In my childhood memories, nothing was sweeter than our family's Sunday-night suppers at the farm.

 

My mother's people were a fun and eccentric lot.

Aunt Lessie, splendidly absent-minded, made the best five-layer chocolate cake in the county–when she remembered to add the eggs. Aunt Doe, who crumbled cornbread into a glass of buttermilk each morning of her life, swore that breakfast helped her know which cows would give the most milk on any given day. (No doubt it helped account for her substantial girth as well.) That she constantly feuded with Aunt Hess became the stuff of family legend, since they lived together on the farm my great-grandmother had bequeathed them.

It was to this farm that Momma Jo (she was too young, she insisted, to be called grand anything by me) and I headed every weekend during my childhood summers. Wedged between Cheaha Mountain and the Talladega National Forest, the 250-acre spread had been in the Bradley family since before the Civil War. Here, knee-deep in rural Alabama, I witnessed my first river baptism; here I also attended my one and only tent revival. But as exotic as these events were to my urban, New South sensibility, nothing outshines in my memory the ice cream supper that commenced every Sunday at the Bradley farm.

An ice-cream supper is exactly what the name implies; an early evening meal whose first, middle, and last courses consist of ice cream. No fried chicken, no mashed potatoes–just ice cream, homemade and plenty of it. Ingredients include fresh fruit, condensed milk, eggs, and lots of sugar. Three to four flavors were the norm, but peach and banana remain my favorites.

The ritual never deviated. We kids did all the hand-turning that went into making these confections. Those of us who were old enough to drive went for more rock salt if supplies ran low, which they invariably did. When the moments came to test the "cream," Aunt Hess, our official taster, would either exclaim its perfection, or put down the spoon, indicating more time at the crank.

As the eating commenced, so did the telling of stories. My grandfather, addressing me by my family nickname, usually kicked off the adventure by going straight for the funny bone: "Dudebug, did I ever tell you about the time your grandmother got so made at me she laid under a crabapple tree and fired a pistol straight up into the branches? Mockin' birds shied away from the crabapple after that–and so did your grandaddy."

The anecdote about Momma Jo seemed like heresy to me, but the teasing, which was nothing if not democratic, embraced our imperfections one and all. Weekly we giggled, too, at Aunt Lessie, who once searched all day for her freshly washed nightgown, her favorite blue one, only to find it nesting among the produce in her refrigerator.

On it went, this offbeat social with its good-natured banter. How it thumbed its nose at the time-honored notion of "no peas, no dessert." How it laughed at the institution of proper and saintly grandmothers and great aunts.

Sweet anarchy was the ice-cream supper, presided over by that outlandish and loving bunch, my mother's people.