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Memories and mama's soul food

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POSTED: June 24, 2014 4:00 p.m.
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Ronda Rich is the best-selling author of “There’s A Better Day A-Comin.’” Go to www.rondarich.com to sign up for her newsletter.

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Mama used to fry biscuits. If you had known Mama, that wouldn’t surprise you, because she fried every food possible. In the course of her life, I knew her to fry green beans, corn, grits and cornmeal mush.
Should you not know what mush is, it’s probably because you aren’t from poor Southern mountain people who ate whatever would fill their stomachs. Corn, Mama used to say, sustained them because it grew plentiful in the hard, rocky, nutrient-poor red clay. That’s how moonshine came to be, because the resourceful mountaineers figured out how to turn the corn into “likker.”
Just before Mama died, corn prices went crazy to the point that all the news shows were talking about the high price of corn.
“I’m glad that I lived long enough to see corn worth something,” she said, shaking her head. “My daddy wouldn’t believe it. There was a time when you couldn’t give corn away. It was practically worthless.”
But it could quiet their hunger and that, to the poor Appalachian people, was worth its weight in gold. Many generations of my ancestors knew hunger as a constant companion.
“Did your people really eat dirt?” my husband asks from time to time.
“Perhaps during the Civil War years, there were some mud pies passed around during the most desperate times.”
My grandmother once told me that her grandmother had told her of woeful times during that bitter war when the men were gone and food was hard to come by. They sometimes scraped up dirt from the smokehouse floor, where salt had fallen from the curing of hams. They used that salty dirt to season food and keep the hunger slightly at
bay.
Mama grew up on mush — a mixture of cornmeal (which they ground themselves), water, butter and salt — and developed a love for what is the substantive, hearty cousin of grits.
“I think I’d like to have some mush,” Mama said once or twice a month when I was growing up. I developed a taste for it, too, but when, at 11, I told my best friend’s mother that we ate mush at our house, she laughed.
“Oh, you ain’t never had mush,” she said.
But I did. Many times. It was usually better the second night because Mama would fry the leftovers in a cast-iron skillet with lots of butter. It was delicious, and it was an example of Mama’s mountain ingenuity and her lifelong mantra: “Waste not, want not.”
Still, of all the things she fried — cured ham, hominy, kale, okra, cornbread, squash, green tomatoes (my favorite) — the one I miss most are her fried biscuits. There weren’t many days of Mama’s life when she didn’t make biscuits. For over 50 years, she made fluffy biscuits every morning by pinching them off by hand, forming them perfectly and placing them on a pan into a hot oven. Fried biscuits were a lazy, quick fix that became her staple after Daddy died. Self-rising flour and buttermilk (no shortening) stirred up quickly and dropped into sizzling grease in a cast-iron skillet. They were delicious hot, but almost as good when cold.
Oh, to be able to count the times that I stopped by her house and wandered into the kitchen to see what leftovers might be in a dish on the top of the stove. To me, eating those biscuits was like some people eating donuts. If there were three biscuits left, I ate all three. If there happened to be leftover crisp bacon, I was in heaven.
I miss those fried biscuits. Yes, I can make them, and sometimes I do. But there was something different about Mama’s biscuits and something special about finding the cold ones waiting for me on the stove as though Mama knew I’d be stopping by.
It’s a delicious memory.

 

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