Pimento Cheese

Robert Moss, who is from that most eccentric of Southern cities, Charleston, South Carolina, describes himself as a culinary historian, a member of a geeky gaggle of food writers in which I am a mere gosling. In Going Lardcore: Adventures in New Southern Dining, Moss delves into stories of Low Country dishes such as shrimp and grits and she-crab soup as well as elements of our broader Southern cuisine like bourbon, fried green tomatoes and pimento cheese. It’s with these subjects that he becomes troublesome, claiming rum is more Southern than bourbon, that fried green tomatoes are a Yankee invention and that pimento cheese originated in upstate New York.

It’s this pimento and cheese issue I’m all over like a duck on a June bug, but before going any further, let’s turn to this matter of spelling, since I’m acutely aware that any article in Mississippi is going to be scratched over and henpecked by a contentious flock of literati. Yes, I am quite aware that the it’s the pimiento pepper, but in his article “Creating a New Southern Icon: The Curious History of Pimento Cheese”, Moss notes that “In the late 1890s, imported Spanish sweet peppers started being canned and sold by large food manufacturers, which not only boosted their popularity but also introduced the Spanish name pimiento. Soon the ‘i’ was dropped from common usage, and by the turn of the century most print accounts of the peppers call them ‘pimentos’.” I’ll remind you that Moss has a PhD. (in English, no less) from Furman, and though I’m not known for my slavish allegiance to academics, like the rest of you I always heartily concur with eggheads when they’re in my corner. It looks so good on paper.

Moss does not create another idol in this article; instead he reveals himself as an iconoclast of the first order by exposing the Yankee roots of a Southern dish Boston-based food writer Judy Gelman claims is “held sacred by Southerners”, and his research seems brutally thorough. However, as a former graduate student of the English department at the University of Mississippi, I’m delighted to say I have discovered a thin spot in Dr. Moss’ exposition. Even more appropriately, this modest and assuredly well-intentioned debunk comes via Martha Foose, the final court of authority on Mississippi food and a resident of Oxford for many years. Whereas Moss maintains that pimento and cheese is unknown outside of Dixie, Martha, in her splendid Screen Doors and Sweet Tea, points out that the pimento cheese capitol of the Midwest is Zingerman’s Roadhouse in Ann Arbor, Michigan. Evangelism is clearly in play.

What made pimento and cheese characteristically Southern is the use of cheddar. In the rural South of the early 20th century the most commonly found cheese was mild cheddar called hoop cheese because it was sold commercially in large round wheels, red rind cheese because of the color of the wax coating or even rat cheese because it was often used to bait rodent traps. In memory lives the vivid image of a red hoop of cheddar sitting on the counter of a small country store under a wrap of wax paper ready to be sliced and eaten with saltines and a hunk of baloney or a can of Viennas. Without a doubt it was this cheese that was most often grated and used with homemade mayonnaise in making pimento and cheese in country and small-town kitchens throughout the South.

Still and all, Moss makes a valid point; if foods we consider Southern are anathematized by Yankee roots, then our idolized pimento cheese has feet of clay. We just found out how to do it right and made it ours. But how is it that we’ve come to make a cult of cornbread, a fetish of fried chicken and an idol of black-eyed peas, all adorned with the trappings of media devotion and academic Sunday schools? Let’s please move beyond the iconography of food (barbecue is just short of having a clergy) and come to realize that any significant foodstuff is nothing more than a pleasing combination of tastes and textures. And sure, let’s have food festivals; of course you wouldn’t expect to find a shrimp festival in Omaha or one for mountain oysters in Key West (I could be wrong about that) but let’s come to know them for what they are, celebrations of community, people and locale.

As to pimento and cheese itself, I’m not going to be so crass as to give you a recipe. You do it the way you like it; God knows you’re going to anyway. Pimento cheese should be devoid of controversy. It’s not, of course, because everyone thinks their version is the best, but you’re the one making it, so just relax. Though Moss claims that recipes with cream cheese are “definitely in the minority”, I always add it to mine, mixing it with the mayo one to two. I also belong to a schismatic if not to say heretical sect who find a chopped fresh sweet red bell just as acceptable in pimento cheese as canned pimientos, and have no problem adding chopped green onions, though I once had a matron from Tupelo to give me a good finger-wagging over that. All I could do was wince.

