Grandmother cooked mostly from memory, relying on her experienced senses—not to mention honed intuition—to tell when things were “just right” in her mixing bowl and oven.
As for a thermometer, who needed it? An eye to the way water drops danced, sizzled, sputtered, and spattered on the stove—or a quick hand inside—told exactly how hot her oven was.
The late Rosa Ellen Lockhart (1900-1984) did not always do things in a chronological or alphabetical order. Grandmother could lay her fingers instantly on nearly any kind of seasoning or canned goods she required for her evening meals.
A pragmatist at heart, the soft-spoken woman believed in doing things naturally—the way her mother and grandmother did them in the past, though she seemed to have more chores than time.
Still, she he did all her own kitchen work.
And the family matriarch believed cleaning up as soon as possible. She was quick to wash every pot, pan, kettle, or any utensil as soon as it was emptied and still hot. She claimed it saved her labor in the long run, but I think it was just from force of habit.
Grandmother could scald and pluck a chicken. She could cut it up neatly for the skillet.
Her roasts, stews and soups were made to order. She always seemed to have a pot of some delightful fare brewing or stewing on the backburner of her stove. Those venerable and delicious recipes have withstood the test of time and tongue—and the sturdy generations took them to their hearths, hearts, and tummies.
Country folk of all affiliations laughed with a warm and kindly spirit as they filed in to take their seats at the supper table, remembering their roots and traditions.
After the evening meal, the parlor was alive with old family tales and folklore. Men were men and women seemed made of even sterner stuff.
Grandmother’s house was a shining light, a beacon of sensitivity. It signified a golden age of hospitality and friendliness.
Guests were invited to come in and find a chair and sit by the fire.
There were no strangers or outsiders. Everyone in the community had his own individual place and identity.
Grandmother also had mastered those everyday practical skills— roasting a chicken and baking bread, planting flowers, and getting a garden to grow.
I always marveled at the lessons she had to share. She knew how to make a house a home.
She believed in having a routine and sticking to it. Saturday was cleaning day—the bed linens were changed; the laundry was washed, ironed and ready to go for the next week; the floors were scrubbed; windows were washed; and all the work was done before the family went out to have fun. They did not have to worry about heavy-duty chores for another week.
Oh yes, she was a good hand at mending. She repaired our clothes and extended their lives by knowing how to patch jeans, sew on buttons and repair busted zippers.
Forget about dilly-dallying: Get up and get busy. Get the house straightened right away. Start off by making your bed first thing.
Expect the unexpected was her mantra: She was always ready for whomever might drop by in the afternoon; it was something she learned from her own grandmother. The home was kept tidy so that when guests popped in, there was no need to scurry around.
Above all else, she taught us: Have some respect, whether it is for people or for belongings, treat everything properly.
Love your linens, she would say. Dress a table before having company for dinner.
And quality always counted. She would save to buy the nicest things she could afford—then care for them. She kept furniture dusted and protected from sharp-edged traffic.
She would hang her family’s clothes to dry on the clothesline on a sunny day, so they would smell sweet like the sunshine.
She also was a teacher: She believed that parents should get their children started with chores early, teaching them skills as they did the tasks. She allowed kids help to make the beds, wash the dishes, put away the laundry.
She believed in making a fresh start every day.
In truth, grandmothers still are masters of handing out hugs and kisses. They are also master of the kitchen or using a needle and thread in the laundry room, or at handing out advice.
They know how to make a home and keep it in running order. And often, they know how to do it without spending much money.
Younger generations seem to have missed out on some of the lessons that their grandmothers knew so well.
And few things in the world are as wonderful as a pan of cornbread and a night spent with grandparents.
I loved the nights when a bedtime snack was cornbread and milk: crisp cornbread dropped into my glass of cold milk and eaten with a spoon.
A good cornbread should be light, crumbly, and just a tad sweet.
My grandmother and great grandmother knew how to bake cornbread—in an iron skillet.
Grandmother Rosa would pull a hot skillet out of her kitchen stove and call out, “Cornbread’s ready! You’d better get it while the gettin’s good!” In other words, if we did not hurry, we might not get any.
When she served her cornbread up hot, I loved to put a pat of butter on it and watch it soak into the corny goodness. You wanted to eat it right at that moment before it cooled off.
My granddad, the late Albert Johnson Blankenship (1894-1978) liked to have his cornbread and “sweet milk” before he went off to bed.
He would crumble it into a glass of milk and drink it. Then he would scrape the breadcrumbs from the bottom of the glass with a spoon.
That is how I learned to eat it.
When my nephews Adam and Ryan Wood spent the night at our house, we all usually had a glass of milk and cornbread before we hit the hay. I did not have to coax them into eating milk and bread—their granddad, the late Wilson (“Papaw”) Wood, taught them how to do that when they stayed at his house.
Papaw Wood was renowned for his cornbread. He ate it with his vittles of beef stew, vegetable soup, homemade chili, and chicken and dumplings.
If you stopped by his house in Daniels in the afternoon, you always left with a full stomach. Papaw liked to cook, and he grew practically everything he needed for his table fare in his own garden behind his house.
When you sat down at his table for a bowl of pinto beans, white beans, bird-eye beans, or green beans, you naturally reached into the bread pan for a slice of hot cornbread to go with it. A few green onions from his garden topped off a country-style cuisine that had no equal in the community.
A colleague and fellow educator in Raleigh County told me on one occasion that he liked his milk and bread with a few onions diced up in the bottom of the glass. I had not heard of that before, so I asked my mom about it and she told me that her dad, the late Sidney Stanton Rice, a native of Bon Air, Tenn., used to do the same thing.
So I guess it must be a Southern tradition to add a few onions to milk and cornbread. I am going to try that myself one day. I think I would prefer small green onions fresh from the garden.
I can still see the grin on my grandfather Albert’s face while he was savoring the flavor of cornbread and milk. Grandpa grinned a lot. Most of my memories of him involve him laughing or telling an amusing tale, occasionally a joke on himself.
I remember one time when Grandma Rosa was in a serious mood and could not seem to appreciate his humor that day. She suggested that granddad might have better things to do than sitting around entertaining himself.
He laughed and said, “I’m not trying to entertain myself. I’m trying to entertain you. It doesn’t take much to entertain me. Just give me a place to sit by the fire and read the obituaries, and I’m happy as a lark.”
Grandpa was a big believer in having a positive attitude. I don’t know how many times I heard him say something to the effect that being happy isn’t a circumstance; it’s a decision.
Often, he was right.
I guess the point I am trying to make is this: I wonder if grandparents ever realize the powerful influence they have on the lives of their grandchildren—even if it’s something as simple as eating milk and bread before bedtime.
Perhaps the greatest moral force in the life of most kids is a grandparent.
Even if kids today really do not trust their parents, they seem to trust their grandparents.
I have always considered myself lucky that I grew up with grandparents who were active, energetic and several decades away from life-threatening weakness.
Grandparents certainly are important in giving children a sense of stability and safety. And though I had my grandparents around for more years than many of my friends knew their grandparents, it still was not enough.
Sometimes I drift off and catch a few winks in the afternoon the way they did when I was a boy growing up.
When I wake up, I can still hear Grandma’s musical Lockhart voice as her memory comes flooding back to me: “You’d better get it while the gettin’s good!”
And I realized that she was not only talking about cornbread.
Top o’ the morning!