By Roberta Bondi
Vol. 12, No. 4, 1990, pp. 8-12
When Benjamin was five, he looked down at his plate one morning at breakfast. Then he looked up at me and asked, “Mama, when you were a little girl, did they have cooked food?” “Are you kidding?” I answered, sympathetically, knocked breathless by the question. Who did he think his mama was? How many aeons of life does he think mine has spanned?
When my own Mama, in Louisville, Kentucky, moved from her big house on Willow Avenue into her tiny two-bedroom condo on Village Drive, my two aunts came to help. My mother’s sisters, Kas and Suzie, had awaken early to leave their farms outside Sturgis in Union County. They arrived after their four-hour trip shortly after I’d gotten up. It was late in the move, and most of the work of dismantling my mother’s household and reassembling it in a very small space was already done.
Immediately, they started in on wrapping the jelly glasses in newspaper. I tried to stay quiet and absorb caffeine as quickly as I could. I knew I was in for it when they started to talk about how hard life used to be, end how my great aunt Blacky who was eighty at the time still works, and how people just don’t work like they used to. Of course, they were right on all points.
Life on a farm is no picnic right now, but it is nothing like my memories of visiting my grandmother when I was a city child. Until I was eleven I grew up in Bayside, New York, within striking distance of my other grandparents who lived in Manhattan. Our home in Queens was a small, three-bedroom apartment on the second floor of a type of complex called “garden apartments.” To go from playing in the yard with a flock of assorted children in New York to a farm in western Kentucky for three weeks each summer was to enter a world that was at the same time intensely boring and amazingly terrifying.
My grandparents’ house was old, built around the time of the Civil War. It was one fairly dilapidated story, white frame, with four huge, high-ceilinged, long-windowed rooms, and two little rooms. The fixed rooms were the living room on the front, and the kitchen on the back. The other two shifted in use. Sometimes the dining room would be on the front of the house next to the living room, while my grandparents’ room connected the kitchen and the living room. Sometimes it was the dining room that lay between the front and back. My uncle Quentin and my Aunt Suzie were not married yet. The two small rooms were theirs.
The central focus of the house, however, was the kitchen, and this is where I remember most of the household work being done. It had three windows. Two of them on the side almost overlooked a neighbor’s house, which was partially hidden by a rickety and overgrown trellis covered with sweetpeas. Through the window on the back, over the sink, you could see my grandmother’s grapes, also overgrown, a barbed wire fence against which blackberry bushes grew, the smokehouse (if you stood on tip-toes and strained to look to the right), and the chicken yard containing the terrible out-house beyond it. Straight out the window were open fields, and at a great distance beyond the fields lay the low ridge of Dyer Hills that enclosed the landscape.
My grandmother indeed did work hard in that kitchen. There was an enormous black coal stove she cooked on, with its kettles and skillets and dented-up enamelled pan. When she opened that stove, the red light of the fire looked like hell itself and scared me twice as badly. Under the back window was a sink with a hand pump for cold well water at its edge. I still remember the metallic taste of that water that was too cold to wash in. A great square table with a table cloth that always seemed mostly worn out stood in the middle. Off to one side of the kitchen was a cold room for storing canned and preserved foods, and in the floor of that room, a cold cellar you got to by lifting a trap-door in the floor and descending into the earth.
This wasn’t the farm my mother had grown up on. My grandparents had lost that one in the Depression. That former farm, however, was close enough to the farm of my childhood to make me wonder. How did my grandmother rear six children and feed all the farm workers? Nothing anybody ate ever seemed to come easily or cleanly out of that kitchen.