Breakfast Matters

The decline of breakfast as a substantial meal in American households can be traced back to a town on the Kalamazoo River in Calhoun County, Michigan.

The town’s name is Battle Creek, the hometown of John Harvey Kellogg. Kellogg, the tenth son of a broom-maker, grew up in the frontier town, went east to medical school and returned home to take charge of the Western Health Reform Institute. This institution was founded by a Seventh Day Adventist couple, Sister Ellen Gould White and her husband Brother James, to promote the pre-apocalyptic health-giving regimen an angel detailed to Sister White in a vision on June 6, 1863. The angel instructed Sister White to eat two meals a day, to avoid meat, salt, cake, lard, spices, coffee, tea and tobacco, to rely on graham bread, fruits and vegetables, to drink only water, never to pay physicians and to trust in the healing power of God. They were among the country’s first health food nuts.

After Kellogg returned to Battle Creek—his education “back East” had been paid for by the Whites—he renamed the Institute the Medical and Surgical Sanitarium, and soon what had been a modest farmhouse was transformed into a six-story Italian Renaissance structure with a solarium, a gymnasium, half a mile of glassed-in halls containing palm and banana trees and an Acidophilus Milk Bar. Building on the work of Sylvester Graham, father of the graham cracker, and Dr. James Caleb Jackson, who in 1863 came out with a breakfast food made out of broken-up whole wheat bricks called Granula, Kellogg came out with his own cereal. For some unfathomable reason, Kellogg called his concoction Granula as well. Dr. Jackson promptly sued and won judgment against Kellogg. So Kellogg renamed his cereal Granola, which was, admittedly, not much of a stretch.

If nothing else a bold plagiarist, Kellogg did not learn the error of his bravura from this first legal fracas. C.W. Post, a local competitor, and once a patient at the Institute who had taken Kellogg’s cure without success, was eventually healed of his maladies by a Christian Science practitioner who told him to eat what he pleased came. So Post established his own retreat—La Vita Inn—and in 1895 he brought out Postum, a coffee substitute made of wheat, bran and molasses. His first big success was with a product called Grape-Nuts. But when Post came out with Grape-Nuts in 1898, Kellogg promptly came out with Gran-Nuts. Post threatened court action and Gran-Nuts disappeared from the market. By then, though, the ground had been broken, and soon, through their appeal to the health-conscious, their convenience, and their promotion by means of an aggressive, hugely successful marketing, cold cereals came to dominate the American breakfast table.

But before the advent of the cereal kings, America’s Lucullan breakfasts included tea and toast, eggs, fresh fish, ham, sausages, pigeons on toast (probably passenger pigeons, now extinct), and, of course, oysters. Again, here it must be noted that a substantial breakfast was important to a population that largely supported itself by physical labor of some sort. This was especially true in the heavily agricultural South. Even after WWII, when the urbanization of the South really began and more and more white-collar jobs opened up, many if not most Southern households still ate a hot, substantial breakfast. But as more Southern women moved into the workforce, these breakfasts became a thing of the past, and cold cereals or often simply toast and coffee came to dominate the breakfast menu because of their sheer convenience. Breakfast became more of a rural and weekend phenomenon.

The next major blow against breakfast as a prandial mainstay came again under the aegis of healthy eating. The anti-cholesterol craze that started in the 1970’s seems such a heaven-sent blessing for the breakfast cereals industry that a conspiracist might well believe that it’s a plot involving the AMA and Battle Creek. Because of their high saturated fat and cholesterol content, medical science condemned such breakfast staples as eggs, pork and butter as primary villains in the crime of heart disease. Americans were urged to abandon their sinful eating habits and to pursue the righteous path of low-fat cooking. “Low-fat,” “reduced fat,” and “lite” prepared foods proliferated. Cookbooks promoting a low-fat cuisine sold in the millions. Chefs radically altered their recipes to adapt to the changing market. Salt, too, came under attack as a leading factor in the promulgation of hypertension.

