Opla's Kitchen

Opla's kitchen was all about her husband, Lowery. I do not think that cooking was her first love; rather it was a requisite thing that expanded with the years and crowded out the things she really liked doing such as gardening, reading, and socializing with the neighboring cousins. Her daughters seemed imbued similarly and between Mother and her girls there was never the drive to teach cooking nor the desire to receive the instruction; only a mutual enjoyment of the food with never a thought about being finicky eaters - - unless we children spotted a speck of cream in our milk! Maybe Mother thought that we would intuit cooking techniques when we were out of the home and on our own, but speaking for myself, I never did.

The life that once existed in all its substantiveness there on McCord is now as gone as yesterday without so much as a stone or blade of grass left as a testimony to our parents' happy endeavors there. Perhaps it's all for the better because our memories tend to enhance and enlarge those things that we choose to treasure for always and a healthy amnesia takes care of all the mundane things which are not worth stirring up. So the snug kitchen which must have looked as grand as a throne room to our mother when it was new gradually expanded in its abilities then, and in our minds now, to take in the produce of four acres of rich, river loam from which Daddy mined a cornucopia of exactly the foods he and Mother liked to eat.

Her kitchen was not designed nor was there ambience in any way that would cause it, in later years, to bring up warm, fuzzy memories in the minds of all her children; only her cooking could do that. Warm, yes in the temperature of the kitchen on a hot August afternoon in Bakersfield when "king" cornbread was baking in the 500 degree oven. That will be our most trying memory. Fuzzy, yes when it comes to total recall of the ingredients that went into her corn and bacon soup, etc. However, only her style of cooking comes clearly to mind decades later as seasonal appetites yearn for Kentucky Wonder string beans in the summertime, simmered slowly for hours in a tasty, reduced broth the flavor of which was headed up with rendered salt pork drippings, and the final product all garnished with chopped sun-ripened tomatoes, pungent yellow onions and hot, steamy, buttered cornbread crumbs lavished over the whole "presentation" on the diner's plate. Surrounding the bean mosaic on the plate were two orange-colored crescents of peeled cantaloupe still warm from Daddy's melon field. Since there were lots of leftover slices of Elberta peaches from the day's canning work, Opla might make a large juicy cobbler with generous amounts of sugar and cinnamon; topped on her bowl only, with a clot of sweet cream from out of the churn container. At the close of this typical daily repast Opla and Lowery would retire to their rocking chairs and radio programs and a "team" of designated dish washers and dryers would head for the kitchen where an assault of a different kind awaited the senses.

It was not uncommon after a meal for Opla's smallish u-shaped kitchen to morph from being a no nonsense food-preparing center into a tiny theatre of war consisting of three opposing warriors: the table clearer, the dish washer and the dryer, with this phenomenon happening fairly regularly until the siblings all grew up and flew the nest. Stooping to conquer in the arena of dishwashing politics was a thing concerning which none of us harbored nagging scruples; we aimed for gaining the prize of petty victories such as who finished first, to give one example. No Pollyannaish greatness of heart had infected any of the children - - only a strong, self willed "survival of the fittest" attitude which emerged strongly at dish washing time and for the express purpose of making sure that the warrior did not do more than her allotted, designated, specific work assignment. The shots fired across the bow were those of parting shots; of having the last word, revived discussions of supposed manipulations etc., all of which trivialities Mother pretended not to hear.

Opla seemed ignorant of the enlightened concept of tidying up as she cooked because she stuck to her priority of getting the food to the table as hot as possible. This left the kitchen warriors confronting a battlefield of chaos before they even took their posts. Preliminary skirmishes were gotten over and soon sounds of heavenly harmony from the kitchen trio rang out above the clatter of banging dishes, the evening radio broadcasts in the dining room, phone calls and the piano playing in the living room. The heavenly harmony was sourced in a well-soaked-and-dried church hymnal which we propped up on two spigots coming out from the sink wall whose only decoration was a California Farmer Calendar; the kind with a folded up pocket at the bottom which held receipts, and the upper week days showing the waxing and waning of the moon; which things our folks followed. Camp songs, church hymns, wedding favorites such as "I Love You Truly", and pop stuff depending on which generation of kids made up the crew at the time were rendered at the sink and I don't understand how the folks stood it. Ours was truly a noisy household and "noise" is Monteen's (she is very hard of hearing now) most enduring memory of living at 201 McCord. For instance, I remember one evening when Reinette dropped and broke the whole stack of plates on her way into the kitchen. There was a second of complete silence following the crash.