Every meal was a hot meal, including biscuits or rolls or corn bread. I remember taking turns with my little brother Freddie churning sour butter that I couldn’t eat in a tall tapered wooden churn from unpasteurized milk. My grandmother made wonderful fruit pies, but the apple pies were made of tiny wormy apples she had us pick up off the ground behind the house in the long wet grass where the dog played and the chickens ran. The peach pies had an unspeakable origin: the half-rotten freckled peaches had fallen from their trees into the dusty, bare dirt right inside the gate to the chicken yard. Her fried chicken was heaven, but I think I was nearly forty before the memory of the smell of boiling water poured over chicken feathers and the feel of those feathers coming off in my hands began to fade. Vegetables grown in the garden, eggs from the hen house, canning and preserving, the smoking of hams and the making of sausage all boggle my mind and memory.
Though they most certainly took place, I don’t remember large family gatherings of cousins, aunts and uncles, and great aunts and uncles before the big kitchen was redone as another bedroom and one of the small rooms was turned into a modern kitchen. The new kitchen was very long and narrow, and even when it was brand new I remember it as dingy and rickety, an old woman’s kitchen–though my grandmother wasn’t old when it was added–without the solidity and significance of the old kitchen. Nevertheless, it had hot and cold water with a real sink, a refrigerator, a gas stove, a washing machine, and a chrome and formica dinette set with the table still covered by a worn-out table cloth. I remember very well the family dinners that came out of the new kitchen when we visited in the summers as I grew older.
These dinners were complex affairs. Orchestrated by my aunts and my mother, they took place on Sunday after church. The assembled family included not only Panny and Papa Charles, my grandparents, my aunts and uncles, and my first cousins. They usually also included at least
a great aunt or two and occasionally some second cousins as well.
These gatherings occurred in three movements. The first movement, of moderately quick tempo, was in three parts. Providing one part, the men-folk sat on the wide front porch staring toward the road and talking about the crops and other uninteresting subjects. The next was played by the children, who were almost all male. In the back yard, the side yard and the front yard the little ones ran around and whined, while the older ones teased each other, scuffled, and tussled. The third and central part came out of my grandmother’s kitchen, and the players were my mother, my aunts and my grandmother with an occasional female first cousin to set the table, pour the iced tea, and so forth.
The second movement was much slower and was in two parts. All the men and the younger children performed first, coming in off the porch to eat by themselves without the women. Men at one end, children at the other, they would assemble in the darkened dining room at the long white dining room table, while the overhead fan would stir the hot summer air.
Sometimes the meal would be pot-roast, new potatoes, and beans boiled forever with a piece of salt pork. Sometimes it would be ham or the infamous fried chicken and fried corn. Never were we without tomatoes from the garden, slaw, and little onions, and usually a white cake with caramel icing. falling apart in the middle with the icing running into the crack, and a fruit pie or two. Even the children drank gallons of the sweetened iced-tea, which was served in big round, stemmed glasses with little dents in the sides. But most of all, there were wonderful rolls or biscuits which would be provided by hovering aunts who kept them coming steadily, always hot, always crisp on the outside and soft on the inside. Only after the men and children had eaten, and the table was cleared did the women gather together their own meal and go to the dining room for the “second sitting.”
For the women, the major portion of the much more rapid third movement was again the kitchen and clean-up. Unlike the time before dinner, when conversation was fairly well restricted to discussion of food and gossip about the present, during clean-up time my good-natured, joking aunts, great-aunts and grandmother would tell stories of their own aunts, great-aunts, grandmothers, cousins, and great-grandmothers. All the while, the men smoked smelly cigars on the porch, continued to talk about crops, deals, and the weather, and the children played and napped around the house and yard.
How to understand these dinners from this distance, One key is in the breads. I’m not sure how old I was when I began to realize the special importance hot homemade breads held for me as a female family member, and how it was that I came to know that everything a woman is or is not is wrapped up in her rolls and biscuits. I know I learned late about chicken. I remember as a fourteen-year-old being mortified at my own gaping lack of womanly abilities when I heard my aunt Suzie exile a neighbor from the entire race of women by saying of her, “she’s a good woman, but she can’t pluck a chicken!” But there never seems to have been a time when I didn’t know that, whatever else my grandmother, my mother, my aunts, and my great-aunts were able to do, their power, their honor, and their mysterious authority lay in their ability to make those perfect biscuits like the women in the family before them, and bring them to the table throughout the meal, forever golden, full of buttermilk, and always hot.