Breakfast fared a little better in restaurants. Though outside the metropolitan areas Southerners usually had little opportunity—or inclination, nor means, for that matter—to eat out, every little Southern town supported a diner where you could go to get breakfast and a plate lunch. The breakfasts were of the traditional sort: ham and eggs, sausage, biscuits, red-eye or sawmill gravy and of course grits. These breakfasts were once a meeting-place for people from all walks of life, especially in county seats on court days and in political years, but eventually they came to be largely patronized by blue-collar types: policemen, teamsters, construction and maintenance workers, farmers or cattlemen in town on business and the like. But by the Seventies, breakfasts had largely lost their appeal for diners because they had become more health-conscious and had less and less time for a morning meal.

Soon many if not most Americans came to view a plate of country ham or sausage with fried eggs and buttered grits, lard biscuits and sawmill gravy as something of a cardiac time bomb. A bowl of cold cereal with a piece of whole-wheat toast, a glass of “fresh frozen” orange juice and a cup of decaffeinated coffee seemed an attractive alternative to a population hell-bent toward senility.

A Southern Summer Salad

Within living memory, this simple dish was a staple on meat-and-three menus throughout the rural South. Juice from the vegetables stirred with oil and vinegar make a mild, flavorful vinaigrette best with beans or cold meats. I love to use it in the old three-bean-salad, and it’s great with fish or shellfish.

Use fresh vegetables; supermarket tomatoes don’t have enough of that wonderful gelatin surrounding the seeds, and those cucumbers are too watery. Sweet yellow onions spoil the bite, and red onions discolor the mix; white boilers are best. Cut vegetables into bite-sized pieces, place in a glass or ceramic bowl and toss with a generous salting and a good bit of fresh ground black pepper. Resist the temptation to use garlic and/or herbs. Add enough white vinegar to cover the vegetables by half and half that amount of corn oil. Do not use olive oil, which will coagulate when refrigerated. Refresh the mix with vegetables, seasonings, and liquids as needed.

The Original Shrimp and Grits

In 1985, In 1985 Craig Claiborne visited Bill Neal’s restaurant, Crook’s Corner, in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, for dinner and after sampling many dishes, asked Neal to prepare shrimp and grits for him in his kitchen the next morning. Claiborne, published this and several other recipes from Neal’s landmark cookbook, Southern Cooking (published that same year) in the New York Times, and lunched a national craze for shrimp and grits was on. While the recipe has been replicated—usually with disappointing results—in restaurants across the country since then, this is the original recipe.

6 cups cooked grits with cheese (I use a white cheddar)
Tabasco sauce
Freshly grated nutmeg
White pepper
1 pound (454 g) fresh shrimp
6 slices bacon
Peanut oil
2 cups sliced mushrooms
1 cup finely sliced scallions
1 large garlic clove, peeled
4 teaspoons lemon juice
Tabasco sauce
2 tablespoons fresh, chopped parsley
Salt and pepper

Season grits to taste, but lightly, with Tabasco, a very little nutmeg, and white pepper. Hold in a warm place or in the top of a double boiler over simmering water. Peel the shrimp, rinse, and pat dry. Dice the bacon and sauté lightly in the skillet. The edges of the bacon should brown, but the bacon should not become crisp. Add enough peanut oil to the bacon fat in the skillet to make a layer of fat about a quarter of an inch deep. When quite hot, add the shrimp in an even layer. Turn the shrimp as they start to color, add the mushrooms, and sauté about 4 minutes. Turn occasionally and add the scallions. Add the garlic through a press and stir around. Then season with lemon juice, a dash or two of Tabasco, and parsley. Add salt and pepper to taste. Divide the grits among four plates. Spoon the shrimp over and serve immediately.

