The other side

When I was 10 years old, my 5-year-old brother got appendicitis. His stomach was hurting intensely, and after a period of home remedies, we took him to the doctor, who diagnosed him with a swollen appendix, and he went to the hospital.

It turns out his appendix was swollen, and they did surgery to remove it before it burst. This was the early 80s, and as I recall it, he went into the hospital one afternoon, spent the night in the hospital, had his appendix removed, and then spent another night in the hospital before coming home.

The evening before his surgery, I was talking to Monty, the elderly lady who lived next door to me and who was, in my objective AF opinion, the best cook in the world. She was born in 1910 and had lived through two world wars, the flu pandemic, and a global depression, had raised three children – two whom she had not given birth to – and all as a well-digger’s wife. She had seen some stuff.

When I told her my brother was in the hospital, she asked what had happened. I explained he had appendicitis and that he was having surgery in the morning, but I had seen him at the hospital, and he was doing OK. She began to weep, then cry, and finally wail. Huge alligator tears ran down her weathered cheeks, and her wrinkled hands covered her face.

There was no air conditioning in her house. The windows were wide open, and the box fan hummed in the corner. Otherwise, it was silent, except for her heaving, low wail. I didn’t know what to do, what to say. I didn’t understand – I had read books that mentioned that the appendix was not a necessary organ. I had read that appendix surgery was very low risk. I thought it was sorta cool that he was in the hospital. Honestly, I was sort of jealous.

She got up and left the room. I sat at the chrome and Formica table and watched the dust waft through the sunlight as it came through the window, low in the evening sky. Eventually, she came back, and neither of us spoke of what had just happened. Soon, I was walking home through the pasture that separated our houses and got home in time for supper. I don‘t remember what we ate that night, but I remember Mom was not there – I think she was at the hospital – and it was just Dad and me.

I told Dad what had happened.

“But I don’t understand why she was so upset. Appendicitis is a simple surgery. You don’t even need your appendix. He’s going to be fine.”

Dad explained to me that to us appendicitis was not dangerous. But Monty had buried many people who had died of things that were no longer really dangerous but once had been. Before vaccines, before antibiotics, before ambulances, a lot of people died. And in her head, she was remembering all the people she knew who had died because their appendix had burst.

Earlier this summer, a dear friend of mine got COVID. He was traveling for work, and somewhere along the way, he was exposed and then tested positive. When I heard, I was devastated. He is one of perhaps 3 people I would drop anything and go where they were, anywhere in the world, if I was needed, no questions asked. When I read the text message, I just wept.

He assured me his symptoms were mild. He had all his vaccines and boosters. He was sick, to be sure, but was under a doctor’s care and would be fine in a few days.

I know this intellectually. But in my head, all I could think about was the folks I personally know who died from COVID. The endless stream of names on my timeline of loved ones of friends who had died. The horror of dealing with Dad’s death from COVID.

There was every reason to think he would be fine on the other side of this. But in my head, it was the summer of 2020, and folks were dropping like flies.

I don’t know how long this will last, or if I’m just changed, the way Monty was forever changed because of the pain she had lived through. But I do not like it.

Not one little bit.

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.

Suppertime Cheese Grits

I got asked a while back by a friend if I was going to talk about grits on my blog.

If y’all thought cornbread was contentious, just wait till Southern folk start talking about grits. And do note that while they are very different things, they are both derived from corn, the poor man’s wheat, and they are both examples of peasant cooking, so of course, I’m going to talk about grits.

If ever there was an example of my adage that “Normal is just another word for whatever you are used to”, it’s grits. And if you can do it to a bowl of grits, I assure you somebody has.

Growing up, grits were for breakfast. Mom liked them because the preparation was simple, it was filling, and it was as cheap as could be. One thing she didn’t like about grits, unfortunately, was the grits themselves: She tended to prefer Cream of Wheat, but never managed to convert us. But she grew up traveling around the country with my grandfather, who was in the Navy, so one has to make allowances.

When visiting our neighbors, Monty and Doc, I would eat fried grits for lunch, which was basically leftover grits poured into a loaf pan, then cooled in the refrigerator until firm. They would then be sliced into inch thick slabs and fried in bacon grease, making an ersatz fried polenta. In fact, the first time I ate polenta, I was convinced it was just expensive fried grits. Spoiler: It pretty much is, although grits tend to be made with white corn, and polenta with yellow, which is sweeter, so there is a slightly different flavor profile. But grits and polenta are a whole lot closer than collards and kale, which are interchangeable.

But today I want to tell you about suppertime grits. Because I usually make these as a weeknight meal, I take some liberties to speed things up, but you can have this on the table in about 20 minutes. I tend to use them like you would pasta or potatoes, but if you add enough cheese or even a heavy meat sauce, this makes a fine main dish.

You will need some grits. White is traditional, and regular people eat just regular grits, although there are artisanal, stone-ground grits to be had out there. But for our purposes, some white grits – even the quick-cooking grits, like I do in this recipe-, will do on a weeknight. We don’t speak of instant grits, nor of anything that comes in a packet.

You will need a liquid. At its most basic, you can use water, and many people do, but milk is a fine choice too. But if you are going to the trouble to make them for supper, try chicken stock instead. In this recipe, we will use both chicken stock and milk.

And since these will be served as part of a meal (instead of by themselves) I would add some cheese. Now, any cheese will do – cheddar (my preference), cream cheese, Velveeta, American – just whatever you have laying around. Honestly, I use cheese grits like this as an opportunity to use up little bits of cheese I might have laying around.

