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Stirring up memories


Here comes the rolling store
January 22, 2003

      In 1939, a tiny first grader walked two miles from her family’s farm home in the Steadham Community about twelve miles north of Bainbridge, to the Magnolia Elementary School just across the road from the Pilgrim Rest Church.  She did not have anything to be afraid of—she had six older brothers and sisters to look after her and a good lunch in her pail.

       Helen Lee Sanders remembers the twenty-five or so young folks ranging from first graders through seventh graders all studying in the same single room. Two teachers conducted the classes.  Helen particularly recalls Mamie Greenlee who taught at the school for all of the seven years Helen attended.  Miss Mamie, as the children called her, kept the school in order, but with such kindness and good nature that she is remembered with love some 60 years later.

      On cold winter days the one pot-bellied stove in the center of the room was a welcome sight to the arriving scholars, many who walked several miles, as there was no bus service to the school.  Since there was no lunchroom or cafeteria, the children brought their lunch from home.  They would gather with Miss Mamie around the stove and spread out their lunches, then children shared the array of biscuits and jelly, pecans, peanuts, and sweet potatoes.  Once in a while a piece of cake appeared.  “Cake was like heaven,” Helen says.  In most families it was a weekend treat; if any was left after Sunday dinner, it might make its way to school on Monday to be shared.

      Sitting in her sunny Bainbridge dining room, Helen recalled her childhood memories.  Mostly we talked about cooking.  Helen loved to cook as a child and loves to cook today.  And she still cooks “…from scratch.  No mixes here,” she says.  She emphatically told me she makes all of her own jellies.  I wondered about this.

      All of Helen’s memories are of her farm home back in the woods near Steadham.  Hers was a blended family.  Her mother, Verdell Lee, widowed young and left with two small children, married Turner Burke, a widower with five slightly older children.  The stair-step children—at three, Helen was the youngest, the oldest was twelve—joined quickly into one happy, busy family.

      “The house was ragged.  You could see through the cracks in the floor right to the ground.”  Ragged or not, the house was filled with happiness and fun.  On rainy days, the girls baked all day.  The youngest boy sat in the wood box and kept putting wood in the stove.  While the girls cooked, they all laughed and told stories.  

      That’s right.  The girls cooked, the boys didn’t.  There was a strict division of labor in the kitchen. Every child had chores.  The girls cooked, the boys pumped the well, brought in water and wood and kept the fire going.

But the children shared some jobs.  Everyone worked in the garden and the girls and Verdell canned the corn, beans, and tomatoes.  Greens were a constant, eaten every month of the year—collards, turnips, mustard, and cabbage. 

      The children took turns milking first thing every morning.  When the milk came into the house it was left sitting until the cream rose to the top.  Then the cream was skimmed off and put in a quart jar.  One of the children would sit and shake and shake the jar.  Finally a lump of butter appeared.  When the butter was fully formed and floating on top of the remaining buttermilk, the job was done.  After the butter was rinsed in cold water, there was the refreshing buttermilk to drink.  And perhaps a hot biscuit to slather some of the butter on.

      This farm family took care of themselves.  “We raised every thing we needed—vegetables, cows, hogs, turkeys, corn and sweet potatoes. Papa raised cane, and we had our own syrup.  Any time we needed meat, there was plenty hanging in the smokehouse.”

      However, even a self-sufficient family needed some outside supplies.  The family made an occasional trip into Bainbridge, but the delight of their young lives was the appearance of the rolling store.

      About once a week a truck pulled up into the yard.  The driver climbed out, walked around to the back and threw open the doors—there was a store. 

      “He would have little shelves all around with different things on them—rice, sugar and grits; all those things,” Helen told me.  But mostly it was the candy.

        She went on to explain the store man took eggs in exchange for merchandise.  At the Burkes’ the children gathered the eggs and saved them for the rolling store. “When we saw the rolling store coming, we’d just get out and shake those chickens to get eggs for candy.”

      In another column we will continue with Helen’s country food memories and recipes.

       The last time I tried to make jelly, I was in the fifth grade and it was a disaster.  I made it out of frozen strawberries and definitely did something wrong.  It turned into a rock, and I had to melt it to get it out of the pan.   I was apprehensive about trying again, but Helen’s recipe sounded like I could manage it. 

      When I opened the package of fruit pectin I began to revert to my ten-year-old nervous mode.  It was full of instructions about mashing fruit, cheesecloth bags and exact measurements.  And warnings about the consequences of too much sugar or the wrong cooking times—I might expect a runny outcome.  Maybe that would be better than my strawberry stone jelly.

        Nowhere was there a simple recipe like Helen’s.  But I steeled my nerve, opened my bottle of 100 percent red grape juice and gave it a shot.

Helen Sanders’ Easy Jelly

1 cup juice plus ½ cup water

  2 tablespoons SURE·JELL fruit pectin

1 ¾ cups sugar

      Bring fruit pectin and juice to a rolling boil, and then add sugar all at once.  Boil one minute; stir, remove from heat.

      Can anything be that easy?  I made this right before going to bed and left the syrupy mix.  The next morning, I woke to a beautiful red jelly. 

      It can be that easy!  Now I’m thinking about other juices, maybe apricot, maybe mango?  I only wish I could get Helen to write down her recipe for biscuits.  Or maybe someone else?

Remember, I’m looking for good cooks with long memories who will share their kitchen secrets with me.   

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Trilla Pando is a member of the Southern Foodways Alliance & the Story Circle Network