Their grown daughter had married a musician, and while they all said the word “musician”, you got the sense from the way it was said they really meant to say degenerate.

Their house was a large brick colonial on a cul-de-sac, with a yard meant for looking at and not playing in. There was a room designated as the parlor, which children were not allowed to be in, and in which it seemed no one ever laughed. My aunt was a woman to whom propriety mattered, and who firmly believed children should be seen and not heard. Appearances were important to her.

I can only imagine how we wrecked her world when the folks from the country showed up, with their loud children and the huge station wagon, loaded down with the family from Mississippi. Every time I see the scene in National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation when the family arrives, I imagine it must have been a lot like that at my uncle’s house on Thanksgiving.

They had a dining room that one got the sense that nobody ate at the rest of the year, and it had a huge table, with place settings and food set out in bowls and trays, served family style. People who hadn’t prayed out loud in 364 days pronounced a blessing over the food, and we ate food that had attachments and memories: Aunt Louise’s cranberry sauce, Mom’s fudge pies, Jamie’s turkey.

After the meal, my uncle and the musician would watch football and Dad would sit in there with them, but he had no interest in the game. I would play with the other children that were there, upstairs, out of the way, while the women all talked in the kitchen and tried to put order to things, before we would all pack up and head back to the country, to our small rectangular home on 33 acres, where the plates did not match and we had no rooms one did not use and that had whole fields where one could run and romp.

When my Dad’s aunt died when I was 12, we quit going to my uncle’s for Thanksgiving. I’m not sure why, other than she was the one who sort of held the family together, and the bridge between the very urbane middle-class life my dad’s half-brother had, and the hand to mouth existence we had in rural Mississippi. My uncle died in 1993, 11 years or so after the last of those meals, and I haven’t seen any of his family since the funeral. I don’t know how any of them are doing, how they made out, anything.

Despite my having had at least 37 Thanksgivings since the last time I was at their house for Thanksgiving, those meals still represent the Platonic ideal of Thanksgiving for me, and what I picture in my head when I hear that you are having Thanksgiving at your house. They also sum up for me the best part of this holiday, whatever its trash colonial origins: Unlikely, complicated people coming together to celebrate each other and our common memories, all the while building better ones.

I hope you have a good time tomorrow, however and with whomever you are celebrating. And if you are the one hosting, go easy on yourself. Something will go wrong. And in 10 years, nobody will care at all, and all they will remember is that on that day, they were loved.