Mariah’s Skillet Cornbread just after being poured into an extremely hot, seasoned black iron skillet.
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.
My introduction to banned and censored books came in high school through my mom, Peggy Brady, when she went back to college during my high school years to earn a ME from Louisiana Tech University. She’d taught elementary and middle school for decades, but in our home state that didn’t translate into being able to support financially two or three people. Going back was the path to being able to provide. She decided to do a specialty at Louisiana Tech in Reading, and this is where it started to get really interesting. Besides being a talented and beloved teacher, Mom was also a frustrated artist. She’d taught elementary school in Chicago for a while to be able to attend art classes there, and had studied with a New Orleans painter while working in an office. None of this translated into a career in art, and she eventually turned to education as an outlet for all that creativity.
She decided to do her thesis on Maurice Sendak, and drew large versions of the monsters from “Where the Wild Things Grow” and Mikey from “In the Night Kitchen”. Being able to see her creativity in action was thrilling, and I came away with a deep abiding love for Sendak’s creatures. In our family library cards were a really, really big deal. Mom used her’s from the Jackson Parish Public Library and Louisiana Tech’s college library to bring home Sendak’s books, and it was then my education about censorship and book banning began.
The copy of “In the Night Kitchen” she brought home from the parish library had been censored, altered, by an unknown hand. Mikey suddenly had pants one every page instead of a bare bottom or boy parts. As an artist and right brained individual, she thought it ridiculous and outrageous that a Caldecott Honor recipient had been altered, and “challenged or banned in other parts of the United States”. My mom was a tremendous prude, but Mickey’s nudity didn’t bother her one jot. After teaching little boys for decades, she knew them well enough to realize that little boys, especially very little boys, have no problem with nudity until we make them aware of it.
From this “toe in the water” experience of censorship and book banning, the world opened up to me. How could an individual decide what was correct reading for an entire parish or school system? In our home National Geographic had an almost holy status, and you never cut pictures from them for school reports. Destroy or deface a book? Ye gods no. Even turning down a book page to keep one’s place was considered rude and ridiculous. The printed word was sacred. My teenaged brain focused on the arguments people were using to challenge books in school systems and libraries. Heaven help us if someone was offended by Anne Frank’s menstrual cycle, Mikey’s nudity, and Winne the Pooh’s animal friends. Yes, you read that right. Winne the Pooh is at number 22 of banned books according to the American Library Association’s 100 most banned classic books.
So be a rebel. Read The Diary of Anne Frank, Winne the Pooh, Into the Night Kitchen, Harry Potter, or any other banned book, juvenile or otherwise, for yourself. Use your library card, or go out and get one this week. Ask your librarians for help finding those books others would deny you, and be dangerous to close mindedness and book banners.