Memories of Southern cooking
Robert E. Smith doesn’t remember the time when his family relocated from Alabama to Ohio in 1941 since he was only 4.
But he does remember some of the cooking that made the South famous from the times the family returned for visits in the summer.
With February being Black History Month, I had asked Lisa Mason to talk to me about recipes from her family. Just prior to the interview date, she became disabled with a knee problem and could not make the interview. Instead, she sent her good friend and companion of 23 years in her place.
Smith proved to have a good memory of foods from the 1940s, but his most prized possession was a hand-written peach dessert, a recipe from his mother, Betty L. Smith. You will note that it calls for sweet milk. It is regular milk but is called sweet milk in the South. The soft batter comes up through the peaches and forms a crust on top, he noted. She would make two of the desserts when guests were present but only one when it was just family. But it never lasted long.
One of the fond memories of Smith is going past the Fort Steuben Hotel and being told that his grandfather, Ernest Smith, who was the first to come to Steubenville, had helped in the building of the once plush and elegant hotel. “It was a time of luxury,” he said.
In Alabama, there were always fresh greens, okra and green beans. Cooked with a hock of ham, it was nearly a complete meal, Smith reminisced.
There were desserts of raisin and rice pudding or Brown Betty, with a thin drizzle of frosting on top.
“There was always smoked ham and some kind of pork product. Back in those times, they used up everything on the pig but the squeal. There was souse or head cheese, smoked tongue, the usual roasts, chops, bacon, feet and hooves and chitterlings,” Smith recalled.
“Chitterlings are hog intestines that are cleaned well – inside and out. While being boiled down, they leave an odor in the kitchen, but spices and onions can take away some of the smell. They are cooked until the odor is gone or until done.”
Pig hooves put into a cooking bag and boiled for a long time make what was thought to be a healthy drink. Brave or unhealthy people would drink the liquid in the hopes of regaining their health, it was noted.
In the South, peanuts are raised, and Smith in his youth was in on retrieving them from the ground. A cultivator was pushed by hand – no electrical equipment back then – along the rows of peanuts to upend the plants. They were picked up by the vine and given a hard shake so the peanuts that grew underground would come loose.
“This was made into peanut oil mostly, and the vines were fed to the cattle.
Thoughts of the huge biscuits served for breakfast made him smile in delight.
“We would put alga syrup, a brown sweetener, on our plate and hold the biscuit in a way that they did not crumble and wipe the biscuit into the syrup,” he explained.
Everything was made from scratch – cakes, pies, corn bread, cookies and bread, according to Smith.
Here is the recipe from his mother. By trying it, you will be going back to a time in the slower-paced South, where good food was a tradition.
1/2 cup or 1 stick butter, in modern day terminology
Large can sliced peaches
3/4 cup sweet milk
1 cup sugar
1 cup flour
1/4 teaspoon salt
Melt butter in pan and set aside. Mix flour, sugar, milk and salt together. After this mixing, do not stir anymore. Pour the soft batter on top of the melted butter. Pour peaches and juice on top of the batter. Bake 1 hour at 350 degrees. The batter will come through peaches and form a top crust.
Note: Confectioners’ sugar can be sprinkled over the dessert just before serving.
This is another recipe from Smith. He was not sure where it came from, but it was written on the back of the peach pie recipe.
Mixed Vegetable Salad
1 can mixed vegetables, or a combination of many cooked vegetables from the garden
1/4 cup cooking oil
1/3 cup cider vinegar
2 tablespoons sugar
1 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon pepper
Put the canned vegetables into a serving bowl. Combine the cooking oil, cider vinegar, sugar, salt and pepper into a small mixing bowl. Stir until the sugar is dissolved. Pour over the vegetables, put in a cool place.
There were no refrigerators then. Let the flavored dressing sink into the vegetables, about 3 or 4 hours.
In thinking of Betty Smith’s huge breakfast biscuits, I started looking for a recipe I thought might be comparable.
I found one in the “80 Years of Good Cooking Around West Virginia” cookbook. It uses butter- milk, something that was popular back then, so maybe you want to give them a try.
2 cups sifted flour
1 tablespoon baking powder
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
1 teaspoon salt
1/2 cup shortening, lard might have been used back then
1 cup buttermilk
Mix flour, baking powder, baking soda and salt in a bowl. Cut in the shortening until crumbly. Add buttermilk; mix until moistened. Knead lightly on floured surface. Roll out on a floured board or table and form with a biscuit cutter or a glass with a wide rim. Place on a 9- by-13-inch baking pan. Bake at 425 degrees for 10 to 15 minutes or until light brown. The recipe notes that it makes 12 biscuits, but if they are made large, it might only be six to eight.
This recipe for corn pone looked interesting. Smith said his mother would make the cornbread in a cast iron skillet. Pone is slightly different, and something that is added at the end of the baking time is a cup of boiling water, poured over the pone in the pan.
It needs to stand 10 minutes before being served. It is from the “80 Years of Good Cooking” book, too.
4 cups cornmeal
1/2 teaspoons salt
2 cups boiling water
2 cups warm water
1 cup sugar
1 cup flour
1 cup buttermilk
1 teaspoon baking soda
1 cup boiling water
Combine cornmeal, salt, 2 cups boiling water and 2 cups warm water in a large bowl. Mix well. Let stand for 1 hour. Add eggs, sugar, flour and mixture of buttermilk and baking soda. Mix well. Spoon into greased and floured pan. Bake at 400 degrees for 1 hour or until it is firm when stuck with a broom straw and no soft batter appears on the straw. Pour 1 cup boiling water over pone in pan; let stand for 10 minutes. Remove from pan to serving plate. Cut into 16 servings.
Note: No one uses broom straws to test baked goods now. Use a toothpick instead.
Lisa Mason made a calendar for the St. Paul A.M.E. Church in 2012, with recipes from church members and those from other churches.
This one was from Alberta Dixon, who has died, but her old-time recipe remains.
Cabbage and Collard Greens with Smoked Neck Bones
1 package smoked neck bones
1 head cabbage
2 to 3 bunches collard greens
Salt to taste
Red peppercorn to taste
Place neck bones, cabbage and collard greens, cleaned and chopped, into a large pot and cover with water. Add salt and red peppercorn to taste. Cook on medium heat for 1 1/2 to 2 hours.
Note: This may be made in a pressure cooker, reducing the cooking time to a half-hour.
Here is a recipe from the St. Paul A.M.E. calendar from a petite lady who is the secretary at Second Baptist Church in Steubenville – Juanita Slappy.
It is for a dish that is made in the oven, except for cooking the rice.
2 to 3 pounds chicken wings
2 cups water
Salt and pepper or chicken seasoning and garlic powder, or all of them combined
Mild banana pepper rings
2 teaspoons vinegar
Amount of rice to serve 4 to 6 people
Place wings in baking pan with water. Season with salt and pepper or chicken seasoning and garlic or any of the four seasonings. Bake at 375 for about 45 minutes. Top wings with pepper rings and vinegar.
In the meantime, cook rice as directed on the box. You may combine the chicken and rice or you may serve the rice separately as a side dish.
(McCoy can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.)