For Erin Napier, There's No Greater Treasure Than Mammaw's Famous Recipes
As with the historic homes she works to preserve, HGTV star Erin Napier keeps her grandmother’s memory alive the best way she knows how—by creating something to pass down.
My grandmother, Ouida Walters Rasberry, kept the dented aluminum biscuit bowl in one of her two little closet pantries, beside the strainers, jars, and presses she used for canning. A layer of newspaper loosely lined the linoleum floor of the closet for reasons unknown. In the other pantry closet, freezer tape on the back of the door marked the heights for me; my brother, Clark; and my cousin Jim for a decade. These measurements kept watch over the simple ingredients she used time and again: yellow cornmeal, Crisco, cocoa powder, and parboiled rice. There was no fancy truffle oil or balsamic vinegar, but there was a metal canister stamped with the word "grease" that kept what was left behind by the bacon she cooked. She ate collards and eggs fried in it daily and lived to be 97.
When I was in high school, I spent the weekend with Mammaw (as we called her) a couple months after my grandfather, Pappaw, passed away. One night, while doing my homework at her dinner table, I put a mix CD I'd made into the hulking six-disc CD changer my uncle had given her when it was the hottest new technology, and the song "Video" by the musician India.Arie came on. Mammaw had been cleaning up the kitchen, and then I noticed her shadow shuffling into the room—a little clap and sidestep, and she danced to the music. I'd never seen her move that way before and certainly didn't expect it in the fog of grief we'd been living in, but in that moment, we were two girlfriends, dancing to an acoustic guitar with a hip-hop beat. And I adored her even more fiercely for it.
That was the weekend I asked her to teach me the secrets of biscuit making. She pulled out the dented aluminum bowl and poured a few cups of Martha White self-rising flour into it. Then with her tiny, sun-weathered hands, she made a fist to form the crater to add the other ingredients for the dough. Her instructions weren't quantifiable: "Pour in the buttermilk until it looks about like this," she said. I wrote down my closest estimates so I would have proof, since I was now the official keeper of the Rasberry family biscuit secrets.
Next, she taught me two more of her most beloved dishes: spicy rice and tomato gravy. The rice was always served for Sunday lunch, when we would all descend on her house ravenous after an hour-long Baptist sermon. It was waiting on the Formica kitchen counter in her biggest skillet, as tempting as her homemade mac and cheese. I took for granted that we would have time to cook like this again. She was healthy, her mind was sharp, and the weekends stretched out in front of us.
But in January of 2008, she suffered a stroke that stole the words from her mouth and memories from her mind. By that point, I was a recent Ole Miss graduate and was engaged to the love of my life, Ben. As I was about to become a wife, I realized how badly I wanted to know all of those untold recipes. I felt a new wave of grief in realizing that chance was gone, even if we still had her with us. She was eventually able to piecemeal sentences together with the small vocabulary she relearned after post-stroke therapy. For a few years, she managed living by herself and preparing her own meals, even if she couldn't remember all the steps. In 2015, we began to lose her again. Ministrokes stole her freedom this time, and she moved to assisted living.
We helped Daddy sort out her home: the crocheted table doilies, the wooden rotary-dial phone on the kitchen wall, a copy of The Swiss Family Robinson and several Danielle Steel books, the mint condition issues of Southern Living dating back to the early 1990s stacked neatly in a magazine rack. I took photos of each room, exactly as she had left it, so we would always remember the Christmases and birthdays spent around her out-of-tune piano and the dinner table. I packed her Blue Willow dishes, the glass tea pitcher, the cobalt blue ceramic canisters, and the dented biscuit bowl into the back of my Grand Wagoneer. I felt a bit of her soul attached to those objects, talismans that would make me feel like I was closer to her, even as she felt so far away now. I found a few cookbooks, none seeming particularly worn or used. But the things I really hoped to discover—her handwritten recipes—were nowhere to be found. Everything else was neatly packed and placed in storage until "later."
The "later" no one wanted to think about finally came one bright morning in May 2020, when she passed away. After a few weeks, Daddy felt ready to give her modest belongings to Goodwill. Ben, Clark, and Jim were helping him load huge pieces of furniture into a truck when the door of the dining room console flung open, nearly spilling the contents onto the pavement. Inside were two ceramic canisters, shaped like a ripe peach and a basket of strawberries, stuffed to the brim with her recipes that were scribbled on any paper she'd had handy. They were all there: the peanut brittle, Jim's favorite Christmas cake, spaghetti and meatballs, and her famous creamy layered dessert called Chocolate Delight—a simple and frequent character on her dinner table alongside the hand-battered fried chicken and butter beans. It felt like she was alive and well and giving us this one final gift that would carry on in us and our children and their children.
Recipe: Ouida's Chocolate Delight
I carefully scanned the recipes, one by one, onto the computer and compiled them into a chapter book of her favorite dishes, along with tips she had clipped from magazines (like how to keep your meringue from sweating and when to trim your crepe myrtles). I included those photos of her house and pictures of her with her head thrown back as she laughed on the front porch, with a straw sun hat resting on the table beside her.
Last year, I gave The Book of Ouida to everyone in our family for Christmas. This year, I expect we'll have a buffet of all her recipes at our holiday dinner, and when we hear "Blue Christmas" on the radio and sing it loud enough, we'll hear her and Pappaw joining in, too, with an off-pitch piano accompanying us all.