Sunday, July 3, 2016
Remembering Saturday Supper
Nothing ever tastes better than the food you grew up with, does it? That's why I was hankering for Saturday food last night. My family always, always, always had the same meal every Saturday; and that's the way things had been done for many generations until this one. I miss it, and I would have done just about anything last night for a taste of that old-fashioned meal.
My mother's mother's family lived in the Carolinas when they first came to America. But a generation or two later, they ended up being on the losing side of the Revolutionary War so they dumped the family silver in the river and took off running. Didn't stop until they reached Canada, and there they stayed for the next hundred years or so until they moved on little by little to Maine and Massachusetts. That's how, despite being a Mississippian myself having moved South nearly a hundred years after other folks came across the US border, I came to be raised on Yankee food.
Our Saturday night suppers started on Friday because that's when the beans had to be soaked for baking the next day. You see, real baked beans are a 24-hour affair, and they require every moment of that time to be cooked properly. There was always discussion about which beans were preferable so we generally alternated between pea beans and kidney beans. What we really wanted were yellow eye beans, and you simply cannot find them in the South so we only had those if a Northern relative thought to send us some packages of dried beans.
My mother would rise early every Saturday to put her Very Best Bread on to rise (that was our regular bread for the week) while she boiled the beans for the next step in the process. Once the bread was baked, the oven was ready for the beans and in they went for the necessary all-day cooking. The beans had to be checked every hour to be sure they weren't drying out; water had to be added if they were but my mother always reminded us "not to drown the beans" as she had so often heard her grandmother remind her family.
While the beans were in the oven, Mother would get the Boston Brown Bread going. That's a rich loaf made of cornmeal, wholewheat, and rye, sweetened with molasses and brown sugar and thick with raisins or sometimes even dates and walnuts. She'd make three loaves at a time in coffee cans that had to be steamed--boiled in a great big pot on the stove for several hours. The Brown Bread would be served warm with lashings of butter. On Sunday evenings, we'd spread the leftover Brown Bread with cream cheese and have it with mugs of tea.
Later on Saturday afternoon, with Mother tired from toiling in the hot kitchen, my grandmother took her turn because she was the expert at making coleslaw. There wasn't any pre-shredded cabbage back then nor did we have a food processor. Nana sliced open a brown paper grocery sack and spread it across the counter. Then she put the cutting board atop it, got out the big heavy butcher knife, and started chopping. She chopped and chopped and chopped. The paper sack was there to make sure she could easily gather up any bits of cabbage that had fallen off the board so it wouldn't be wasted. After about 20 minutes of serious hard work, the cabbage was finally ready to become slaw.
My jobs were fairly simple: clean the kitchen, set the table, and cook the bacon. Sometimes we had hotdogs or sausage or small cubes of salt pork but mostly it was bacon. We generally bought big boxes of ends-and-pieces--these were a bargain price and really good if you didn't mind strangely assorted strips and chunks. They tasted just fine. (We saved the cooked-off bacon fat for making homemade soap later when we had gathered enough meat fats of various kinds.) If we hadn't got bacon, sometimes we'd have fried or boiled eggs instead.
The big traditional pot of beans was enough for several meals. We always had leftover beans on Sunday mornings with fried eggs before church. The beans would usually make another appearance on Tuesday or Wednesday. But after that, we knew that any remaining beans belonged to Nana. We could tell easily enough--there were finger marks in the dish of leftover beans in the fridge. Nana, unable to sleep, would rise in the middle of the night, slice a piece of bread, smear beans on it with her fingers, and carry it back to her room. Almost inevitably, she would drop at least one or two cold damp beans on the hall carpet; I know because I was nearly always the one who stepped on them. There's nothing quite like trying not to squeal when you feel beans squishing between your toes in the dark of night, and hoping it's not something a lot worse (which, unfortunately, on a few occasions it was).
When we went shopping for food, we always bought the same things again: beans and flour and molasses and cabbage and bacon. It was as inevitable as the advent of Saturday each week. It was comfortable and comforting; you knew what to expect. It was inexpensive, it stretched far, and it tasted so good.
Family food is a labor of love, and we three generations of women worked together for that meal. I miss that sense of togetherness more than I miss the beans, brown bread, coleslaw, and bacon. There's no Saturday supper alone.
If you've got family, hold them tight. Keep traditions alive, and never forget how blessed you truly are.