A Midwesterner’s Introduction to the South and Southern Food — Part 9

A Midwesterner’s Introduction to the South and Southern Food — Part 9

never talked about recipes with my hostess, but I watched her on that visit and subsequent ones. And, I learned a lot by sitting on a step-stool in her kitchen as we talked about all kind of things while she cooked. I learned quickly that a meal without bread was really not a meal. Her biscuits were on the table at least twice a day. A large aged rolling pin sifted with flour flattened the dough to about one inch thick. A small juice glass or biscuit cutter was used to cut out biscuits the size of a large silver dollars and laid on a tray and slid into an oven already heated to 350 degrees. Thirty years of baking had trained her eyes to pull them out at the precise time when they had risen to a maximum height and revealed hints of gold. They were just crisp enough so the eaters, if they listened carefully, could hear a slight cracking of the crust of the biscuit. Light as a feather, it was easy to break them into two pieces. Sometimes they arrived at the table so hot that a slight cloud of steam escaped into the air when they were split on a cool morning. Only a few were placed on the table after everyone was seated and the blessing of the food finished. They didn’t dally around with the prayer…short and to the point. Helena was always arriving with hot biscuits when someone had finished their’s. I was always good for three or four every meal. Usually, butter, sorghum, and some flavor of fresh jam were passed with frequency, sometime without asking.

I learned for the first time the fine art of sopping. Mr. Mark said, “Have you eaten Benton County Sorghum?”

“No, sir, but I am willing to try.“

He pulled a small glass fruit bowl from the lazy Susan in the middle of the table. I could see the shining brown/black contents through the glass. “With your knife, ya make a small opening in a tablespoon of butter, sort of like a tiny fishpond. Then ya spoon in sorghum until the pond is full. Gently take ya fork and work the butter and sorghum into a nice paste.” I watched as he coaxed the dark brown goo off the spoon into the his little pond. 

“After making yellow trails through the brown goo, you’re ready to sop a biscuit into the mix. Don’t get much better than this.” His eyes twinkled as he thought about a second serving of flaky biscuits that he knew were in the oven.

I followed his example carefully, raising the sopped biscuit toward my mouth and caught a whiff of a novel smell that almost made me put it back on the plate. But, I was glad I didn’t. The nearly burned sugar cane syrup mixed with butter aroused quite a delight from my taste buds.

During the same meal I was introduced to some of Mr. Mark’s smoke cured country ham. I watched Ms. Helene cut several slices right off the already baked ham. The little white spots on the meat made me wonder if it was spoiled but i was too scared to ask. Later, I would learn those were signs of a ham right for baking or frying. It would be another visit before I learned the long process of curing a ham and made my first visit to the smoke house. Country ham is definitely one of the greatest treats that came from the heart of the south. It can’t be adequately described. Mr. Mark’s curing was noted throughout the county. It was the saltiest meat I had eaten, but it blended so well with the so-called “wrecked” eggs and the biscuits. Country ham leaves very little residue in the skillet after frying, but when Coca Cola or water is added and boiled down a tad it produces the famous “red-eyed gravy,” a salty juice that seeped easily into my third biscuit and produced another sensation I could hardly wait to repeat on another visit. It was always a chore whether to top my biscuits with the gravy, the sorghum, or some homemade blackberry, strawberry or peach jam.

