Illustration: Jack Unruh

After several failed attempts at lavishing my mother, her dream gift set me back only $20.

For a woman who grew up in the mountain landscape of the Great Depression, my mother is irritatingly hard to please.

I got her a big, soft, leather easy chair. She said it cost too much, and it made her uneasy to sit in it.

I bought a big-screen television with a thousand channels, so she could watch every TV preacher who ever wept for a love offering. She said the old set was fine and she only watched two channels anyway.

I purchased a new washing machine. She claimed it was harder to operate than a rocket ship and said, "I reckon I could learn to use it, but I'd have to go back to school.

"Wadn't nothin' wrong with the other one," she added. "You just have to bang the lid down three or four hard times to get it to click on."

"Is there anything," I asked, "you do want?"

"Well," she said, "I need some grease."

What she meant was lard, and not store-bought lard, which has not been made right since the Johnson Administration; you might as well try to fry an egg in Dippity-Do. She needed what she calls cracklin' meat, slabs of fatback with a sliver of lean, something that can be rendered into delicious, crispy nuggets. The cracklins could be used to flavor cornbread or greens, or be eaten at the side of a plate of peas or beans or, well, anything, yet they are just a by-product. It was the grease she needed, an essential. But the fresh, pure, white fat is harder and harder to find. She can usually only find it in tiny blocks in the cooler, never of a quality to satisfy her.

My mother is the best cook who ever lived; I will fight you over that. One of the reasons her food has flavor, she explained, is that most of her greens, beans, and other vegetables and all gravy and all egg dishes take on the flavor of that fat. I have seen her throw out dishes, not spoiled, merely bland.

I try not to repeat Southern clichés. No one, for instance, should eat a hamburger in a bun made from Krispy Kreme Doughnuts. But grease is good. It has shortened many lives, probably my own, but is a life of rice cakes really life, or just passing time?

So, we went on a quest. Finally, at a country butcher shop in Alexandria, Alabama, we found it, but too late. A gentleman at the counter was buying what appeared to be 50 pounds of perfect cracklin' meat, an hour or two off the hog. My mother just stared, with avarice.

"I never have wanted what someone else had," she said.

She asked if there was more, but the butcher said no, it was a rare thing, and I thought she was going to cry. The butcher, wondering how he would live with breaking an old woman's heart, went to the back to check and returned saying he had found some. We walked out with $20 worth of pork fat.

My mother was giddy—she would have skipped, if she could. For two days, as she rendered it, the house smelled like what I like to think heaven is like, and she was happy, which is all a boy really needs, as her birthday nears. I think I'll take her out to eat, just so she can tell me she isn't hungry.