It is well known, by this point, that I married a Yankee from Connecticut. One who never knew the joy of comfort foods until he came South.
John Tinker, who adored the ground his impressive mother, Miss Ruth, walked on, is honest about her shortcomings as a cook.
“She wasn’t a good cook. We mostly ate food from a can. But we didn’t starve.”
To this day, Tink loves to eat toast like his mother made it: burned absolutely black. In fact, at times he will say, “Oh, I’m craving a piece of really burned toast.”
One of my dear Southern friends, and one of the best cooks I’ve ever known, told the story of the first time she made oatmeal for her California-raised husband. He ate a few bites then looked up and said, “This is okay but where are the lumps? Oatmeal is suppose to have lumps in it.” That’s the way his mama always made it so that’s how he thought it should be.
When a family death took us to Greenwich, Connecticut, I decided to do what all Southerners do in the time of sadness: cook a big meal of comfort foods.
“You’re not going to use Velveeta in anything, are you?” asked one of the concerned Yankees.
Well, no. But one of the most comforting dishes my family enjoys is a pot of chicken noodle soup delivered from a made-up recipe of Mamas’s that includes egg noodles, Campbell’s cream of chicken soup, milk, and plenty of Velveeta. Yummy.
It was not easy to take Southern cooking north of the Mason-Dixon line. Have you ever tried to buy Crisco, Duke’s mayonnaise, and buttermilk in a fancy town where yoga classes are attended as religiously as we assemble at church and white flour is considered “junk food”?
After three grocery stores, I said to Tink, “I can only find ‘healthy’ flour and mayonnaise and there is not a can of solid Crisco anywhere. I guess I’ll just have to make-do as best I can.”
I did find buttermilk but I reason that’s because it’s probiotic and someone figured it was healthy and should be stocked.
With solid butter, I made biscuits, then used the mayonnaise paste in Aunt Ozelle’s macaroni and cheese. I whipped up okra coated in flour and scrambled with chopped-up nuts. Just as I was preparing to fry it, Tink said, “I don’t think they’ll like the smell of grease in the air.”
So, I baked it. They loved it but I said, “You oughta taste it fried.”
I placed all the food on the stove and said to those who gathered, “Dip you up a plate as we say in the South.”
“What’s this?” asked someone as he lifted a spoon from the pot.
“Pinto beans. They’re good for you. A staple of the South. They kept my people from starving during the Depression.”
To be honest, it looked real good but it was only so-so with the imitation ingredients and Tink’s restriction on my frying. But to the Yankees, it was like manna sent from above. They ate and they greatly enjoyed.
Several days later, I got an email from a doctor who was there for dinner. He lives in northern Florida where rules of civility dictate that Duke’s mayonnaise be sold. I had told him that Duke’s was the secret ingredient for the macaroni and cheese.
He went home, Googled my recipe, and made it for his family. “This is the best stuff I’ve ever tasted,” he wrote. “Yours was superb but what a difference Duke’s made. This will surely be served in heaven and no one will care about the calories.”
The next time a bereavement calls us out of the South’s land, I will have an emergency kit ready to go with us.
I will not be leaving home without solid Crisco, White Lily flour and a jar of Duke’s.
[Ronda Rich is the best-selling author of the new book, “Mark My Words: A Memoir of Mama.” Visit www.rondarich.com to sign for her free weekly newsletter.]