I may not know how old I was when I began to understand about the significance of biscuits for a real woman, but I do know that it is only recently that I have come to begin to understand the real power structure of my family which was revealed in those Sunday dinners.
Although I lived in New York City as a child, and although I was the daughter of Kentucky on my mother’s side, the law of my father’s Yankee family prevailed in our household. A dazzlingly intelligent and entertaining so-
phisticated Manhattanite, my father ruled our home with the same grace and power as any other absolute monarch. Obedience without argument or questioning was demanded and received from wife and children equally, and speeches detailing the moral, psychological, and physical weakness of women provided the justification for the law.
Naturally, therefore, on my grandmother’s farm, all I could see were the men on the porch rocking while the women worked, sitting to cat while the women stood up to wait on them. I was afraid of my big uncles. I knew they believed women should work while men played. Even on Sunday in their good clothes their hands were huge and rough and cracked, and the smell and feel of large animals as well as of intricate and spiked farm equipment enveloped them.
When I would come onto the porch Uncle Bob Wesley and Uncle Bo especially would tease me. “You talk like an Eye-talian! ” “Say ‘Pie in the sky when I die!'” And most humiliating of all, “Well, well, little lady, you ain’t nothing but a horse’s titty!” I thought they despised me and wanted to make me cry. Uncle A. D., my aunt Kas’s husband, was kinder and sweeter, and Uncle Bob, married to my Aunt Susie, was the quietest of all. I don’t remember much from then of Quentin, my then college-aged uncle who is now a lawyer. I did not know how grindingly hard my farming uncles worked. I could not see much of their relationships with my aunts, though I know now as an adult that the marriages in my family were remarkably happy, and were based on a kind of equality and respect that was invisible to me.
The truth is, as I have been able to work it out over the intervening years, the position of the men in the family is somewhat ambiguous. I know now, as I did not then, that my family is an intricately structured matriarchy. Living as I had with only a mother, an authoritarian father, and younger brothers in New York, the patterns of the larger family had escaped me, and so I could not see the smaller ones within the larger family, either.
Yet even then, if I had been asked to diagram the Wynns and the Wesleys, I would have known that my greatgrandmother Grammar, a Withers before she was married to Bob Wynn, was the center and source of power in the family. Only incidentally, it seemed to me as a child, was Papa married to my great-grandmother. When I thought about it, I knew that all Grammar’s children lived on farms close by, that when her daughters married, her sons-in-law came to live with her daughters close to their mother, and that her son John Bundy didn’t marry at all but continued to live with his mother. I knew that among my grandmother Roberta’s children, the same was true. They all settled around their mother. Only the oldest, my own mother, had broken that pattern.
I knew even as a child that within the hierarchy of the family, one’s status depended upon whether one was male or female first, and only after, whether one was born into the family or married into it. In the Wesley family, the aunts ranked first, followed by their husbands, then came the aunts-in-law, trailed by their husbands, the natural-born uncles. Among the cousins, the children of daughters were closer to the sources of power than the children of sons, and the daughters of daughters both were most favored and had the most expected of them.
Once when I was about ten, when it was the turn of the front room to be the dining room, I watched my mother ironing. I saw a little white pique skirt on the ironing, board. “Whose little tiny skirt is that?” I asked. Immediately, I received a shock. For the moment I asked the question I knew the answer. “Why, it’s yours, silly! Whose did you think it was?” “I knew that,” I said, pitifully. I had thought I was almost grown up.
