It was the 1970s when my late and very great mother-in-law, Maxine, paid her first visit to us here in the hinterland of Minnesota. At the breakfast table, Maxine spread my homemade rhubarb-strawberry jam on her toast and to this day I see her smiling eyes and hear her sweet Tennessee drawl. “It’s the best thing I’ve ever put in my mouth,” she proclaimed.
That’s pretty much how I felt the first time I sat at Maxine’s table in Jackson, Tenn., and put a fork-full of her black-eyed peas in my mouth. From that day forward, I have loved the hardy, earthy flavor of these little darlings that someone placed in the “Soul Food” category.
You name a “Soul Food,” and I’ll tell you I love it: ribs, chicken fried steak, fried fish, ham hocks, pickled pigs feet, collard greens, mustard greens, turnip greens, butter beans, okra (especially pickled), sweet potatoes, cornbread, grits, hush puppies.
Needless to say, I was thrilled when we heard that our Christmas dinner hosts, son Dean and his wife, Jyl, were shying away from the traditional and serving soul food on December 25.
I offered to provide the black-eyed peas and collard greens. Both were heavenly if I must say so myself.
Dean put his special “rub” on slabs of baby back ribs. He first cooked them in an electric roaster and on that very frigid day finished them outside on the grill.
Speaking of delicious, Granddaughter Amelia made macaroni and cheese permeated with crab meat and Granddaughter Grace made cornbread.
While all this was simmering and baking, the rest of us including son Troy, daughter-in-law Sheri, and grand kids Elyn and Ethan, had appetizers with our games as we awaited our late afternoon sit down feast. Among the apps were cheeses and salami plus Troy’s and Sheri’s bacon-wrapped little Smokies. I was about to whip up bacon-wrapped water chestnuts when . . .
Good thing the dinner hour was set for 5 p.m., because that gave me enough time to work in a not-so-quick-trip to the “Urgency Room.” That’s what it’s called in Vadnais Heights, Minn.
When I opened the can of water chestnuts, the lid didn’t completely dislodge in two places so I tried to bend it back with my finger. The result? A very deep cut that required five stitches just below the nail on the inside of my right index finger. Troy took on the water chestnut project from there.
In spite of the interlude, it was a wonderful day of family gathered around a soul food table. Grandson Ethan said he could eat like that every day. He always will be a man after my own heart.
Our Christmas dinner was so delectable that Jim and I decided to duplicate the “Soul Food,” menu for New Year’s Day and invited friends to our table to enjoy it with us.
Speaking of black eyed peas; for many years my good friend, Marlys Johnson, has served them to her family on New Year’s Day. We were at her table on one of those occasions.
Someone told Marlys that black eyed peas are the bringers of good luck. She didn’t know why, however, so I did some digging.
According to an online story by Texan Ron Perrin, the tale of black eyed peas bringing good luck dates back to the Civil War and the Savannah Campaign lead by Major General William Sherman. It began on Nov. 15, 1864 when Sherman’s troops marched from the captured city of Atlanta, Ga, and ended at the port of Savannah on Dec. 22, 1864.
When the dust had settled from that horrific battle, southern survivors found the aggressors had looted and stolen everything valuable and edible, including livestock. But for some reason, the northern army left silos full of black eyed peas.
In the north at that time, black eyed peas were used only to feed livestock so northern troops saw no value in them. Southerners would have faced massive starvation as 1865 approached had it not been for the black eyed peas. It soon became tradition to eat them on New Year’s Day for good luck.
I like to give credit where credit is due so when fortunate things happen to people, I consider them blessings from above rather than luck.
Speaking of blessings, one of mine was knowing and loving Maxine who was one of the greatest cooks I’ve ever known. Oh my, did she serve a mean butter bean! She shared her January birthday with Elvis Presley and was much too young when she died of cancer at age 68.
As far as recent blessings go it was spending Christmas with the entire Dunavan clan and New Year’s Eve and day with dear friends.
Come to think of it, the trip to the Urgency Room was a bit of a blessing in itself. As I waited to be stitched, quote after quote flashed on a screen before me. I told Jim to grab a pen and to write – quickly.
For starters, we came away with this: “It’s not your job to like me. It’s mine.”
As we press on into 2018, I’ll be reminding myself of a couple more we gleaned from that screen: “Attitude is a little thing that makes a big difference,” and, “Being happy doesn’t mean everything is perfect. It means you’ve learned to look beyond the imperfection.”
Gentle readers, I wish you and yours a happy and blessed 2018. I leave you with this tip: Eat black eyed peas. They’re delicious and packed with protein.