Comfort Food for the Southern Soul
By Cappy Hall Rearick
As much as I loathe and despise hot weather, without the dreaded heat there would be no summer vegetables. There would be no reason for me to beg Charleston friends to stop by Stono Market and bring me some Johns Island Better Boys; no reason to ignore those extra pounds I put on while gobbling up BLT’s smeared with an inch of Dukes Mayo on Miss Sunbeam bread.
I have lived many places in this great country of ours, but I have never eaten a ripe summer tomato as wonderful as those large red beauties grown on John’s Island soil in South Carolina. I am not in the habit of doling out free Yankee kudos either, but I am obliged to admit that New Jersey tomatoes come somewhat close to ours --the operative word being "somewhat." Like their Carpetbagger ancestors, however, I figure those Jersey growers marched down to Charleston and stole some of our tomato dirt to take back up north. History tends to repeat itself.
When I was growing up, summertime meant that local backyard gardeners came to our door each day selling quart jars of shelled butterbeans, Kentucky Wonder string beans, field peas, okra and ripe tomatoes.
Mama kept dollar bills and some change in the proverbial cookie jar earmarked for vegetables. It was always a woman who came, usually with a kid shyly peeking around her skirt tail. Ever grateful that she wouldn’t need to sit on the front porch in the South Carolina summer heat and shell butterbeans, Mama never haggled over the price. She cooked ham flavored butterbeans and a steamer of white rice almost every day, daddy’s favorite food. He would rather have another helping of butterbeans than Mama’s chocolate layer cake, the best anybody ever baked.
When I took my then husband, the token Yankee in our family, to meet my relatives, he dared to bad mouth okra. He might just as well have peed on Robert E. Lee’s grave.
“What did he say,” hollered Aunt Polly who claimed to have a hearing problem until the subject of food came up. “Sounded like he said okra was slimy.”
That’s exactly what he’d said. And to make matters worse, he ignored me kicking the daylights out of his shin and kept on digging deeper holes for himself, ones I wanted to crawl into. “I’ll never understand how you people can put those slimy things in your mouth, let alone swallow them.”
I looked around my mother’s large round kitchen table where six of my Southern born and raised relatives were staring holes straight through him. Uh oh, I thought. The South is fixing to rise again.
Aunt Polly swallowed a mouth full of butterbeans and rice, pointed her empty fork at him and warned, “You watch yo’ mouth, boy. Thems fighting words.”
I shoved a dish of macaroni pie at the Yankee. “Have some of this, Sweetie. It’s great.”
Oblivious of the hostile glares being directed at him from around the table, and not knowing that Southerners don’t serve macaroni pie as the entrée, he proceeded to fill up his plate.
“I love Mac and Cheese,” he said, making almost the same Southern social blunder as when he’d asked for UN-sweet tea.
“Um,” I murmured. “That’s what we call macaroni pie. It’s Mama’s and Aunt Polly’s secret recipe that everybody in town would kill for.”
“Oh,” he said as though disappointed. “I prefer the kind that comes in the blue and white box. Make a note of that, Wifeypoo.”
Wifeypoo? Could things possibly get any worse? I waited for Aunt Polly to say something and she didn’t disappoint. “Is he talking about that boxed up Kraft crap?”
Mama, playing the detente card, glared at her and changed the subject. “Polly, did you eat the only pulley bone on the fried chicken? I told you it was for company.” My aunt put on her sanctimonious lizard lips and smiled. “Pass the okra,” she said, “and some more of that delicious, creamy macaroni pie.”
Anytime the temperature hovers over a hundred-degrees and smothering humidity makes the barometer stick at ninety-nine, I depend on fried chicken, butterbeans, okra, sliced tomatoes, homemade macaroni pie, collard greens and gallons of sweet tea to keep me from spontaneously combusting. That kind comfort food is air conditioning to the true Southern soul.
Oh, in case you’re wondering what happened to the token Yankee? You don’t want to know.
Author: Cappy Hall Rearick