About Sawmill Gravy

The first sentence of the seminal work Guide to Southern Trees (Dover: 1962) declares lyrically that “Dixie—steeped in tradition, acclaimed in song, reverenced in verse—is a land of trees”, and so it is, but was much more so at the end of the Civil War. When the nation began rebuilding from its bloody struggle, and on into the early 20th century, it turned south for the timber (particularly after the Great North Woods had been cut), and logging camps and mills sprang up like mushrooms in southern woodlands. It was an ecological calamity, but it kept a defeated people in food and clothing.

I grew up in the hills of north Mississippi, where sawmill gravy was a staple for the big breakfasts served in farming households. This recipe makes a gracious plenty. Many of the old folks I knew as a boy would keep a covered container of left-over gravy with whatever meats and biscuits weren’t eaten that morning.

North Mississippi Sawmill Gravy

This recipe will give you a flavorful gravy that is light-years better than that library paste you’re used to being served on breakfast buffets or in fast-food restaurants. Purists will decry my addition of a light stock to the mixture, but if they prefer a gloopy sausage-flavored white sauce, that’s because they just don’t know any better. I’m a firm believer that starch needs unfettered water in order to bloom properly.

Cut the ends off a one pound roll of pork sausage (I use Tennessee Pride), about four ounces. This will give you enough meat for your gravy, and these don’t make pretty patties anyway. Brown these in a skillet with about two tablespoons oil (you can use bacon drippings if you like) and break them up very well as they cook. When they’re quite done, sprinkle in about two tablespoons plain flour and mix well into a smooth roux. Once the flour is just beginning to brown (you want it cooked, but with as little color as possible) stir in about one cup of light stock, chicken or vegetable, whichever you prefer. You can use just water, but you’re going to get a better flavor with stock. Stir rapidly to avoid lumping. To this add about two cups milk, reduce heat and let the gravy cook down to a good consistency, perhaps a little thinner than you want, since it will thicken a bit after taken from the heat. Salt if needed, and I think it’s best with plenty of black pepper.

Our Appalachian Table

Travis Milton, a native of Russell County, Virginia, high in the Alleghenys, became a chef on the East Coast, but his thoughts kept returning to his childhood home. “The more I learned about the restaurant business, the more I appreciated the food culture I’d grown up in,” he says. “I started dreaming of a restaurant that would capture and celebrate that lifestyle, allow me to explore where it came from.”

Milton is profiled in a recent Gastro Obscura article, “The Chef Restoring Appalachia’s World-Class. No matter your definition of “world-class” the term seems incongruous to most when applied to Appalachia, a region of grinding poverty and hard-scrabble existence, so it’s not surprising that his idea was ill-received by his fellow chefs. “When I’d say ‘Appalachian Cuisine,’ they’d hit me with a shit-eating sneer,” says Milton. In 2010, at a New York restaurant, Milton was part of a group planning dishes that would “tell about who we are.” He wondered aloud about sourcing leather britches and greasy-backs, a type of beans common in mountain gardens.

The following afternoon, the head chef slapped a copy of Ernest Matthew Mickler’s White Trash Cooking onto Milton’s station. “He got in my face,” says Milton, “and started barking, ‘If this is what you wanna do in my kitchen then you can get the fuck out!’” Having White Trash Cooking slammed in his face was a turning point. To overcome the stereotypes, Milton realized, he’d need to be able to tell the story of Appalachian food, but writing on the region’s cuisine was mostly focused on single mothers dressing up SPAM in a sugary sauce and other relatively recent ways that Appalachian cooks respond to the poverty that is, for most, coal’s legacy in Appalachia.

Then in 2016, Ronni Lundy published Victuals: An Appalachian Journey, with Recipes. Her work won the James Beard Foundation Book of the Year and Best Book, American Cooking awards. In Victuals, Lundy claims that European settlers adopted native Cherokee foods almost wholesale. Wild game, wild herbs and greens, nuts, and berries augmented produce from small gardens of beans, corn, and squash using the “Three Sisters” method.

Appalachians let animals range freely, keeping prized breeds adapted to the landscape. Settlers raised pigs on acorns, berries, and chestnuts, which produced the famous hams of Virginia, Kentucky and Tennessee. After the Civil War decimated the region, residents of isolated Appalachia embraced their gardening traditions, developing thousands of hybridized varieties of apples and pears, squash, tomatoes, collard greens, and other foodstuffs.