The Days from Hell

The Days from Hell
Yesterday we drove a hundred miles from Chillcothee, Illinois to Cedar Rapids, Iowa. We saw very little except corn and bean fields on both sides of the interstate. And I remember the “Days from Hell.”
The life of a farm boy in the 50s, 60s and 70s varied significantly from farm life for boys born after the 80s. The most radical difference is the amount of free time. My friends, my sister and I worked many hours over the course of a year. We usually worked at least one hour every day during the school year to complete our chores. This included feeding the livestock, bringing in firewood, driving the tractors on the farm to plow, cultivate, and harvest the crops. Sometimes we milked the cows, mowed the lawn, painted fences and barns, butchered chickens, vaccinated livestock, mixed the slop for the pigs, shoveled and hauled manure from the barns, built and repaired fences, and a host of jobs that someone had to do in order for the farm to function efficiently and produce its maximum potential. Most of the summer we spent in the fields cultivating corn, baling hay, or weeding bean fields. The garden also demand a lot of attention since it provided so much of the food we ate throughout the year. Other times we accompanied Dad to the elevator to purchase feed for the livestock, to load livestock to transport and sell at auction or to purchase additional pigs, cattle or sheep. The needs on the farm always exceeded the time available. This is not to imply we had no time to rest and play. Our parents always gave us enough time to sneak away to fish, hunt, attend community activities, and be active in our school, 4-H, and church activities, but we did work hard when our parents needed us.
Hands-on farm labor gradually declined with mechanization, insecticides, the size of farm implements, and other factors. For example, one tractor can plant and cultivate up to 36 rows of corn currently. Dad’s corn cultivator tilled four rows at a time. The same fieldwork that took me ten hours can now be done in one while sitting inside and air-conditioned cab of a tractor. And many intense labor farm tasks have been almost eliminated. One farm job deserves my best effort to describe it. Its assignment came but a few weeks every fall just prior to and during the soybean harvest. We dreaded this September and October task of “walking the bean fields” more than all others. It paralleled having a cavity filled without Novocain, only multiplied by a thousand.
I will set the stage. It is 6 a.m. on Saturday morning. We know that the temperature will slowly rise to nearly 100 degrees by afternoon. The humidity will surround us like the clothes we wear. The higher it goes the more we will suffer. It will raise our discomfort as the sun blazes down. No one thinks of sun block. We pray it will cloud up and periodically give a slight break from the sun’s intensity. No breeze will bless us—just another day of hell on the farm. We arrive and stand at the edge of the 40-acre field and the deep green leaves of the beans have already started to turn tan as the sun relentlessly sucks the moisture from the leaves. Towering above the beans are a variety of weeds that have also quit growing and begun to dry and harden before shedding their seeds to guarantee next year’s curse upon the land. I wonder if weeds arrived with the serpent in the Garden of Eden. Our brain cannot temper the anticipation of the pain and sweat we will experience for the next ten hours.
We are carrying lethally sharp corn knives to attempt to sever the weeds one at a time as close to the ground as possible. We protect ourselves from the blisters and calluses by using leather gloves. We throw the weeds between the rows so the combine can pass over them to capture the bean pods. The fully-grown weeds of a number of varieties are so numerous I think mostly about the endlessness of our commission. Then I begin to fanaticize that the weeds are enemy soldiers needing to be smitten quickly and without mercy. If I bump up against a cocklebur it will cling to my pants penetrating the fabric and pierce my skin. It is painful and I have to take the time to pull the burs off one-by-one to stop the rhythm similar to receiving one hypodermic shot after another.
We are soaked by perspiration within an hour and any good mood of the early morning has been washed away. Every lap up and back in the field is rewarded with a stop at a thermos jug filled with ice water. If mom is at home cooking, we won’t bother to pour a glass-full; we just picked up the jug and take big swig out of the spout. This habit sticks with me through the years and I still find it much easier to drink straight from the plastic milk bottle—a habit that disgusts most women.
Cutting down milkweeds, jimsom weeds, hog weeds, volunteer corn, and button weeds with a corn knife demands careful attention or a person can easily cut a gash in our leather work shoes. This annual task could stretch out two or three weeks until all the beans were harvested. We never thought of this as child labor at the time; it was simply the responsibility of farm children and hired hands. But in retrospect, those days were truly the work of a “sweat shop.” We rejoiced that the season was short and soon forgotten as the temperature dropped and fall turned to winter. I have no doubt these days “walking the beans” contributed to my decision to leave the farm for another way to make a difference in the world.
Now herbicides are used to kill the weeds before they begin to sprout or grow. Thankfully, what used to be the cause of a hellish time of the year has been converted into weed-free bean fields.

A Midwesterner’s Introduction to the South and Southern Food — Part 8

A Midwesterner’s Introduction to the South and Southern Food — Part 8

Mr. Mark was a curiosity in many ways. Never tried to figure him out, I just waited for the next dose of humble wisdom. He didn’t seem to be a nervous sort, but watching him eat wore me out. He ate like he was sorting through his food with his fork looking for a precious pearl or a poisonous pill. Nothing moved from his plate but what he had pushed it a bit, or turned it over to see what was on the other side. I had never seen anyone take so long to corner a fork of food on a plate. Sometimes, I worried that Mr. Mark’s food would get digested before he ever tasted it. I soon learned that these Southern folks could have cared less about where I had been raised. 