When I see those childhood dinners, now, I find the players in them have changed size and shape as radically as I changed myself when I saw the real nature of that white skirt on my grandmother’s ironing board. From this distance the men in the family appear dull, living in a clumsy world of language made entirely of plodding ideas badly expressed. Although I was afraid of them I saw even as a child that to them, being a man depended on showing no softness, accepting no ambiguity, rejecting men who enjoyed the company of women. They ate first with the children because they were like the children. They were too simple for the company of women, and their memories were too short. They did not carry in their bodies and their minds the skills, jokes, and history of the family.
Now I remember the plates of fried chicken with some of the best pieces saved back for the women. Though my mother was my father’s weak woman at home, I recognize now how articulate, self-confident and strong even my mother as well as my aunts were in that place. Their skills at sewing, quilting, gardening, laughing, and story-telling were enormous. Now I know how little and confused I felt
about what I needed to be myself in the face of their competence. I had been raised to be obedient, but my aunts were not obedient, and neither was my mother in this place. They were in charge. My aunts and my great-aunts summoned me to take my place of authority as the eldest granddaughter in matriarchy that went back as far as I could see, but how could I even let myself know it? If I took a place of competence, I would betray my father. If I did not take it, I turned my back on my own strength. As it happened, I wanted my father too much. I chose the second option long ago, and only many years later did I begin seriously to undo that choice.
It is true that on me fall the expectations and responsibilities of the oldest daughter from all those generations of women whose memories I inherit. I suppose this is why sometimes I feel myself to be a failure in the family in some important respects. Though the biscuits I bake are as good as they come, and I can bake rolls from my great-grandmother’s roll recipe any woman in the family would be proud of, I don’t live in Union County. I am not a matriarch. I feel myself to be a branch still green but fallen off the family tree-the feeling Eve had, perhaps, as she made a life for herself and her family outside of Eden. Though I hang on to the memories of my great-aunt’s and grandmother’s generation, I don’t keep track of my cousins as I should. I’m a city woman. I can’t can. I don’t quilt. I certainly don’t know how to work like my aunts and my mother.
Even in that far off time, however, when I was twelve I began to cast in my lot with Kentucky women. I had a second cousin my own age named Sam. Sam was my great aunt Blacky’s son. He was mean and didn’t like my Yankee mouth and cringing shyness. One day, out in the yard behind his house on the hill he grabbed my two pinkie fingers and he starting bending, outward. “I’m gonna bend your fingers till you yell ‘uncle,'” he taunted. I didn’t say a word. “Say uncle!” he said. While I felt a fire in my joints, I gritted my teeth and said nothing. “Say uncle, say uncle!” he yelled, and he kept on bending. By the time he was finished my fingers were bent so out of shape they never recovered. They hurt all through high school, and they are still misshapen.
After my aunts and mama and I finished our morning packing to get her out of the big house and into the little condo, we had a lunch unthinkable from my childhood-fancy chicken salad, a green salad with an intricate dressing, and croissants. While we scraped the plates into the garbage disposal and put them into the new dish-washer, I mentioned my memories of Aunt Suzie’s biscuits. “Oh, no,” she laughed. “I never make biscuits any more. They’re not so good for you, you know. They have too much cholesterol, and we’re all too fat, anyway.”
Astounded, I mull over the meaning of what Aunt Suzie said. Earlier, and inexplicably, she has told me how proud of me my aunts are because of the work I do. For years within my own family, I have felt embarrassed by my university work. I have avoided talking about it, as though it were a not very good substitute for the practice of the real skills of the women of the family. What does it mean that she doesn’t make biscuits because they’re not good for you? Has she just taken away from me the power of my womanhood or has she set me free? Feeling a bit betrayed by the aunts I thought I had myself betrayed, I wonder over the mystery of time passing, and of cooked food.
Roberta Bondi is professor of church history at the Candler School of Theology at Emory University. She is the author of To Love as God Loved: Conversations with the Early Church (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1987). Illustrations with this article are from John Egerton’s Southern Food (New York: Knopf; 1987), photographed Al Clayton.