While Victuals establishes a benchmark, the font and source for Appalachian food writing is The Foxfire Book of Appalachian Cookery: Regional Memorabilia and Recipes. First published in 1984, Appalachian Cookery has little resemblance to any other publication involving Southern foods. The Foxfire Project was the brain-child of Eliot Wigginton, a man from West Virginia who received an advanced education in the north and began teaching at a rural school in northeastern Georgia during the late 1960s. Called “foxfire” after a will-o’-the-wisp in mountain woods, his students collected folklore and customs in a series of oral histories that were first published in a 1972 anthology. Many more editions have followed as well as other volumes documenting Appalachian culture.

According to the text, some of the research and the photographic essays included in Appalachian Cookery were gathered for previous Foxfire books but were not selected for inclusion into an earlier volume. Appalachian Cookery stands out as the most complete and comprehensive record we have of the food, cooking and home life of southern Appalachia in early to mid-20th century. Most of the recipes are very simple; pound cake has four ingredients in equal measure. The book is also a primer on how to use homegrown or wild-gathered foods. Appalachian Cookery opens a door to a world far away from arugula and alien to star anise, a world where cooking was simple but not coarse, having a balance and symmetry all its own, dictated by the lessons of long-ago voices set in concert with the rhythm of the seasons. For those of us from the upland South, these are our roots.

CRY-BABY COOKIES

Cream 1 cup plus 2 tablespoons shortening with an equal amount of sugar. Add one cup molasses and two beaten eggs. Sift together 4 ¾ cups plain flour with 1 tablespoon baking powder, 1 teaspoon salt and 1 ½ teaspoons soda. Then combine with 2 cups grated coconut, 2 cups chopped walnuts and 1 ½ cups raisins. Add dry ingredients alternately with 1 cup milk to creamed egg mixture. Drop by spoonfuls onto a greased baking sheet. Bake in a moderate (350) oven for 10 minutes. YIELD: approx. 7 dozen cookies.

Aunt Jett

When I knew her in my childhood, Jett cooked the same way she had for over sixty years. She learned at her mother’s side, a woman whose people settled a wilderness. They sustained themselves and their families on corn and pork with whatever else they could grow or kill. Food was important to them; it was one of their few sources of satisfaction and pleasure unaffected by morals or religion. They planted and harvested, cooked and baked, canned and preserved, making the most of what they had season to season, year to year, generation to generation.

Jett always had something fixed for whatever company might drop in: stewed greens, limas, black-eyed peas, green beans, new or creamed potatoes, fried chicken, pork chops or breaded steak, and if it was summer she’d have fresh sliced tomatoes, fried okra or corn on the cob. She served her meals with sliced onion, cornbread or biscuits and sawmill gravy with sweetened tea to drink; she seasoned with streak-o’-lean, salt, black pepper, and maybe a little cayenne and sage. No more fundamental meal can be imagined. Jet’s cooking was simple, but not coarse; it had a balance and symmetry all its own, dictated by the teachings of long-ago voices set in concert with the rhythm of the seasons.

Jett thanked God before we ate, and that too is elemental of our sustenance.

Aunt Jet (left) with her sisters Maude and Virgie.
Aunt Jett (left) with her sisters Maude and Virgie.

Twelve Dishes Every Southerner Should Know How to Cook

When I submitted a list of twelve kitchen essentials for a Southerner to my friends, it was like throwing a June bug down into a flock of ducks. The pot roast was devastated by a barrage of detractors who claimed that it’s just got Yankee written all over it, the red velvet cake was gunned down as a Waldorf recipe, and the pecan pie was mined by a sweet potato. I substituted a pound cake and sweet potato pie for the red velvet and pecan, stewed greens, which almost lost out to butter beans, for the roast, and achieved some degree of consensus.