Here’s how I would do it.

I’d put 8 cups of chicken broth in a heavy saucepan and heat it up to a boil, and then bring it down to a simmer. Now, if you don’t have chicken broth on hand, you can use something like Better Than Boullion’s Chicken Base, or even some chicken bouillon cubes instead. The point is, any of that will be better than just water.

Now that it’s simmering, slowly add 2 cups of quick-cooking grits while you which them in. If you just dump them in, it will clump up. I would do it slowly, stirring the broth as I slowly shake the grits into the pot. When they are all in, add ¾ of a teaspoon of salt, give the mixture a final stir for luck, and then put the lid on the pot, turn it down to low, and let them simmer for a good 10 minutes or so, until they thicken. You will want to stir them at least twice during this time, so they don’t stick.

You could stop now and have a fine bowl of grits, but we can keep going and make them extraordinary. Let’s add a tablespoon of butter (I use salted butter here because it’s what I always have, but unsalted would work too), and a cup to a cup and a half (let your conscience be your guide) of good shredded Cheddar cheese, the sharper the better. Just stir it in a bit at a time, and watch it melt. This will thicken the grits a bit, especially if you use pre-shredded cheese (it’s a weeknight, so you are forgiven), which is coated in cornstarch and thus has a thickening effect on everything. You then will thin it down with about half a cup of whole milk, or if you are feeling festive, half and half or whipping cream.

This serves four people if you do it as a main dish or about eight as a side. I’d serve it in bowls and sprinkle the top with freshly ground black pepper.

Now, of course, this is a starting point. One of my favorite ways to eat grits is to serve them with a red sauce made with peppers and Italian sausage, which makes them very fancy, indeed.



The Old Man and the Boy

I was 10 years old the summer Mr. Doc died, but we could have already filled books with the adventures we had by then. He was a large man, who wore black shoes and blue Dickies work clothes and when outside, a worn, frayed straw hat. His hair was close cropped and woolly white over watery blue eyes that always held the beginnings of a smile. Well, they always did for me.

Doc and his wife Montaree were retired farmers, and when they retired, they had purchased three acres from my grandmother and built a small house on it. They lived simply and kept a large garden and a couple of hogs, and when my young parents were spending so much time at work trying to make enough for us to survive, Doc and Monty were my caretakers, teachers, and surrogate grandparents.

As was typical of their generation, Monty ended up doing most of the actual caretaking, but I lived to spend time with him, and he taught me how to make a slingshot, a cane whistle, and almost all the important things an eight-year-old boy needs to know about life.

Tell the truth. Plant your watermelons after the full moon in May. Stand up straight. Don’t interrupt. Always shake hands. You will feel better if you take a nap after lunch. Always carry a pocket knife. Most shows on TV are useless. Do one thing at a time. Food tastes better if you share it with someone you love. There is value in sitting in the shade and doing nothing but listening to the mockingbirds. Everything is better if you can eat wild plums while you do it.

He had a designated chair in the living room, and sometimes he sat in it and stared down the road, lost in his own thoughts for hours, and then would suddenly stand up and ask me if I wanted to go with him to the store. I would scramble out to the old Chevy truck that stood in the driveway, and he would drive the mile down the road to the small corner store which had been my family’s salvation when my grandmother got a job there after my grandfather died.

Regardless of whatever else we were after, he would always buy a handful of penny candy and a Milky Way candy bar. The penny candy was for later, but he and I would sit on the porch of this small store and watch the cars at the crossroads while splitting the Milky Way before it had a chance to melt. Never has a candy bar tasted so good. We would sit there, in the shade of the porch on that hot summer Mississippi day, an elderly man and a small boy, neither of us saying much, but just sharing a rare treat and occasionally smiling at each other, as if we knew some secret known only to us. Some things are just too important to talk about.

This May, he will have been gone 40 years. Monty died some 25 years ago. The truck is long gone now, of course, and some city people bought the house and they didn’t make biscuits or have hogs or a garden and they cut down the wild plum bushes he and I tended. The store is gone too, long since turned into a pawn shop, and the porch bench is gone and that lazy corner is now a bustling intersection.

It’s all gone now, existing only in the memory of a man who will turn fifty years’ old this summer, and who still loves Milky Way bars and penny candy.


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.

Use the good towels.

As a child, we had some neighbors – Montaree (we called her Montie) and Mr. Doc. They were retired farmers who had bought a few acres from us and built a small house to live out their retirement. They were surrogate grandparents to me, and I loved them intensely.

They were simple folks who lived in a simple house, and like many of the generation that had survived the Depression, were thrifty. They made do, or they did without. Nothing was wasted in that house, ever.

They had a son who lived in Jackson, three hours away, who always came for holidays. And as she prepared for their arrival, the threadbare sheets and towels were put away, and out came the beautiful, fluffy towels that had been in hiding since the last holiday. She had special towels for guests, or, as she called them, company. She had special dishes for when company came over too, and special silverware.

I asked her once why she didn’t always use them, and she said they were too pretty to use everyday, so they were saved for company.

Mr. Doc died in the summer, and shortly afterwards, things changed in the house. The everyday plates went away, and the good plates came out. The towels on the bar in the bathroom were fluffy, and the company silverware went into rotation.

I saw the good towels in the bathroom and asked her who was coming.

“Nobody is. After Doc died, I decided to treat myself like company.”

That is still the best self-care advice anyone ever gave me – treat yourself like company.