Whenever a Southern woman is feeling lost or has a need to busy her hands, more often than not, she will make her way to the kitchen the way a sinner will run to the altar.
“Idle hands are a devil’s workshop,” Mama always said.
It was pitch dark on a winter’s eve and I was piddling in the kitchen. I had roasted a pan of broccoli followed by a pan of toasted cauliflower. While they cooked, I cleaned out the fridge and wiped cabinets of coffee spills. Tink sat at the enormous handmade table – with the Lazy Susan – that had been his father’s and read news and checked emails.
I felt his eyes on me and looked up. He was watching intently as I wiped the kitchen island.
“Did your mama make you clean the kitchen?” he asked.
I nodded. “Every night when we finished supper, she’d say, ‘Now, Ronda, clean up the supper dishes. I’m goin’ back to the sewing room.”
It was usually around 6:30 or 7 p.m. and Daddy had not come home from the garage yet. Mama took herself back to the sewing room that she had installed in a guest bedroom. Her sewing customers sat on the bed pushed against the wall and talked to Mama as she wrote down their orders and their measurements.
Her sewing machine was under a window that faced the front yard. When Daddy’s old truck slowed to a stop and turned carefully into the driveway, shining his headlights toward the window, she finished the seam she was stitching, clipped the thread, turned off the machine light and pushed back her chair.
By this time, I had scrubbed the cast iron skillets, washed the dishes – Mama never owned a dishwasher and there still isn’t one in her old home – and wiped down the stove and counter.
“Ronda, hand me a plate,” she said as she got the old Coca-Cola tray on which she served Daddy supper every night. “I need to dip your daddy up a plate.”
Then she’d turned to Daddy who was hanging up his hat over the calendar with the signs of the moon that our people faithfully followed and asked, “Ralph, do you want buttermilk or sweet milk?”
Daddy settled into his chair, boots off and tray in his lap. While he ate, Mama went to the sewing room and finished some finger work that needed to be done like hemming or buttons sewn on. Then she joined us in the den while I watched TV, Daddy read the newspaper and Mama enjoyed being her family.
When Tink was gone for several weeks on a television shoot, I increasingly found myself in the kitchen at night, baking a pie for someone or fixing food that I could eat on for a couple of days. I’d sweep the floor then mop it. It seemed to take forever for me to quit and leave the kitchen. Sometimes it’d be midnight.
It was comforting to me.
From the time a child is born to a Southern mother, she will be taught both the necessities and the joys of a kitchen. When I was barely old enough to see above the kitchen table, I’d stand and watch Mama as she grabbed a hand of lard or Crisco, mash it into the White Lily flour, pour buttermilk in, and mix it together with her hands. No spoon. Then, she’d pinch off a piece of dough and deftly make the prettiest biscuit you’d ever seen.
When I was 10, I cooked the family’s Thanksgiving turkey and trimmings, then baked a chocolate layer cake. I found an old cookbook with a somewhat elaborate recipe for Swedish meatballs and rice. Mama always laughed about my “specialty.”
These days as we turn increasingly to that which is familiar, it isn’t just the food that is comforting.
It’s the kitchen itself and all the memories it cooks up.