Buttermilk biscuits
Cornbread
Pimento cheese
Fried chicken
Barbecued ribs
Pound cake
Fruit cobbler
Cornbread dressing
Chicken and dumplings
Sweet potato pie
Banana pudding
Stewed greens

Holidays in Old Calhoun

My mother Monette Morgan Young was born in 1915 on a small farm east of the village of Reid in the northeast part of Calhoun County on the old road to Houlka. She was the daughter of Hosea Morgan and Eula Murphree Morgan, and was an only child. The lack of siblings and nearby neighbor children made her childhood lonelier than most. Her mother was a teacher for many of Monette’s early years, moving around from one one-room community school to another and lodging with someone in that community during the short school term each year. She took Monette with her while Hosea stayed home to take care of the farm. When schools were not in session, all three worked hard to raise enough food and “bring in” a small cotton crop to sell for their cash needs.

Monette was a reader and a writer; she loved poetry and history. In her later years, Monette began to write of her growing-up days and her life on that farm. Like many people as they grow older, she became interested in family history and began a decades-long period of formal research and the gathering of family stories from surviving aunts, cousins and others who had lived in Reid. Her cousin Clarence Morgan was a great source of family and community information; and she and he made many trips, some with grandkids along, to old cemeteries and old communities barely recognizable by then with the changes of time.

 In the early 1980s she began sending me long letters—some she typed but most were handwritten in a hurried scrawl—letters with information she had gathered about not only our family but also about other families who lived in that area and her memories of them and her life there. As I saved her letters, I began to realize that if the material was organized, edited a bit, fleshed out with a map or two, and if I took the various bits of information about, for example, the Clark family or the community social life, and put those together and did likewise with other topics, this might make an interesting memoir as well as a useful genealogical and historical resource. I did that. It took months in those pre-computer days, but it began to come together. I finished typing it and decided I’d have a few copies made for me and my children and would give her a few copies on her 75th birthday. I called it “The Cherry Hill – Poplar Springs – Reid Community in Calhoun County, Mississippi”. She was delighted, but said several times, “If I had known you were going to do this, I’d have written this or that, or would have not said that, or would have added the story about….” I told her to consider it a draft and to add or subtract whatever she wanted, and I’d revise the book accordingly. She did, and I did. After Mother died in 2000, I created a second edition of the book, adding the additional material and cleaning up some typos and some errors that had been pointed out. Over 100 copies of that second edition were subsequently made and a digital version is available on the internet for free download.

Holidays
(an excerpt from The Cherry Hill – Poplar Springs – Reid Community in Calhoun County, Mississippi, by Monette Morgan Young

We did not do lavish Christmas cooking, not in our circle of acquaintances and kin, nor did we do lavish Thanksgiving cooking. We usually had fresh pork both times and often our meat would be a huge pot of backbones. If the hog killing had been in the last day or two before the holiday, we had the most prized meat of all, the loin strip. Our men did not make pork chops of any cut of hog. That long lean strip was taken out without bone and how I looked forward to it. I hated any boiled meat. Mother and all her acquaintances and kin only boiled or fried meat. One reason for that is that they did not know of roasting procedures and second that it would have required oven cooking and use of much stovewood. They could boil a piece or pieces of meat in the black iron cooking pot on the coals on the hearth by the fire which was already going for warmth. Mother would make good dressing with that water and we always had small Bermuda onions growing in the garden all winter. These grew in clusters and did not decay as the large ones did and were not hot. Mother did not have to buy sage. She grew it, dried it in a slow oven and so we had sage and onions for dressing and since I always contended for fried meat, she fried something for me. We sometimes did have a hen boiled but since I wouldn’t eat boiled meat, she had to do the frying for me and I ate dressing with that.

Usually Thanksgiving Day was just another day. Daddy was sometimes up to his ears in corn gathering and we cooked a little better dinner. Some meat as I have described, maybe a molasses cake with the dried apple filling and frosting, one or two or three of the many vegetables in storage, canned or dried, the usual dish of pickles, preserves, canned berries, or peaches, on the table. Christmas would be the same with the exception of a coconut cake. Mother always cooked a large luscious coconut cake. She used only her simple two-egg recipe for the batter (2 eggs, ¾ cup milk, 1-1/3 cup sugar, 1/3 cup fat, 2 cups flour, 3 teaspoons baking powder, 1/2 teaspoon salt), but we always got a fresh coconut and she filled and covered the cake lavishly with frosting and coconut. Then she always had Daddy to buy the cone-shaped frosted jellied candies, assorted colors. She topped the cake with those and it looked like tiny frost-covered shapes of color in a snow bank. That was her specialty. I never saw or read of a fruit cake. With all our folks, just ordinary cakes were made. A little more lavish perhaps, was a Christmas cake, or was called so.

