Sunday, April 22, 2018
Brains and Eggs
You are what you eat
Brains and Eggs
Stephen L. Wilmeth
The box was totally unexpected.
It had my name on it, though, so out came the pocket knife and the taped seams were cut. Upon opening, there were school annuals from home (or at least what seems to be more like home than any other place on this earth). They were Cliff school annuals from 1955 through 1958.
I haven’t seen one of those old annuals in years. I suspect my uncle has his and those would have been the ones that were most familiar. He had graduated by 1955, though, so these were all new to me, but there they were … cousins, friends, and images of sports heroes I knew even as a little kid. If we hadn’t moved to Silver City, my counterparts would have been in the earliest grades and I knew so many of them.
That was a different world, but it is a world that I think more about as time passes. We certainly were closer to our surroundings. Nobody had much more or less than anybody else, but what a wonderful time it was. Certainly, there will be those who disagree, but there will be more who understand the implications of then and now.
Ask any of those folks where some of the most vivid of the Cliff school memories were sown and I’ll wager that the school cafeteria in the basement will be among them. Everybody ate together, and everybody grew together.
You are what you eat
In my great grandmother’s diaries, it is clearly apparent her table was a major feature of holding her entire family together. There was so much daily effort that went into the planning and the preparation of the meals. In her case, it was apparent from looking off the mesa into the Gila Valley and her home. The big garden was north from the house near the cottonwood planked barn. There was an adjacent orchard and yet another south from the house. Water came from the west side ditch. Her yard was watered similarly, but it was served by a system of canales that she would operate through an intricate series of headgates and turnouts.
It was a kid’s paradise and was clearly made that way by her insistence of family presence.
My memory of her kitchen is overwhelmed by two things. The smell of something baking and the warmth of her big wood burning cook stove are chiseled in memory. She certainly could have afforded a modern gas or electric range, but her preference was that big stove that she steered like a sailing ship.
Writing so much of it at 3:00 AM, her diary was a seamless conversation with herself about the work, the food, and the family to which she devoted her entire life. Her entertainment was visiting with the constant stream of family and friends and that extended into meals that were made only more dear to her by numbers around her table.
Brains and Eggs
Although there may be exceptions, I don’t recall any of us who were actually touched by her hands who were picky eaters. We were expected to eat what was put in front of us and it came with a singular demand.
“You eat it.”
That was reinforced by our grandparents in both directions. By example and inclusion, we were taught to celebrate abundance around us. We ate the butchered milk pen calves, we ate the pullets and the old hens, we drank the raw milk, we poured the fresh cream on peaches in season, and we ate every vegetable that was gathered and placed on the table. We loved venison in greater part because we were taught to love to hunt from the time we could crawl in the pickups before sunup. Trout or catfish we caught ourselves were no different. We watched pigs being butchered and scalded from the time we could walk. We knew that the pig’s head were better than desert when it returned to us in the form of tamales from the genius and the oven of Mrs. Peru.
The first days after butchering something were the days when the exotic stuff was eaten. Brains and eggs was an example. I can remember sitting on my maternal grandfather’s lap and he feeding me the first I can remember tasting. He told me I would like it and he made sure it happened by sticking a fork of the scrambled mix into my mouth. It didn’t take long to know I liked it best when the brains were fried crisp!
Although we didn’t know it, we were on the edge of societal transition. That was best witnessed by the preferences and the preparation of food in that little frame house on the Mangus by my paternal grandmother. There were some things that we witnessed under her influences that are just gone from our tables and our knowledge today.
Certainly, the food reflected her background. She came from Missouri during the First World War and she was fond of things like persimmons that the rest of the community just didn’t know. Her cooking also had continued hues of the Depression and the spartan implications of harsh ranch life. Although, I don’t remember it, that is where nothing from a butchering was thrown away. The memories of “son-of-a-b*tch stew” were recounted by her children. To a mix of vegetables, the cuts of what would now only be known from the contents of potted meats were added.
It was also the place where breakfast always started with oatmeal before the sun came up and continued with something fried (often including bread she called windy willies) in one of her cast iron skillets. Suppers were not big meals and might consist of left over corn bread dunked in buttermilk followed by a small glass of Welch’s grape juice. She didn’t believe sleep was good on a heavy stomach. The big meal, dinner, was served at midday. That was the meat and potato type deal that stuck to your ribs. Lunch only took place if work off somewhere kept you from going to the house at noon. That was when chunks of cheese and bologna were cut from big rolls, wrapped in waxed paper, and placed on the seat of the ranch truck in a sack with an apple.
My Grandma was one of the many ranch wives that must have introduced horehound to the proximity to ranch kitchens. She loved horehound candy and the introduced plant was used for that purpose. Eating it without smiling I liked it less when the milk cow got into it. It made fresh milk undrinkable.
“Oh, no … the cow got in the horehound again!”
If something sweet was needed for buttered biscuits in her house, chances were Brer Rabbit molasses was the object of affection rather than honey or syrup.
“That’s larruping,” Grandpa would proclaim as his jaw popped as he ate (from having it broken years before from a horse kicking him).
The most savory parts of steaks were the untrimmed fat and the marrow from the rounds. If you had a belly ache she would drag out the castor oil. If you needed something to settle you stomach, she would open a Pepsi. With a propensity of using vinegar and the occasional pan of sauerkraut, her kitchen didn’t smell as good as the one under the mesa or the one at the mouth of Bell Canyon, but it, too, spread its charm with her love.
It was always a safe place and the center of social life. We learned to play Canasta and Chinese checkers around her table in the evening before bed time, and we got to know our grandparents on terms that were not shaded or conditioned by any influences.
In combinations, that is what this world needs in big doses.
Stephen L. Wilmeth is a rancher from southern New Mexico. “Arguably, those times in Grant County in the ‘50s and early ‘60s were the absolute best of times.”