Saturday, August 4, 2007

M-I Crooked Letter

There's some adjusting here...

No longer can I stop on the way to or from the train and pick up street food. I may actually have to....cook. The 'to go' food here is just horrid. I'm currently making a face as I try and remove the memory of the bits of some part or another of a chicken from my taste buds.

I'm living in a barn right now, well, an apartment in a barn, but, a barn nonetheless... complete with farm animals to the right and rear of my little red sub-let in the Land of Utes.

The terrier is fascinated with the chickens... its only a matter of time before the rooster takes her on. At that point, I'd best make sure I have the vet's number on speed dial...spurs do rake deep. She went after the cows with a great deal of bravado, until they looked down and had a sniff... she then turned tail and hid behind me for protection. Personally, I'm fond of the 47 gazillion flies that hover over the cowpen and the two sheep that greet me when I walk out every day.

I am not a country girl, thank God. I do like the bucolic green areas of the countryside, nothing makes me happier than a good solid bank of trees around a nice house, and I loves me my flower gardens... but, I am not one to go shovel manure or slaughter my dinner nor grow it, neither. This is why the Good Lord gave us grocery stores with meat and produce departments.... so we don't have to do that anymore.

I don't want to get close to some animal and then have it's leg for dinner on Sunday.

My MawMaw would go back to Mississippi on occasion, to check up on her property there, visit relatives, rest from living with us, I suppose. We'd drive up on a Friday to spend the weekend at my Aunt Id's house, spend the weekend, clean off my PaPaw's grave, and drive home to New Orleans on Sunday evening. The only plus on this car trip was my MawMaw sat between the GC and I, and he didn't dare do a thing.. she'd pinch the bejeebers out of him.

It was a tiny town in Mississippi, down on the Bogue Chitto River. Before the tornado hit, it had a few thriving stores. Afterwards, well, there was only the Post Office, and my Aunt Id (who was actually my second cousin) ran it. Our big thrill was to go hang the postal bag off the rail hook for the train to scoop it off when it flew past.

Dad would walk us up through the deep shoulder high weeds, swishing ahead for snakes, and we'd climb up the platform, creosote filling the air from the hot sun baking the trestles.

He'd help us hold the hook that put the bag that held only a few letters out, and we'd wait far back on the platform for the Illinois Central train to come through. You could hear the whistle start to blow, there was a road just ahead, and years before, another cousin had been the engineer, and hit a car there, killing the occupants. He later committed suicide, one of those hushed stories I'd sit outside the screen door and listen to on hot days when the aunts and cousins started to gossip.

The train would fly by, so fast, you couldn't see the writing on the boxcars. From out of nowhere, there would be an open car, another hook and as one man grabbed the canvas bag, another threw one out... and it was gone. I think one of the reasons I love the feel of the trains coming into the station now is that long ago memory of the freight train rushing past, swirling up bits of dust and grass, moving the hot, heavy air.

We'd hop down, and start dashing about, trying to find the canvas sack that was marked, U.S. Mail. Dragging it behind us, we left for Aunt Id's house, where the post office was located in her front parlour.

We were never allowed behind the counter...ohhhhhh no, Uncle Sam would come and take us away, she told us. We'd take the nickel she gave us, buy a Coke and poke a hole in the cap with an ice pick, sucking it out as we sat on the stone wall, nodding to neighbors and relatives who came in to pick up their mail.

We were identified by our lineage.

"You know those two, Quin and GC. P's babies. P... Mac's youngest. Mac, he's Selma and Charles' fourth one, the short one. Yes, that's them" Then, the speaker would turn to me and say, "Sugar, I'm your Cousin Rose...your third cousin once removed on your grandaddy's side"

This was repeated at the family reunion every Labour Day, when we filled the family picnic grounds in this little hamlet.

I never got them straight, I just let them pinch my cheek, slip me a dime, and they'd walk off, saying, "It's a shame the boy's the one with the looks. "

On Sunday, after Mass (Aunt Id went to the Baptist Church, in the hopes we'd one day convert, allowing us to all worship the same God), we started Sunday Dinner.

There is nothing quite like a Deep South Sunday Dinner. You have to approach it in a scientific manner, preparing not only the meal, but, in how you will eat it, and, your behaviour afterwards.

First, you make your sweet tea. Now, please understand, I am giving my family's way of doing things... I'm sure you have your own.. feel free to offer up your versions. Sweet tea is made by putting six tea bags in a pan holding a cup of boiling water. Let it sit a spell, until the water is warm, not hot, then remove the tea bags, squeezing them hard to get all that nice tea flavour out. Pour this mixture into a large, glass pitcher slowly stirring in a heaping cup of sugar. Taste. Add more sugar if needed. Fill the pitcher to the top with ice cold water, then shove the whole thing into the ice box to chill. It's best if you do this before you go to Mass, so it's nice and cold before it's time to eat.