We often saw no one but ourselves on Christmas Day. The weather would have been too bad to venture forth. My parents had bought a little fruit and a few nuts. Oranges still always smell like Christmas. We had them no other time unless someone was really sick. Those little home-grown apples smelling like all the aromas of Araby would still be crisp and we would allow ourselves a few more of those unwrapping them from the Sears Roebuck catalog pages that were used to protect them and out of their cardboard boxes from under the bed in the front room. We got a few raisins, the seeded ones still on stems, I never taste such now.

If we did not go to Mama Murphree’s on pretty Christmas days we would walk to Grandaddy Morgan’s. My parents occasionally bought a box of lemon stick candy. At Grandfather’s he would bring out his goodies. He may have sent to town for a bushel of shipped in apples, which then I preferred to our small homegrown ones, and he had oranges and several boxes of candy. He always bagged up a large paper bag for us to carry home. Uncle Alsie’s children made their home at Grandaddy’s and Grandmother’s. These were Euras, Theda, Roy and Lois. Lois was near my age, the youngest. So I would get to see the cousins there.

One favorite toy at Christmas time for parents and teachers to give children was a harmonica. At that time, all children were given gifts by teachers. A harmonica, which we called a French Harp, cost all of a nickel or a dime. A good sized professional one might cost a quarter. I invariably wanted one. Of course, I had not a musical bone in my body. I made noise on it, and that was all. Another gift that teachers most often gave was a “bought” toothbrush. Our toothbrushes were off the black gum bush or the black gum tree. They made a large tree, but the woods were full of the small ones and we got a good sized twig about as large as a small cedar pencil, peeled the bark down about an inch and a half and the whole thing was about six inches long. We chewed the peeled end into a mop shaped thing and brushed our teeth with that. We used ashes or baking soda. I recall that Daddy used ashes.

I had bountiful Christmases. I always got one special large gift and one or two small ones. Also there were the oranges and raisins which we did not get at other times, not often. There was candy too, then, but seldom at other times. My victory over my nice pretty things was a little hollow, with no one to show them to or to play with them with me. Some other children of the area did not get anything but the candy, nuts, and fruits. Christmas was a very quiet celebration then. The weather was usually bad and the roads almost impossible to travel on, so family get-togethers were never planned. We almost always got to both my grandparents during the Christmas week. At “Mama” Murphree’s sometimes we got to see other cousins, sometimes not. At the Morgan grandparents, my four cousins who made their home there were always at home and I enjoyed them. Friends and relatives did not exchange gifts. We had no church programs. We didn’t try to plan for such due to not knowing what the weather might do. Mother tried to see that I had a good Christmas. When she was a child, they had had usually nothing except a little candy and one time nothing at all. One Christmas there was a bisque doll with curls for me and one time there was a big sleeping doll and a cloth body–perhaps a paper mache head with painted-on reddish blonde hair. That day it rained all day. We never got outside.

When I was about four, Tellie Murff and Winnie Davis gave me some lovely Christmas gifts. I think Tellie gave me a beautiful ball and some of the best of candy. Winnie gave me a box of blocks, some of which were painted to form the facade of an antebellum house. They were still in the house when all of the things had to be sold and/or given away when Daddy got sick. Some winter Sundays we couldn’t go to church. We’d have Sunday school at home. My Father was well read in the Bible. He was on speaking terms with the old Bible Patriarchs. We three would read and discuss the lesson while pork backbones simmered in the kitchen, they for our Sunday dinner, and while sweet potatoes baked and while perhaps dried peas or butterbeans cooked.

Monette Morgan Young
Monette Morgan Young