The family all spoke with the drawl that I had become accustomed to hearing at college. A drawl cannot be described, it has to be heard and then you know it can be called “southern.” Every region had gradually developed its own nuances. After two years in Tennessee, s’pect I had already unconsciously picked up some of the words and phrases heard so often on campus. But I still winced when I heard someone say: “I’m fixin to go to the cafeteria.” “Ya want me to carry ya down town.” “Ya-all come by my room after class.” “I recon I should go to bed.” “That prof is slow as molasses.” or “That old bugger was sweatin’ like a sinner in church.” It took me a long time to speak Southern, in fact I never wanted to adopt that accent, it just gradually seeped into my speech. On the other hand, I learned to eat Southern the moment I tasted Ms. Helene’s cookin. 

Is Touring Greece and Greek Isles on Your Bucket List?

Maybe you would like to join my tour to Greece and Aegean Islands scheduled for July 19-August 2, 2019. It is always great to travel. The plans are now complete and the pricing has been finalized. You may read all the details related to costs and itinerary by clicking on the following link or by entering it into your browser: https://visitinggreeceandgreekisleswithawetravel.wordpress.com

.… If you have trouble accessing this page please notify me!
An initial deposit of $200 per person to reserve a seat on the tour is due by August 31, 2018. (I recommend you reserve asap to guarantee a seat since 35 people have express a desire to join us.) Final payment will be due 90 days prior to the tour. Please send your deposits to Bob Watkins, 4592 Spoonbill Court, Marion, IA 52302 as well as informing me by email (watkr@mac.com) of your intention to join the tour.

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Here are the basics of the tour.

Coordinated by Bob Watkins in Conjunction with Gate 1 Travel
July 19-August 2, 2019
Includes a Seven Day Aegean Cruise
Cost: $3,599 to $3,679 (depending on the berth you choose for the cruise–this choice will be made after you pay your deposit)
Single Supplement is $969

A Midwesterner’s Introduction to the South and Southern Food — Part 7

A Midwesterner’s Introduction to the South and Southern Food — Part 7

That weekend introduced me not only to a hospitable family, it brought a new cuisine into my life. Ms. Helene would never have spoken about her southern food as a cuisine even though she had honed her cooking with creativity and a simplistic down home presentation. I have a long list of foods she shared with me over the next few years of my life. I was 19 when I first sat down at her table often centered by an arrangement of Black-eyed Susan’s or Queens Ann Lace in a small room that opened into her kitchen. It was there we broke homemade bread and sipped coffee many times. If Ms. Helene was cooking I wanted to arrive in time to eat.


I grew up on farm food. It was ample and scrupulous. I thought Mom cooked everything in just about every way. Truth was I had no idea what tastes existed outside the state of Iowa, and certainly little from countries like India, Thailand, Mongolia, China, Korea or a host of other countries that cooked with spices rarely found or used in the Midwest. But, I fell in love with Southern home-cooking from the first meal. I can’t remember wine being served with a single meal in those days in homes in the south except for an aperitif in a home in Nashville while in seminary.

Pa Williams  loved to offer up his homemade grape wine mixed with coke, “just so no one would get intoxicated.” A faithful southern gentleman of the Methodist persuasion loved to slip away to his basement for a little afternoon relaxation away from Mom Williams and he loved my company for those little adventures.

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There are cooks and then there are cooks, just like there are preachers and there are preachers. Some preachers have golden tongues, but others preach with a super-natural additive provided by the Holy Spirit. So some sermons tickle the ears and others touch the heart. Ms. Helene had something special that got stirred into anything she put on the table. Who could describe that additive? Her touch upon a dish was almost divine. It certainly wasn’t because she had knives from France, cookware from Sweden, or a Chinese wok. No, her cooking transcended spices, prime cuts of beef, or organic vegetables. I always felt it exuded from her heart of love, joy, compassion during the preparation, plating, and serving. Others could take her recipes and prepare the food with similar ingredients, but anyone that had eaten her food would be disappointed with the result. Best I remember, Ms. Helene seldom sat down at the table, she busied herself making everyone comfortable, initiating points of conversation, and keeping hot biscuits on the table.