Everyone comes home, and it's into the kitchen. The chicken was killed the day before by my MawMaw and Aunt Id.

This was never a fun process. Neither of them had the will to chop off a head, my father refused to have anything to do with the slaughter, although he was willing to eat the results, and they were far too weak to wring a neck. Mother was no where to be found.

It was left up to my 4'11" grandmother and Aunt Id who was short, stout and had diabetes to kill two chickens.

How did they do it?

A Volkswagen.

Yes, it was the People's Slaughter Machine.

My MawMaw held the chicken down, kneeling carefully in the dirt on her apron, with the head on a large rock in the dirt driveway. Aunt Id would back up, to the rock, MawMaw would slide the chicken's head under the whell, then, Aunt Id would slowly roll over it's head with the car.

Yep. That's how we knew what Sunday Dinner was going to be. If Aunt Id was asking where the car keys were, we knew it was fried chicken.

The night before, the plucked and gutted bird was cut into pieces, dipped into a buttermilk and egg bath, and left to sit in the icebox.  The next day, the women, still dressed in their church clothes, started the meal.  Blackeyed peas and butterbeans  went into pots with salt pork and onions. Sweet cornbread batter is made, poured into heavy black skillets. Fans whirred--with the ovens on, the heat was unbearable. Beets were mixed with vinegar and oil and fresh white onions...into the icebox along with jello salad and a relish dish with homemade pickles of all variety, including watermelon pickles. Potatoes are peeled, cut up and boiled. Heavy cream and butter sit in a pan on the back of the stove, warmed by the oven, ready to go into the potatoes when they are mashed.

One thing I learned, never put cold butter and milk into hot potatoes.

The chicken is taken out of the icebox, out of it's buttermilk bath, then floured and deep fried golden and crisp. Biscuits, cornbread, gravy, peas, snapbeans, relishes, potatoes, and a platter of chicken. Out comes the pitcher of sweet tea... my Dad takes his place at the head of the table, we say Grace, and eat.

And eat.

Dad was always offered the first and best parts of the chicken... they'd wait, mouths slightly agape, until he took a bite and pronounced it marvelous, then, the silverware would move and click on the china, glasses would be filled and re-filled, soft Mississippi voices filled the air, information gathered at the different Churches passed on. No TV, no phone would ring... and if it did, you didn't answer it.. manners were expected and delivered. It was a tradition, something the South takes great pride in.

When you reach the part where you can't eat anymore... dessert is served. Coffee is made, and you have pie with ice cream or shortcake or the best of all... homemade ice cream. We would all clear off the table, do the dishes and put away the food...except Dad, and then... you loosen your belts, the ladies took off their girdles and everyone naps.

Even I stayed inside, in the front parlour, where I was trusted to not touch anything. It was cool there, with a cross current breeze. I'd read, then fall asleep, in one of those food stupor sleeps, where you have strange dreams, and your stomach makes noises and you sleep hard and short and wake up abruptly.

Before we left, we'd race through Aunt Id's house one last time.

Her house was a rest home for termites. They would leave each Spring when they swarmed, and return with new friends and relatives. The house sagged and swayed, and some of the floors actually looked like a small roller coaster. We were allowed one run through if we were good, yelling and zipping up and down these up to four inch high hills of floor... her house always smelled of pine and oak.

It's gone now. Finally collapsed a few years after her death, just... collapsed in the middle of the day. *poof*

We'd drive home, Dad belching, Mother waving her hand at his non belch releases of gas. GC would drift off, MawMaw and Mother would gossip and I'd pretend to sleep, so they'd go to the good stuff, the dark family secrets, the ones I really wanted to know.

Problem is, half way though those, that heavy food sank further, and I did fall asleep... so, I never did find out why we weren't suppose to dig in the northwest corner of Great-Granddad's property. Something about a hobo and a second cousin and....


R said...

Now I will never be able to look at a Volkswagen the same.

I love how your accent got thicker as soon as you said "gris gris..." and how I can hear you telling these stories. WHile my childhood wasn't horrid (except for, well, being nuts), it was, well, suburban.

YOU, my dear, have a childhood worthy of sharing.

Quin said...

r~all southern people think their childhood is worthy of sharing... it's why we do it with everyone we talk to.. heh. as far as being nuts, well.. i've the white coat, and i'm proud of it.