A thanksgiving Letter to the Woman Who Taught Me to Love Southern Food

Mariah’s Skillet Cornbread just after being poured into an extremely hot, seasoned black iron skillet.

Dear Mariah:

Even though you’ve been gone for most my life, I wanted you to know you still play a big part in it, especially now at Thanksgiving. As the woman who made my grandfather’s house run smoothly, you were a queen of a special realm. My earliest memories are of eating your lovingly and expertly made meals, and thinking that no one in the entire world could out cook you.

Walking into my grandfather’s kitchen and smelling yeast rolls, frying chicken, and gravy roux was the most sublime, beautiful thing I remember of those childhood days. These days I find myself thumbing through recipes my mother transcribed from you as you cooked. These few stained pages in her own handwriting are part of the chain that leads to you, to the cooks that taught you in Monroe, Louisiana, and the cooks that taught them. It’s a chain that goes back hundreds of years.

One of the smartest things my mother ever did was purchasing a copy of Old MacDonald’s Farm Cookbook from the farm where you were born. My mother told me many of the recipes were similar or the same as yours, and that’s why my copy is battered and falling apart. I knew from your own mouth how that farm called you back, visiting with cousins, aunts, uncles, and the communion of shared food.

I think my mother was too spoiled, and perhaps too intimidated, by your culinary skills to learn how to cook. The lord knows her own mother had no reason to put on an apron and cook when you had the skills and organization. Mother used to joke that she could burn water. My dad fell in love with a beautiful blue-eyed girl who had no idea how to put a meal together, and he once saved a biscuit she’d made to regale his friends. You can imagine how well that went, and how little inspired my mom was to improve. My mother was your baby too, and you probably wanted to bean my dad with your best skillet the first time you heard the story for yourself.

Which brings me to cookware. Who else but you taught my mother the value of black cast iron cooking, especially using a big skillet to make your unbelievably delicious yellow cornbread? You also taught me the surprise of picking up a lid on a stock pot and finding the most blissfully beautiful beef vegetable soup, made from Sunday’s roast scraps, vegetable leftovers, and a huge amount of skill. That soup alone should have won you a spot in American History.

When I cook Thanksgiving dinner, I feel you and my mother (who incidentally taught herself to be a very good cook once you’d passed away) following me through the kitchen. My mother would be tut-tutting my egg peeling, you would be tut-tutting any use of premade commercial cornbread dressing mix, and my Papaw would be patting his feet impatiently wanting to know when dinner would be on. At least two of you would be wanting why I have no bacon grease to cook with.

Over fifty-five years after the first time your beautiful brown eyes first saw me, I send my love and thanks. Happy Thanksgiving to you in that huge Southern kitchen in the sky, where I know you’re telling the angels how to make perfect turkey and dressing.

Love,

Beabe

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