Mama’s funny about food. Let’s just go on and put that out there. In her book, there are certain foods every Southerner must appreciate, like congealed salad. (Remember that scary lime-green one from the 1970s?) Some Southern dishes must be served on certain occasions—like fruitcake at Christmas, barbecue on the Fourth, and black-eyed peas on New Year’s Day. She has recipes that must be prepared a certain way—don’t even try divinity on a rainy day—and recipes that must be prepared with particular brands of ingredients—like North Carolina’s Mt. Olive Sweet Pickle Relish, which is essential to Mama’s coleslaw.
One of the biggest “must” dates on Mama’s calendar is New Year’s Day, when we’re supposed to eat black-eyed peas for luck (not a problem) and turnip greens or collards for prosperity. (Sadly for collard-loving me, Mama has always been a turnip green girl.) I can’t remember what we’re supposed to get from the required hog jowl. Overall, the best part of a New Year’s meal is the hot buttered cornbread that Mama serves to try and distract us from those turnip greens. And before you even say it, I know what you’re thinking: You’ve just never had them cooked the right way. I’ve had them from Mama’s kitchen. I’ve had them from the Southern Living Test Kitchen. Still a no go for those greens and me. Please don’t kick me out of the South for it.
What other dishes does Mama want us all to embrace?
Now listen, y’all. Baby limas are delicious. They’re right up there with fried okra. But those huge, dry, yellowish beans the size of a quarter? Mama can’t understand where she went wrong. Truly, there should be a strict three-chew rule on any vegetable—if you need more than that to get through it, you should chop it up, stir it into a casserole of some sort, and smother the whole enterprise with cheese. Just to be on the safe side, crush up some Ritz crackers, soak them in butter, and sprinkle them on top. (Don’t forget to preheat your oven.)
WATCH: How to Fry Okra
“Oh, I just love rutabagas!” Mama will exclaim as she puts them on the table and nudges them my way. Google rutabagas, and you will find that they are a cross between the turnip and the cabbage. Cabbage is delicious stewed, and it does a fine job of giving the mayo in our coleslaw a place to sit. But cross it with a turnip? (In fairness to the rutabaga, Mama never grew them, so the only ones I saw on the table came from a c-a-n. Shhhh. Let’s just keep that between us.)
On this front, Mama has made tremendous progress. For years now, she has been making her holiday fruitcake according to Great Aunt Margaret’s recipe, which requires soaking the entire cake in peach brandy. The brandy takes our minds off a question that has troubled us for years: Why does the ‘fruit’ in fruitcake resemble no actual fruit we’ve ever seen in nature? Also, a few pieces of Mama’s fruitcake can make Daddy do a little skip through the house, singing Louis Armstrong’s “C’est si bon.” At first, the fruitcake posed something of a moral dilemma for Mama, as drinkin’s a sin. She cannot set foot in a liquor store (because as surely as she did, the preacher’s wife would drive by). So the men in the family have to fetch her brandy and deliver it (to the back door, NOT the front door). Over time, though, Mama has made her peace with the fruitcake recipe. From now on, brandy gets a pass—as long as we’re chewing it, not sipping it.