Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Kum Ba Ya

Spring! The word itself makes you think of newness...of the color green...of baseball and soccer and playing on the water....It makes you think of life.

At our house, spring has definitely sprung. Last week was the boys' Spring Break. During the course of the week, we had three different sets of company, including two uncles, one aunt, three nephews, one grandmother and three "old" friends.

Two Knoxville friends, Richard and Dawn, keep threatening to put a "Kum Ba Ya" sign in our yard. I think I'd like that!

I get it honest, I guess. The little house I grew up in always had more people than it had places to sit. And, at times, my grandmother's house literally burst at the seams with her daughter and sons and daughters-in-law, grandsons and granddaughters. Visitors may have claimed to come for the good company, but a large part of what "compelled them to come in" was the good food they knew they'd find there.

My mama says she would never have even learned how to cook had it not been for Mama Kelley.

One of Mama Kelley's all-time popular specialties was Butter Roll. Now...how do I describe Butter Roll in mere words? Here's a partial list of ingredients--cream, butter, sugar, vanilla. I get a buttery, sugary rush just thinking about it. Imagine the most delicious homemade vanilla ice cream you EVER tasted, only it's liquid and hot and topped with a buttered and sugared pastry. (In all fairness, whatever taste you're imagining, I must inform you that Butter Roll is even better.)

And...unfortunately...Butter Roll is one of the secret family recipes I've never been able to master. My pastry always comes out too soggy. (Keven would add fried okra to the list of "Things You Never Want Karen to Cook"--just think black on the outside, slimy on the inside.)

Anyway, my Mama Kelley was always cooking and canning and freezing and then cooking some more. To this day, the smell of chow-chow transports me back to that summer-hot kitchen, where I would stand on a kitchen chair and help stir that huge pot of chow-chow while she sterilized and lined up the glass Mason jars that would hold that hot-sweet vegetable concoction.

But, I think baking was Mama Kelley's favorite culinary pastime...especially at Christmas. Her Christmas cake-baking actually began before Thanksgiving. As she baked that amazing assortment of cakes, she'd cover them with waxed paper and then line them up on an ironing board she kept in her backroom; that room always seemed to stay about 15 degrees cooler than the rest of her house. When the ironing board ran out of room, she'd set cakes on top of the large, upright freezer that occupied a corner of her kitchen.

Every few days, her daughter (our Mimi) would get a ride from one of the brothers or would ride the bus out to Kimberly from her apartment in Birmingham. (I LOVED that apartment--to this day when I hear the word "cool," I have a flashback to that apartment building with its glass-block and metal-staircase entry.)

Besides helping with the cake-baking, it seems it was Mimi's job to "season" the fruitcake. While this fruitcake was born into the world weighing under a pound, by the time Christmas rolled around, it had probably gained two more liquid pounds from Mimi's seasoning.

And this cake was treated special--first, it was wrapped in cheesecloth, then placed in a lidded container, then tucked away in the even-cooler dark closet of the already-15-degrees-cooler backroom.

Nosy little thing that I was, one year, I caught Mimi red-handed during her surreptitious seasoning responsibilities. (After all, the Kelleys were supposed to be good, tee-totalin' Baptists, except of course, for the three errant, black-sheep, tee-totalin' holy rollers--mama, me and my brother. At that point, daddy was simply non-commital when it came to denominational lines.)

But, like always, Mimi merely saw my nosiness as an opportunity to teach me a thing or two about the finer things in life.

Sitting on the floor of that closet, with that cake tin cradled in her lap, she popped off its lid, and the aroma was...well...I imagine it's what a Jack Daniels' distillery might smell like--sweet and warm and a little bit dangerous. She sat there a few seconds with her eyes closed, just breathing in deeply.

Then, she looked up at me standing just outside the closet, and asked a question that made me feel deeply loved and trusted, "You wanna pour?"

I nodded humbly. (Truth be told, I was just a little bit scared--after all, what if Jesus came back right as I started to pour?). Well, she unscrewed the lid off the bottle that held that wonderful-smelling, amber liquid, and patted a spot on the floor next to her.

Once I was seated, as close to Indian style as a chubby-legged girl could get, she handed me the bottle, cupped her hands around mine, and instructed, "Just a few little splashes all around the cake...not too much...there that's about right." Then, she pinched off a bite of that fruit-and-nut-and-liquid seasoning-laden cake.

After it was tucked safely back into its hiding place, she pulled me in her lap and gave me half of her "pinch." As I sat there in her lap on the floor of that dark little closet, enjoying every single crumb of that dangerous little cake, I knew with all my heart that she was the most wonderful thing in the whole wide world, and that I was a very blessed girl!

And...that is one of the memories that comes back to me whenever I find my house filled with company...whenever I find myself cooking for a crowd in my kitchen...the memory of how special food shared with special people can make everything seem just a little more blessed in my little corner of the world.

Recently, Kev and I had one of those random conversations...started by me...the ones where, over the years, he has just learned to make the leap....I asked him what he would request if he knew he was eating his last meal. (Remember...at last meals, calories and carbs don't even count. Can somebody say, "Hallelujah!"?)

His choices were, in my opinion, a little boring--filet and cheesecake.

Here's my last supper menu: my mama's fried chicken, biscuits, dressing, creamed potatoes, creamed corn, slaw, corn bread and...of course...Butter Roll; Keven's drunk and dirty tenderloin; Gigi's lemon lush; Shawn's shrimp and grits and Shawn's figgy pudding; Karen's sweet potato casserole--the one with the pecan topping; my Aunt Barbara's Coca-Cola salad; Calhoun's fried green tomatoes and S&S Cafeteria's fried okra. And,if I could bring her back, my Mimi's "special" fruit cake (I haven't found one yet that can match it!)....Hmmm...I feel like I'm forgetting something....oh yeah, maybe a small sliver of Mimi's chocolate sheath cake--the one with just a touch of cinnamon and pecans on top.

One fantasy I've had for a few years now is to pit the Kelleys' cooking against Paula Deen and her boys in a fried-chicken-and-biscuits-and-chicken-and-dressing-and-butter-roll throwdown. There's no doubt in my mind who would win.

So...just in case..."What about it, Paula, you game?"

"Open your mouth and taste,
open your eyes and see—
how good God is.
Blessed are you who run to him."

(Psalm 34:8, The Message)

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