Chicken and Dressing – Free Download

Considering the holidays, and some folks, due to no fault of their own, not knowing how to make cornbread dressing properly – I saw where one lady said she was gonna use Jiffy Cornbread Mix in hers! – my members are making a draft chapter of my narrative cookbook, Food Is Love, available for free download.

It gives you the story behind my memories of Chicken and Dressing and includes recipes for Southern AF cornbread, as well as Chicken and Dressing (and a variation if you want to use pork sausage, like my momma does, instead).

I’m working on a book full of meals and stories like these, and if you want to know how to support that work, get early draft copies of chapters like this in your inbox, and more, you should become a member – you can learn more about that here. If you just want to thank me, you can buy me a cup of coffee or share this post with a friend.

You can download the free PDF file here – no tricks, no spam, and no need to surrender your email address. It’s a pure gift.

I hope your holidays are marvelous, and that you get to celebrate them with the people you love.

Guardian Angels

A thing I do, when overwhelmed by the pain of the world, is to look through the memory box I carry around in my head and try hard to remember everything I can about a particular thing.

Last night, processing the shootings and the huge loss of life, I closed my eyes and went back through time to Strickland Road, in Desoto County, MS, and I was maybe 8 years old and in my Aunt Louise‘s house – a house I have not set foot in for more than 38 years.

The house, which had been her husband’s house before his death, and his parent’s house before it had been his, was a converted dogtrot house. A dogtrot is a style of farmhouse popular that existed in the hot and humid south before air conditioning, where the building was a rectangle, with a room on either end, and the center was a covered porch. For the most part, the real living was done under the covered porch, where you could take advantage of the dominant breezes, but the bedroom and sitting rooms were capable of being secured.

When AC came along, many dogtrot houses had the center room boxed in, so now you had three rooms, and not two. Which was what had happened to this one. The house had a long covered screened-in front porch that had been added later, and when you walked across the front porch and through the front door, the room you came into – the former porch of the dogtrot – had no windows, so it was always dark.

In my mind’s eye, I can see it still – the beadboard paneling, the high ceilings, the hard, uncomfortable couch with the scratchy upholstery on the far right, along the wall, and on the left wall a couple of chairs and a table with a record player on it. We virtually never sat in this room.

Except when there was a storm. Because there were no windows and it was in the center of the house, if there was a bad thunderstorm, she and I would sit in the living room on that scratchy couch, and I would curl up next to her, and she would shut the doors to the other rooms so we wouldn’t see the flashes of lightning and the thunder was muffled and we and the dogs would sit in that room and wait the storm out, and I always asked her to tell me the story about the kids in the picture.

I don’t know how she came about it – it was a dollar store print with a heavy gilt frame – 18 inches by 24, including the frame – that hung on the wall opposite the front door of her house, the first thing you saw when you came in. And when we were in the living room – which we only were when there was a storm and I was scared and most likely the power had gone out and we were sitting in candlelight- she would tell me stories about the people in the picture.

It showed two small children on a bridge – a sketchy bridge, at that – and in the background was an angel, watching over the children, ready to swoop in lest they be in danger. It was a popular print in Appalachian America during the first half of the last century, and somehow, she had ended up with a copy on her wall.

The stories she told me varied. Sometimes the little boy had gotten lost, and his sister had found him and was bringing him to safety. Sometimes the sister was scared and he was walking over the bridge with her so she would feel safe. Sometimes, the kids were late getting home, so they took the sketchy bridge to save time. But always, the guardian angel was watching out for them.

My aunt was agnostic, but her theology of angels was strongly an interventionist one. I was evangelized to believe, in that paneled living room, sitting on a scratchy sofa, while looking at a dollar store print in candlelight, that we were cared for and watched over by guardian angels, who cared for us and protected us. And if I ever came to doubt, she would tell me that the guardian angels were watching over us right now, and soon the storm would end and the sun would come out and the power would come back on and we would be safe once again.

And then it would happen, just like she said it would. I mean, how can you argue with that?

When she died suddenly when I was 12, I got that print – it hung on my wall over my bed all through my high school years. I then got put in a closet in my parent’s house, and last year, when they were cleaning out a room there, Mom found it and called me to ask what she should do with it.

It hangs now on my wall in my bedroom. I look at it every night before I go to bed – not because I believe in literal angels out there, watching over me, ready to catch me when I fall off a sketchy bridge, but because I absolutely believe in the power of story to make us feel safe and loved when the world is conspiring to make us feel neither.

The Ice Cream

I have written before in these pages about my Aunt Louise. My great aunt, really – Dad’s mom’s sister – she died when I was 12, but until then was one of my biggest influences.

She lived on 40 acres, 10 miles from a town of 800 people, and while she owned a car, she could not drive. It never occurred to me at the time, but she was intensely lonely out there.

