Notes on Sawmill Gravy

The Harrars’ Guide to Southern Trees (Dover: 1962) lyrically declares that “Dixie—steeped in tradition, acclaimed in song, reverenced in verse—is a land of trees.” When the nation began to recover from its bloody Civil War, and on into the early 20th century, timber became the South’s biggest cash commodity. Logging camps and sawmills sprang up like mangling mushrooms in the great forests stretching from the Chesapeake Bay to Galveston. The deforestation of the southeast was an ecological calamity of continental proportions, but it provided a defeated, dispirited people with the elements of existence and, perhaps, hope itself.

In my homeland of the middle South sawmill gravy is a staple for breakfast. This recipe makes a gracious plenty. Many 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. More often than not someone would spoon it over a piece of cornbread or a scoop of rice sometime during the day, and many nights found another batch being made on the stove.

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.

Brown about a half-pound pork sausage in a little oil (you can use bacon drippings if you like). Break it up very well. When quite done, sprinkle in about two tablespoons plain flour, and blend until smooth. When flour begins to brown, stir in about a cup of water. Mix well. To this add enough milk to make a thin gravy. Reduce heat and cook down to a good consistency, perhaps a little lighter than you want, since it will thicken a bit after taken from the heat. Salt if needed. I like it with a heft of black pepper.

 

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

The Edible South: A Review

If you care about the culinary history of America, then The Edible South: The Power of Food and the Making of an American Region by Marcie Ferris is a necessary addition to your library. The scope of this work, its scholarship and its pervasive voice of authority provide a much-needed center of gravity for the study of Southern foodways as well as a panoramic portrait of the society and culture of the South through the lens of an essential element: food.

The quality of Ferris’ scholarship is undeniable, but The Edible South can in no way be described as bridging a gap between academic and popular writing. It is a thoroughly academic work, insightful of course, but calling it approachable is a stretch as well. This is not a book you pick up lightly and not without a solid grounding in American history, otherwise you will soon find yourself awash in a sea of dates and names, events and entities. In her introduction (following four pages of acknowledgements) Ferris states that The Edible South is an examination of “visceral connections” involving the “realities of fulsomeness and deprivation” and the “resonance of history in food traditions”, and, borrowing Zora Neale Hurston’s reference to food as an eyepiece for the examination of history, an “evocative lens” into the various aspects of Southern culture and society. The text is peppered with phrases such as “culinary exceptionalism”, “cultural conversation”, “historical interaction”, “Jim Crow paternalism” and “racial balkanization”, thoroughly saturated with information (as well as footnotes) and for the most part unrelentingly didactic, an almost incessant record of racism and misogyny, poverty and oppression in one of the most fertile regions of the globe. The narrative is occasionally gruesome: the slaughter and cannibalization of a young pregnant bride at Jamestown; the torture of a slave by being suspended with a piece of pork fat over an open flame; and the rats, cats and dogs prepared for the table during the siege of Vicksburg in addition to constant accounts of hunger, malnutrition and want, evocative to be sure, but far more often of the darker aspects of the human condition.

Ferris is vigorous and precise, as befits a writer intending to inform if not to say instruct. While she professes a passion for food, this passion is rarely evident in her prose; instead, it shines forth in her scholarship, which as noted is astoundingly thorough. The key word here is information, and The Edible South is informative on almost every level, but this is a social history (as opposed to political or economic history), focusing on the experiences of everyday people, resulting in “a ‘History from the Bottom Up’ that ultimately engulfed traditional history and, somehow, helped to make a Better World” (Paul E. Johnson). The emphasis is on race relations, gender issues, inequality, education, work and leisure, mobility, social movements and the character and condition of the working class. This is to say that food is a raison for her larger agenda, which is an examination of the social history of the South itself. While Ferris says that her approach is not encyclopedic, the result is undeniably, mind-bogglingly comprehensive. The bibliography is exhaustive, beginning with three and a half pages of primary source materials from archival collections in fifteen cities spanning fourteen states (including Michigan, Massachusetts, Ohio and the District of Columbia), followed by forty pages of secondary sources. Somewhat surprisingly, Ferris mentions Zora Neale Hurston only in connection with the reproduction of her folk tale “Diddy Wah Diddy” (1938) in Mark Kurlansky’s excellent work, The Food of a Younger Land (2010), disregarding her longer non-fiction works. I should hope to find some agreement by noting the glaring omission of Wilbur Cash’s The Mind of the South (1929). While not genre-defining—John Egerton’s Southern Food: At Home, on the Road, in History (1987) defined the genre—The Edible South is authoritative and comprehensive, an indispensable reference.

The academic institutionalization of Southern food is if nothing else thorough. Southern foodways studies have kept university presses rolling in recent years: Andrew Haley, an assistant professor of American cultural history at the University of Southern Mississippi, was awarded the 2012 James Beard Award in the Reference and Scholarship category for Turning the Tables: Restaurants and the Rise of the American Middle Class, 1880-1920, another product of the University of North Carolina Press; this past October, the University of Georgia Press issued The Larder: Food Studies Methods from the American South, edited by John T. Edge, Elizabeth S. D. Engelhardt and Ted Ownby; and this August the University Press of Mississippi released Writing in the Kitchen: Essays on Southern Literature and Foodways edited by David A. Davis and Tara Powell with a forward by Jessica B. Harris.

edible south photo 1Given the narrow scope of this field, overgrazing seems imminent; one could get the impression that this glut of scholarship is evidence that the academic maxim of “publish or perish” is still solidly in place. While these works are undoubtedly conceived for those who are deeply interested in the culinary history of our nation, the general popularity of such publications must be called into question. That being said, The Edible South has been included among the Southern Independent Booksellers Association’s 2014 Summer Okra Picks, along with Chris Chamberlain’s The Southern Foodie’s Guide to the Pig: A Culinary Tour of the South’s Best Restaurants & the Recipes That Made Them Famous, Beautiful at All Seasons: Southern Gardening and Beyond with Elizabeth Lawrence (by Elizabeth Lawrence) and Somewhere Safe with Somebody Good: The New Mitford Novel by Jan Karon.

After reading The Edible South, some are likely to be left with the bitter aftertaste of an eviscerated region in an age of information. The apartness of the South is what brought about its distinctive culture, but the old demonic genius loci of Dixie has been exorcised by a new orthodoxy embracing secular capitalization and academic hermeneutics, where icons are relics and texts are subjected to a democratized version of the Scholastic method. A bell jar has descended, but life goes on, people will be people, and while by academic standards Southern culture has become a global phenomenon, for better or worse it remains rooted south of the Mason-Dixon Line, where a pork chop is still more often than not just a pork chop.