Of the many gifts the Bolejacks received this Christmas, the one I found especially touching was peanut brittle. It came from neighbor Kay Carroll, who came calling a day or two before Christmas.
Kay’s late mother, Vitus, who lived just down the street, was known for her peanut brittle, and she often shared some with us. Making the tasty treat, Kay said, was one way of keeping his mother’s memory alive. What a nice tribute to a mother from her son.
Given how good the brittle was, I can safely say I’m not as accomplished a cook as Kay, but cooking is one way I keep my mother’s memory alive too.
With a family of five to feed on modest incomes, my mom was a meats-and-potatoes cook, but she was a good one. I remember in particular her cornbread, which she made in a cast-iron skillet; her pinto beans, which we dressed up with her chow-chow (a relish for people who don’t know); and her many desserts, including strawberry pudding, chocolate pie, peach cobbler and sour cream-coconut cake, which my friend Perry called her “rotten cake” because, ideally, it was supposed to rest in the fridge a few days before eating.
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Like many Southern cooks, my mom was also a master of fried chicken and fried pork chops, and anyone who ever had her sugar cookies will tell you they were the best they ever ate.
My mom’s lone regret as a cook was that she could not make good biscuits, at least none as good as the ones her mother and mother-in-law made. In her defense, that was a decidedly high standard she was trying to meet. My maternal grandmother made traditional buttermilk biscuits; my paternal grandmother made what she called pawn bread, the perfect pairing with fresh tenderloin.
I can’t hold a candle to any of the cooks in my life. The first time I tried one of my mom’s recipes – for her strawberry pudding – I failed miserably. Instead of an enticing pink, it was gray, a failure my mom attributed to my use of fresh strawberries instead of frozen ones.
But still I try, because every time I go into the kitchen, I’m keeping my mom’s memory alive. That’s especially true with one of her recipes, but to some extent, that’s the case with anything I make.
By the way, this Christmas, I shared one of my mom’s recipes with those neighbors who were kind enough to help us with some much-need yard work last summer. Every Christmas, my mom would send the Johnston County Bolejacks home with sugar cookies and Chex mix. I know better than to try to replicate the perfection that were my mom’s sugar cookies, but I think we made a passable Chex mix for the neighbors. I’ve seen them all in the days since Christmas, and they seemed none the worse for wear.
In any event, I wanted to thank my neighbors for their help last summer, and in doing so, I was able to keep my mom’s memory alive. I suspect I got as much out of the Chex mix as my neighbors did.