Lonnie was her second husband, and he owned land out in rural Desoto County, Mississippi so when they got married she moved from Memphis to his house. It had been his parent’s house, actually. Lonnie had grown up in it and then had lived in it with his first wife, and when he moved Louise in, she insisted on major changes. The kitchen was moved to another room, the bathroom was upgraded, and she turned the old kitchen into a storage room.

I asked her one time why she moved the kitchen.

“There wasn’t anything wrong, really, with the old kitchen. But it wasn’t mine. It was hers”, she said, meaning the first wife. “I told him if I was moving in there, he was going to make the house the way I like it. “

And he did. Aunt Louise took no crap.

She had lived in town all her life – in Dyersburg, and then in Memphis. And so moving to the middle of nowhere was a big deal for her. And when he died in 1971, she was alone in that house, with her two dogs – Festus and Princess.

I only knew her alone. We would go over on Saturday and take her grocery shopping in town, and occasionally we took her into Memphis to her doctor’s appointment, and often I would spend the night there when Mom and Dad went out somewhere and would be home late. I loved staying at Aunt Louise’s house.

Virtually every woman I knew was in some way defined by a man. Mom was married to Dad, and did things that benefitted him. Monty was married to Mr. Doc, and cooked and did his laundry. But Aunt Louise just took care of herself. She was the most independent woman I knew growing up.

Sometimes she ate cereal for supper. I told her that everybody knew that cereal was for breakfast, and she told me she was a grown woman and could do whatever she wanted to, and that the worst reason to do anything was that everyone told you you were supposed to do it that way.

She had a 4 cup coffee maker, but she only drank three cups of coffee every morning. The remaining cup she mixed with Pet milk, and poured it over a handful of crushed crackers after it had cooled down, and she served that to her dogs. Yes, her dogs got coffee for breakfast each morning.

She kept a gun in her purse, drank whisky like water, and would, when she got down, drunk dial her friends back in Memphis. She read Earle Stanly Gardener and Agatha Christie, watched Barnaby Jones and Perry Mason, and cooked for herself and her dogs.

Once, when I was staying over, Mom had dropped me off after supper, and so we were sitting at her table, watching Barnaby Jones waiting to go to bed when she announced she was hungry. I told her I had already eaten, and she told me that she had too, but that a nice thing about living by yourself was that you could absolutely eat two suppers if you wanted to.

She got up and rummaged around in the pantry, and pulled out a can of Showboat Pork and Beans. She put them on the stove to warm, and then she pulled a package of hot dogs from the freezer and took two out. She sliced the frozen dogs directly into the beans, and then covered them as they simmered.

After we had eaten, she got out a half-gallon of vanilla ice cream and a can of Hershey’s syrup, and we gave a scoop of ice cream to the dogs, because of course we did, and we ate ice cream and watched Perry Mason and I told her I was always going to live alone, so I could stay up late and eat ice cream whenever I wanted.

“You don’t have to live alone to stay up late and eat ice cream whenever you want”, she told me.

“It’s just easier if you do.”

The Bird Project

Mr. Doc died when I was 10, and it was way before that. I was probably six or so when I first learned about birdwatching.

Mr. Doc was my elderly neighbor, the retired farmer who, along with his wife Monty, acted as my surrogate grandparents when I was growing up, and who often kept me after school. She was, without question, the best cook in the world – or at least, in my world, but he was the lord of all other domains.

When the clock on the table in the living room hit three, he and I would go outside to sit in the shade on the north side of the house, where it was far cooler than it was in their un-airconditioned small farmhouse. He wore a battered straw hat when we would go outside, to keep the sun out of his watery eyes, and he and I would sit in metal yard chairs that were old then, and the cool kids would powder coat and sell them on eBay as “retro” now.

The fencerow on that side of the house – the one that separated their lot from the 3 acre field that was always strawberries in the spring and then black eyed peas in the late summer – had a hedge made of wild plums, from which Monty made jelly each summer, and overhead, a power line that ran along it to the yard light that illuminated their backyard. And nearly every day of my life, on that power line, sat mockingbirds.

We would sit out there in the shade of the late afternoon, him and I, and watch the mockingbirds and listen to their songs. Sometimes the blackbirds or the blue jays would come and try to chase them off, but the mockingbirds would not have it – no sir.

When I told my Aunt Louise about the mockingbirds, she told me there were people called birdwatchers, who went to faraway places to look at birds through binoculars and write it down in their notebooks. Wasn’t I lucky, she said, that I didn’t have to go anywhere at all but the north side of Mr. Doc’s house.

We didn’t have any binoculars, but she did have an old pair of opera glasses she let me borrow, and I would take them to Doc and Monty’s and sit in that yard chair and look at the different birds, giving them names and making up stories about them. Mr. Doc would show me how to bust up dried corn on a flat rock with a claw hammer, and then I would make piles of it on the ground, far enough away for the birds to feel safe from me, and they would fly down, skittish and fearful, and eat.

