Anyone has only to take a look at me to tell I like to eat. It was never in the cards for me to be the size 7 person of my dreams. You see, I grew up in a family of great cooks. My mother, who was my hero, made the most beautiful Pineapple Upside Down Cakes and the tastiest fried chicken I have ever had … including the Colonel’s. She made the fluffiest biscuits without ever measuring a single ingredient, a skill she was unable to teach me. (Thank God for Pillsbury’s frozen Southern biscuits.) I grew up wanting to be just like my mama, so I was often underfoot in the kitchen, watching everything she did and “helping” whenever she would let me, to mixed results. Mama was patient, though, and I learned how to bake a cake, to roast a whole chicken, to snap beans, and husk corn at her side. Though she had a demanding job that was often very stressful, she made dinner nearly every night. The menu did not include tacos and pizza, either. My mother took her role seriously and it was a hard and fast rule of hers that we eat together as a family. Every night we had a meat and at least two, sometimes three, vegetables.
My dad was the planter in the family and his garden always included tomatoes, cucumbers, crookneck yellow squash, zucchini, spring onions, okra, and beans. While he left the preparation of these treasures to my mama, he was an excellent griller of meats and maker of Saturday or Sunday morning breakfasts. When I was little, I would usually awaken on Saturday mornings to the sound of my parents talking about the plan for the day as they lay in bed. I would get up and leave my bed to go join the conversation. Before long Dad would get up, shower, and head to the kitchen with me on his heels. I would whisk the eggs in mom’s Fire-King Jadeite swirl-patterned green milk glass mixing bowl and set the table while Daddy fried Neese’s Sausage or Liver Pudding. I learned to fry a perfect sunny side up egg and how to grill a mean hamburger from my Dad. I think of learning at Dad’s side at the grill every time Darryl and I grill pork chops, a particular specialty of Dad’s.
My Dad’s mother, my Grandma Cartner, made the best chicken pie on the planet. I loved to stay with her for entire weeks in the summer or over Christmas break. Each visit I asked her to teach me one of her specialties. I most remember the Chicken Pie lesson when I was about thirteen. Up to that point, I had no idea what went into making it. She started with boiling a whole chicken. That took an hour and a half. While the chicken cooled enough to touch, she made the pastry, using her recipe for two normal-sized double-crust pies so that she had enough pastry to fill her large chicken pie pan and to top the pie with. Like my mama’s biscuits, Grandma’s pastry was thrown together without benefit of measuring cups or spoons. She knew by feel when the dough was perfect to roll out. This is a skill I have yet to master, like mom’s biscuits. (Sorry, Aunt Doris, but I use those “store bought crusts”, though I am determined to learn one day.) Grandma made it look easy. She rolled out the dough right on the kitchen counter, using two-thirds of it to fit it perfectly into the 11″ x 15″ x 3″ metal pan for the bottom crust and reserving one-third for the top crust. She painstakingly pulled all the meat from the chicken, discarding the skin and bones, then filled the bottom shell with chicken and homemade chicken gravy, then topped it with the remaining crust. She had a little child’s cookie cutter shaped like a chicken that used to be my Aunt Willa’s toy which she used to make vents in the top crust. That cutter is one of my prized possessions to this day. I asked my Grandma once what the secret ingredient was to her famous Chicken Pie. She said “love” and I believe it. The process from starting the water to boil for the chicken, to taking the golden brown pie out of the oven was about three hours long, but, man, was it ever worth it! If all you got was the wonderful mouth-watering smell that wafted throughout the house, it would be worth the care and time she took to make it. Thankfully, we also got the creamiest, flakiest, most delicious meal you could put in your mouth at the end as well.
Grandma was also known for her persimmon pudding and her applesauce cake. She taught me to make fried cinnamon-sugar doughnuts from canned biscuit dough and how to make apple hand pies that were the perfect compliment to a bowl of vanilla ice cream. I loved the pecans we would pick up underneath the huge pecan tree beside her driveway, so she usually baked a pecan pie for me when I visited. No one else’s has ever tasted as good as hers did.
My Cartner aunts learned to cook from their mother and each have their specialties. My Aunt Ann is the queen of Green Rice and fresh-squeezed lemonade. Alene bakes the best fresh bread. Alice used venison to make delicious country-style “steak”. Willa was the queen of sweet iced tea. Mildred made perfectly seasoned lima beans and creamed corn. Nancy was known for her barbecue. The aunts by marriage each contributed their specialties to the huge kitchen table as well. No one left a Cartner get together without having committed the sin of gluttony!
Often we left Grandma’s house only to head to my mother’s sister, Aunt Doris’s house, where we usually had to eat again. Aunt Doris taught me to make homemade cinnamon rolls and homemade ice cream when I spent time with her in the summers of my youth. Most of the time everything on the table including the meat came from her garden and farm. Fresh green beans, lima beans, corn on the cob, field peas, tomatoes and cucumbers sat alongside ham or country style steak from the pigs and beef cattle she and her family raised. Early in the day she would send one of her boys to pick a ripe watermelon and lay it in the creek to get good and cool. Those were the ruby-reddest, sweetest melons I have ever had.
I cherish the time I spent in the kitchen and by the grill and the lessons I learned there from my mom and dad, my Grandma Cartner, and my aunts and uncles on both sides of the family. I collected their recipes on scratch pad sheets, index cards, and in Clarksbury United Methodist Church cookbooks. About 25 years ago I put most of my favorites together in a cookbook called “Everything I Know About Cooking”, a project that just started out as a way for me to put all of my favorite recipes into an orderly fashion and ended up as a cookbook that sold out through four (one hundred copies each) printings. I had been tired of digging through the shoebox I kept my recipes in every time I wanted to make something. Even if I had never sold a copy of the cookbook, it would have been worth the time it took to create. There is still never a week that goes by without me using my dog-eared copy of that book, even after twenty-five years.
Recently, I noticed that my collection of recipes was getting out of hand again. I had collected more favorites and was spending too much time and brain power trying to remember where this recipe or that recipe was located. My shoebox had been replaced by multiple photo albums with recipes stuck beneath the clear pages and all of my cookbooks were filled with Post-it Notes and bookmarks. Also, I learned that many of my nineteen first (Cartner) cousins did not have the recipes I had from my Grandma Cartner. It seemed like time for another cookbook! The result is “Gather Together”, a collection of mostly Southern recipes from family, friends, twenty-five years of magazine subscriptions, and my extensive cookbook collection (or addiction). I don’t know if, in this electronic age, anyone other than me will want to buy a printed cookbook, but even if I never sell a one, I will at least have all of my favorites in one place again. When I’m missing my Grandma Cartner, I can pull this new cookbook off the shelf and make her chicken pie. That, in itself, is priceless!
For copies of “Gather Together”, you can contact me via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
(Copies are $15.00 + postage … or you can pick up a copy at CRC Printing Co. in Huntersville, NC.)