Sunday, July 25, 2010

Tomatoes & Gravy

In his memoir, On Native Ground, American poet Jim Barnes has woven history, memory, and legend into a poetic retelling of growing up in rural southeastern Oklahoma, throughout the 1940s.

My family was a bit farther north: northeastern Oklahoma and southeastern Kansas. My father was born in 1923 in Drumright, Oklahoma; my mother in 1931 in Peru, Kansas; me in Coffeyville, Kansas (1957); and many hours of my childhood were spent in Caney and Independence, Kansas, where the grandparents lived. So I am very familiar with much of the territory and way of life that Barnes describes, if not entirely from my own experience, then from my parents' and grandparents' memories and stories. I especially appreciated his explanation of his family's Choctaw heritage, and the transplanted Mississippi Choctaw influence in Oklahoma, right down to the "chicken, gravy, baked sweet potatoes, and hominy grits" (40 - 41).

As my older sister Peg has been known to say, maybe we weren't really from the South, but we grew up far enough south to know about Southern Cooking and to qualify as G.R.I.T.S. (Girls Raised in the South). When I was living in Philadelphia, a number of restaurants specialized in a "Soul Food" menu; or the neighborhood might have a "Soul Food" fundraiser or consciousness - raising dinner, the idea being that these were "Southern American" novelty dishes that we Yankees couldn't possibly know anything about.

Well, I'm sure you can guess the items on the menu! I have to say, I never saw okra (for more about G.R.I.T.S. & okra, scroll down to previous post) but everything else is exactly what you would expect: fried chicken, spinach, black - eyed peas, cornbread, and the like. My dad and his brothers loved cornbread and milk for breakfast, my mom was only too happy to make fried cornmeal mush for us kids, and a dish of deep-fried hush puppies bursting with whole kernel corn and covered in syrup was a special treat.

To this day we all crave tomatoes to go along with our biscuits and gravy -- better yet, just skip the biscuits and put the gravy right on top of the tomatoes: a meal in itself, good for breakfast, lunch or dinner! My younger sister Di has even been known to take along a fresh garden tomato when going out for breakfast, order biscuits and gravy, and then suddenly produce the tomato from her purse! Surprise! We love her for that! I think this kind of menu planning pretty much locks in our status as G.R.I.T.S. In fact, when a friend of hers saw Di spoon the gravy over the tomato, she said, "Southern Girl!"

Tomatoes on the Vine, just moments after a summer rain

Even so, on "Soul Food Day," the moms at Ben & Sam's inner - city grade school seemed astonished that a white Anglo - Saxon such as myself knew how to make cornbread using bacon grease or that our family ate black - eyed peas for good luck on New Year's Day. I guess some consider those dishes to be "Soul Food," but as I told my neighbors back in West Philly -- where I come from, we don't call this stuff "soul food," we just call it "food" and everybody eats it -- no racial divide. Sometimes I think they didn't even believe me! But it's the truth! If you don't believe me, just ask my sisters!

G.R.I.T.S. -- Di, Kit, Peg

For more southern food stories and recipes, see Peg's new blog:
Peggy Linn Carriker-Rosenbluth
Friends and Family Recipes

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