We were rich as lords.

I haven’t done any birdwatching in at least 40 years. I mean, don’t get me wrong. I love birds, and I plant my yard heavily in their favor. Sometimes we will sit on the yard swing and watch the cardinals in the magnolia tree, and the deck I built in 2020 is always a haven for grackles and cedar waxwings, and we get hummingbirds in the salvia I planted just for them. But I don’t go looking for them. They are something like happy accidents I sorta planned for.

But last week I came across a German woman who lives in Michigan and who takes pictures of the birds that show up at her birdfeeder. It’s pretty stunning. And faster than you can say hyperfocus, I have spent literally every spare hour researching how to do this.

I mean, it ties in with a lot of my existing projects, like building a yard that supports wildlife, and I figure I can share the pictures on my sadly neglected Instagram account, which I think a subset of you would also appreciate, and then maybe periodically give updates on the project itself, which gives me things to talk about on my blog, and plus, I know the names of like six different kinds of birds. It would be a chance to learn new things.

I like learning new things.

So, stand by for bird updates. This is how ADHD works, y’all. Despite the fact that 7 days ago I had zero interest in birds in any specific way, I spent the afternoon today researching feeding setups and action cameras. I don’t make the rules – it’s just how my brain works. You can fight it, but 49 years of owning this brain have taught me to hang on and see where it shakes out.

In Praise Of Letters

Are you a Sloppy Joe or a Neat Pete?

That was the sign on the wall of my fifth grade public school Language classroom. It was the first year I was to attend Public School after my formative years at the segregation academy, and culture shock was hitting me hard. But while the Christian School had given me no tools to live well in a multi-racial world, it had given me damn good Language skills – or at least, as long as the language we were discussing was American English.

My spelling skills were miles above the other fifth graders, who were spelling words like “WAGON”, while the year before one of our weekly words was “ANONYMOUS”. It had also given me above average penmanship, seeing as how we were plunged into cursive writing in the first grade. The Bible-based curriculum we had been steeped in sought to get you to writing script as early as possible – I am unsure why that was, other than a sneaky feeling I had that Jesus loved everyone, but must have preferred people with neat handwriting.

So, when that sign on the wall asked me to proclaim my camp, I was Neat Pete all the way.

I never had beautiful handwriting – it was quite utilitarian, but clear and legible. I had none of the loops and whorls that set my Aunt Louise’s fine Palmer-Method hand apart. She had been born left handed but made to convert as a child, which was common in those days, and could write equally well with either hand.

And Monty, my surrogate grandmother who had lived next-door to us my entire childhood, who was a farmer’s wife and scratched out a mean existence all of their life, had a lovely, quite readable script she used in her weekly letters to me late in her life while I was away in the Marines.

It was, of course, a different time then. For instance, people actually wrote letters to each other. As late as the end of the 1990’s I still regularly received letters from people – handwritten, because typewriters were business equipment, and computers at home were rare. In fact, until the proliferation of smartphones in 2008 or so, handwritten correspondence was still an occasional thing.

In college in the mid 1990’s, it was not uncommon to be required to turn in first and second drafts of papers in handwriting, using only the computer lab at school for the final draft. If you did not have access to a computer of your own, you would have to either que up at the lab, waiting your turn and saving your efforts on floppy disks when your 1-hour timeslot was up, or you could come late at night and share the lab with the Gophernet nerds.

But the letters. My mom’s parents would write me from outside Dallas when I was a child, filling me with tales of their Border Collie, King, and his adventures. There was the man who worked at their post office, a Mr. Prince, who had noticed my grandmother writing Mississippi so often, and she told him of me and my nascent interest in stamp collecting, and Mr. Prince became my pen pal until his death, sending me stamps with interesting stories long after I was no longer interested in philately.

And there is nothing like a handwritten letter to woo (or un-woo) your love interests. There was the girl I had met at Bible Camp the summer I turned 15, and who wrote me very chaste letters long after I had forgotten what her face looked like. The Baptist preacher’s daughter who I loved fiercely, and who wrote me a letter in response to my declaration of love with a note telling me she was “in like” with me. The girl I had a crush on all through High School that I was too shy to ask out, who wrote me a letter the summer after she moved away and told me she had been desperately in love with me and always wondered why I hadn’t asked her out.

But one huge advantage to written letters is that people sometimes say things in letters they cannot say elsewhere. The distance and the physical action of shaping the letters add nuance and feelings in a way hard to convey by email or text message. Like the letter from my Dad he sent me in Boot Camp, telling me words I needed to hear – then and now:

“Just remember, everything is temporary. Take it one day at a time. I have all the confidence in the world in you. I know you can handle it. Sometimes I have not told you how proud of you I am of you. I really am.”

Texting has nothing on that.