In the summer months the delicious fig varieties, grape varieties (I could cry when I recall the quirky, exotic taste of those fat Muscat grapes), all the stone fruits and some berries too provided fun visits from cousins who came to stand around under the trees and eat tree-ripened things. The summer kitchen garden was fairly limited in variety compared to what the seed magazines showed. Daddy's food tastes were not adventurous so we ate what he ate such as corn, string beans, tomatoes, onions, cucumbers and squash. Some years he did melons and at one time he had two hives of bees under a plum tree which, besides pollinating all his trees, provided us with stings as well as wonderful comb honey for our breakfast biscuits and butter.

What I describe now as a cornucopia of tasty foods was perceived by we well-fed-indulged children as portents of hard work or nuisances standing in the way of our own pursuits of personal happiness. We would much rather have been lying on a bed in the cool basement reading Gone with the Wind or a forbidden comic book of Buck Rogers than to be standing in front of the hot stove in June on which was a very large pan of slowly cooking fig jam which required our stirring arm to be wrapped to the shoulder in a dish towel as a guard against hot spatters, while the other hand would be holding open a large novel and one eye was fastened on the clock to guard against any overtime on the shift being spent at that irksome chore.

As the pains of child birthing are quickly forgotten in the joy of beholding the newborn, so the sight of a white table cloth on which rests a mahogany-hued jar of fig jam embellished with bits of bright-yellow lemon rind throughout, banishes the memory of its origin. Likewise the first taste of apricot jam flecked throughout with tiny chunks of the kernel - - an inspiration of genius - - which imparted a slight taste of bitter almond and interrupted the possibility of any cloying sweetness. We children thrilled to the thought (myth?) that the kernels contained arsenic. Plum jellies of many varietal hues were transmuted from a dripping pillow case full of cooked plum pulp suspended by a large nail from a back porch rafter into a limpid, jellied mound on our biscuit. My first memory of seeing such a thing was that I thought that I could speed up the one little drip at a time by giving a gentle squeeze above the drip. Mother's voice from the kitchen window checked that inclination, explaining that to squeeze the pulp would cloud up the jelly.

As if it wasn't enough that we kids had to sometimes forego the pleasures of our endless summers of strolling off to the river with the neighbors to dip our feet in the weir, or holing up with a book in the basement or lounging around in the shade eating whatever was ripe at the time, here came the peach trees dropping their fruit everywhere and worst of all Mother's activity level picking up with her gathering in of canning supplies and harnessing up her work force of reluctant kitchen warriors so that nobody escaped. Under the spreading branches of the white fig tree we sat surrounded with tubs of large, aromatic, fuzzy cling peaches to be peeled; peeling, eating peach slices, gossiping with cousins who dropped in (it seemed to me they always had more leisure time than we did) laughing, complaining and receiving Mother's words of wisdom which, regretfully, rolled right off us like water off a duck's back. The month of August brought the ripening of the Elberta peaches which were temperamental to work with but they also made into unforgettable cobblers. Opla usually made a soft biscuit dough for the cobbler crusts.

September meant that if there were any grapes left from the children's foraging Opla would make those peculiar cobblers of Thompson seedless grapes which had turned golden by then. It also began to bring sighs and complainings from we nestlings who felt sated with beans, cornbread, garden stuffs, fried chicken, roasts - - fruits of all kinds - - "Why do we always eat the same thing?!

The scriptures say "God gives rain to the just as well as the unjust", and likewise He continues to lavish His bounties on the grateful as well as the ungrateful; thus the stores of our earthly father's house enlarged in the fall and winter time with the ongoing dairy products of Opla's treasured little Jersey-Guernsey cow in the back pasture. The kitchen garden now showcased rows of various tasty winter greens among which baby ducks dashed after insects. Mother's belief was that the insects did more harm than did the ducklings' occasional nibbling on some leaves.