A Midwesterner’s Introduction to the South and Southern Food — Part 6

A Midwesterner’s Introduction to the South and Southern Food — Part 6

A Confederate general, named Nathan Bedford Forrest, fascinated me. My interest was held captive by Forest. I found him to be an anomoly in my mind because he professed to be a Christian and yet owned and traded many slaves. I had also read that he was the first grand dragon of the Klu Klux Clan. At that point I had no idea that slavery was endorsed by many Christians that owned plantations or had the money to buy slaves for their businesses or homes. I would never have guessed as a teenager that I would someday walk the high points above the Tennessee River where Forrest had ridden and killed people to protect his freedom to deny black men, women, and children their freedom.


A college friend and I studied his military tactics and recognized his prowess and intelligence in the art of raids. Forrest would appear with his calvary when least expected, strike with overwhelming power, and then disappear into the dense forests not to be seen until his next attack. I became convinced the South would have been much wiser to avoid huge battles with the Union, and instead rely on the strategy of Forrest–the use of small bands of committed Calvary trained in the tactics of surprise and retreat. Fortunately for the unity of the republic, it didn’t and the Confederacy couldn’t compete with the numbers, resources, and leadership forwarded by the Union.

My getaway involved five days in the home of a friend’s family. I was comfortable going to a tobacco and cattle farm because my parents were sharecroppers on a large farm in Iowa. I ogled the house as we came up the driveway. It was so big. It appeared three-times larger than the Iowa tenant house of our four member family. A few towering oaks and maples hid part of the view of the long ranch style house. White columns stood elegantly across the front porch. I guessed many a cup of iced tea had been consumed while relaxing on the inviting porch swing. Despite the fact that Mr. Mark raised tobacco, I would never see a  cigarette or pipe smoked within view of the house. However, I did learn that the Grandma living in the house often snuck away to her bedroom for a dip of snuff—a habit that no one else found tasteful. Few tobacco farmers realized or took seriously that their tobacco plants held a strong potential to lead to mouth, throat, or lung cancer.


A Midwesterner’s Introduction to the South and Southern Food — Part 5

A Midwesterner’s Introduction to the South and Southern Food — Part 5

I was on pins and needles since I was traveling to the Wilson Family Farm to visit Ms. Helene and Mr. Mark. I considered myself a bonafide “Yankee” and wondered how I would be received by people with their roots in the Confederacy.  I had been a student of the Civil War since high school through the books of Pultizer Priize winner Bruce Catton. It was apparent that resentment toward the Union still existed among some families, and vice-versa. Much of the war was fought in the cities and on the farms of Tennessee. Only Virginia experienced more battles. Few people still remember that Tennessee was one of the border states that sent large numbers of men to fight on both sides during the War. A sizable part of the male population — 187,000 Confederate and 51,000 Federal soldiers — mustered in from Tennessee. Just as distrust and bias existed between African and Caucasian Americans, resentment and anger also simmered in the hearts of many people that still had bloodlines back to soldiers that fought for the Union or the Confederacy.


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Photos of Civil War Reenactments






The farm I visited was in close proximity to where Americans fought Americans to the death in numerous battles at Shiloh, Nashville, Franklin, Ft. Donelson, and many others. Over two percent of the population of the United States died in the Civil War. The war was bizarre. Americans slaughtered one another with apprehension but abandon. The battle orders read “Kill or be killed.” Some men wore blue and gray while one or more of their siblings slipped into gray uniforms. A few siblings or cousins are said to have conversed openly around a campfire in a temporary place of peace at night and then fought blindly by day. Some men born in Robertson County probably died in the same county, never seeing another county or state. Much of the history of war was never written. The impossibility of writing about one’s last battle leaves most of the fear, despair, and last moments unrecorded. It was only passed through the oral stories and even that was forgotten or contaminated with time. No one will know the full truth. Even scholars argue about the motivations and details of most of the battles.