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Stirring up memories


Keeping Up With Gussie
January 4, 2006

It's the season for New Year's Resolutions. There's one person in town who doesn't have to make the resolution that most of us stick on the list year after year after year. "Walk everyday."

That's because Gussie Mae Mitchell already does it. Summer or winter, rain or shine, this eighty-four-year-old is out there every morning bright and early getting in her walk.

"Everyday, even Sunday," she told me. Gussie let me go walking with her one cool Saturday morning a few weeks ago.

I'd seen her daughter and my neighbor, Von Nelson, one morning when I was out on my own morning stroll. She told me I needed to talk to her mother if I wanted to know someone who takes her walking seriously. "Eighty-four years old and she looks so good!" I gave Gussie a call and hit the streets with her. Walking along together is a great way to make a new friend.

Gussie told me about growing up in Attapulgus where her father worked on the tobacco farms. There were two things she knew she didn't want. She didn't want a lot of kids and she didn't want to be married to a pastor.

Guess what?

"I enjoyed them all—my husband and my kids, all of them."

Twenty-one year old E.E. Mitchell wasn't a pastor when he met and married young Gussie Mae McGriff in 1937; the first baby came along in 1938. And then another and another, until there were thirteen—that's right, thirteen children.

First she had six girls. She hoped that seventh one would be a boy. She got what she wished for that time and the next five times. Six girls in a row and then six boys. She finished the family off with a baby girl, Brenda. Every one of the children except Brenda was born at home and delivered by a midwife.

In 1946, E.E. made the decision to follow in his father's footsteps and become a pastor. Gussie supported his decision wholeheartedly. In 1956 they moved to Bainbridge into the home where Gussie still lives and where they raised their children.

E.E. truly followed in his father's footsteps. For forty-four years he was the pastor of the Mt. Zuma Missionary Baptist Church, the church his father led for many, many years. The family tradition goes on—the pastor today is Harry Jerome Mitchell, the son of E. E. and Gussie—one of those six boys!

The church is the family church for those of the children who have remained in the area. "We're there every Sunday," Von told me. And of course, so is Gussie. "She's the president of our choir and the Mother of our church," Von went on.

Just like with her walking, Gussie doesn't miss church. She told me how the Sunday after her husband's sudden death, she didn't have to think twice what to do. She went to the church, put on her robe and sang in the choir. It was what she expected of herself.

I asked Gussie about sharing a recipe. She told me she's a good cook, but she doesn't cook from recipes. She mostly learned from watching her mother and others in the kitchen. When she was a young woman she worked as so many folks in the Attapulgus-Amsterdam area did, in the tobacco industry. She preferred working in the fields because that where all the people were and it was fun. But someone would always find out she was there, and the next thing she knew she was in the kitchen. The word was out about what a good cook she was.

And is. I asked her what her children's favorite dish is. "They like everything I make. They don't have a favorite." When I got home from my walk, I called Von and asked what about her favorite dish from her mother's kitchen.

She laughed and said—you guessed it—"I don't have a favorite. I just love everything she makes. If she cooked it, it's going to be great."

Gussie did tell me that when the children were little they begged for her biscuits served with syrup. She told me the three key ingredients, self-rising flour, buttermilk and Crisco (it has to be Crisco), but she didn't tell me how to make them. Maybe someday, she'll let me come and watch her.

Meanwhile, here's a classic recipe for buttermilk biscuits from scratch.

Old-fashioned buttermilk biscuits

2 cups self-rising flour

1/3 cup Crisco

3/4 cup buttermilk (or what it takes to make a soft dough)

Preheat oven to 450 degrees. In large bowl using a pastry blender or fork, cut shortening into the flour until mixture resembles coarse crumbs. Add buttermilk; stir with fork until soft dough forms and the mixture begins to pull away from sides of bowl. On a lightly floured surface, knead dough just until smooth. Roll out dough to 1/2-inch thickness. Cut with floured 2 1/2-inch round cutter. Place on ungreased cookie sheet and bake at 450 degrees for 12 to 14 minutes or until golden brown. Brush with melted butter if desired. Serve warm. This will make about 12 biscuits.

A few of the biscuit recipes I found call for a teaspoon of sugar to be mixed into the flour. If you add sugar to your biscuits, please share your recipe with me.

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