In the dead of winter while the tree limbs were being pruned and the bees were hibernating you could find a couple of hams hanging to cure from the basement rafters and under those was a barrel of salted fat pork and sides of bacon. Along one wall of the basement stood shelves of canned peaches which formed the core of our after-school snacks.

On cold winter evenings when the valley fog made skinny people like the Poteetes hang around the lighted stoves and the younger kids would trace art work in the condensation of the window panes, it would be common to hear Mother pounding flour into a round steak for a dinner of chicken-fried steak and gravy. She made dark, brown gravy well seasoned with salt and pepper, mashed potatoes done right with cream and butter, and she often made a favorite salad of mine of wilted lettuce and bacon. To turn out these kinds of dinners Opla did not quibble over how much frying was needed and whether or not the stove was getting grease splatters, nor the calorie count of the potatoes and gravy. She only knew that she had conquered another daily meal.

The seasons moved along with plump pyramids of salmon croquettes, again with gravy, fried pork chops seasoned with sage accompanied with yams, roast pork loins with buttered boiled turnips, apple pie, new potatoes and peas in the springtime - - a dish I never managed to re-create because I had begun to read health books - - an annual springtime treat of sweetened Sassafras tea for the purpose of "cleansing our blood", and Sunday dinners after church of chicken and dumplings for the purpose of using "that fat hen who wasn't laying anymore."

One winter evening when I was older and the family numbers greatly reduced, Mother, with no announcement beforehand, brought forth another one of her stealthy culinary triumphs; a pretty bowl with two pearly-white pigs feet perfectly cooked and resting atop an emerald bed of boiled turnip greens. Inwardly I was horrified to think that people would eat pigs feet of all things and our folks, who disdained euphemisms, did not try to soften the blow by calling them "trotters." They also would use the word "slop bucket" (for slopping the pigs) instead of "garbage pail" for instance. That attractive dish of pigs feet accompanied by crusty cornbread and little pickled beets and who knows what else, was very, very good.

I used the word "stealthy" apropos to Mother's way of editing the way information got to her children. She did not want our minds to be troubled with money matters (we still grew up thinking we were poor) and the names of illnesses seldom passed her lips probably for fear that one of us might seize on the idea for whatever misguided reason. Besides chicken eggs we had duck eggs galore and never mind that they made into wonderful custards and scrambled eggs, we children wanted nothing to do with them so she would slip them to us on the sly. Our same attitude applied for eating most organ meats so the Italian butcher rejoiced to take all of those things.

Our river environment provided crayfish and frog legs for some of our neighbors, but the thought of such things wracked us Poteetes with shudders. If a catfish, which food Mother fancied, and we had never so much as tasted, had ever appeared on the kitchen counter its ugliness would have prevented our ever letting her put it into the frying pan.

Breakfasts were limited to about four things: biscuits with fried eggs and bacon and white gravy, biscuits with fried eggs and ham with red-eye gravy, biscuits with fried eggs and oatmeal, and rarely, pancakes. The ham with red-eye gravy was our all-time favorite because the eating of the gravy demanded that sugar be lavished upon it. Sopping it up on a large chunk of soft, hot biscuit, was the real way to eat it. The "red eye" is formed when a little coffee is poured onto the hot pan juices after the ham fat has already been drained onto a hot platter. As soon as the coffee and juices have blended, immediately pour them into the platter of fat and there should be a clear delineation between the "red eye" and the clear fat.

The wine-making venture by the folks which culminated with a promising batch of grape wine being poured out on the ground for conscience's sake ("We have ten kids here") - - the failed apple pies which had been "sweetened" with salt or "spiced" with cayenne pepper, the wearisome Christmas goose - - there were plenty of culinary catastrophes which filled in the gaps between the triumphs. I think that all of Opla's kitchen endeavors and inspirations were done for Lowery's sole appreciation and nourishment; we knew he was her hothouse flower and valued food critic of their regional preferences and we children who thrived and flourished at their table were like privileged guests with standing invitations to the banquet.

Some of the Warriors