The Pinch of Salt

Written for English 301: Creative Nonfiction | Davidson College

The first death in our family that I truly felt was our English springer spaniel, Scout, whose name my dad lifted from his favorite book, To Kill a Mockingbird. My twin sister, Lucy, and I were at a month-long summer camp when it happened. Our parents made a special trip to take us out to lunch and tell us how our veterinarian made sure Scout was comfortable on a soft blanket when she died, at sixteen. We were twelve, I think, and devastated.

That I couldn’t remember our last moments together, if I’d kissed the top of Scout’s head, distressed me then. My only memory of the morning we left for camp was the flurry of checklists and hairbrushes and laundry, steamer trunks, and stress. Sweet Scout probably looked on from her favorite cool spot in the monkey grass next to our door. We would often come home from church or school to find her curled up, sleeping, deaf and unaware of our giggles and pokes and love. Lucy and I had never known a day without Scout. She was the first child, our furry big sister. My last memory of Scout was actually the night before our departure, a warm June twilight when we celebrated both our bon voyage and Father’s Day.

Our dad grilled steaks, while our mother tossed a spinach salad with blueberries and spooned her special lumpy sauce on our sea salt baked potatoes. After dinner we retired to the front porch, our family of five. I sat on the porch swing that we won in a local rubber duck river race, a pity prize because our duck came in second to last. My mom had sanded the swing and painted it black, and Dad hung it from the ceiling. What I remember most is my mom’s warm blueberry cobbler with a scoop of full-fat whipped cream. Scout was lying beneath my swing, and my toes massaged her liver-colored coat as I swung back and forth.

My mom still makes that blueberry cobbler all the time. When she gets too busy with other meal prep tasks, wrapping asparagus stalks in strips of bacon, stirring the hollandaise, she’ll even ask me to fix it. But it’s never tasted sweeter or warmer or more satisfying than the last night we shared as our precious family of five.

Once my mom left me the recipe out on the counter to bake, because she had errands to run and wouldn’t have time before dinner. It was simple enough. Sift flour, salt, and baking powder. Mix with 1 cup sugar. Slowly stir in milk to make a batter. Melt butter in an 8x8 baking dish, then pour batter over butter. Do not stir! My mother’s perfect tidy print was emphatic. I didn’t even need a mixer, just my own hands. Even with my rudimentary baking skills, I executed the recipe flawlessly. Until the penultimate instruction: carefully spoon fruit over the batter. Yes, she assured me, the heat will make the batter rise above the berries and form the crust.

I trusted my mother’s promise and placed the dish in the oven, but as the cobbler baked, I began to doubt. The women in my family are wonderful cooks. They can sauté and flash fry, marinate and poach. They’ve cooked hundreds of meals and fed countless hungry children, cousins, and even family pets. Meanwhile, I can barely feed myself. Moments felt like millennia, as the weight of family legacy settled on my shoulders and the fear of disappointment rose in my chest like the golden crust batter. The timer sounded. I slipped my mother’s worn oven mitts on my hands and pulled the cobbler out. She was right. My cobbler came out just like hers.

My mom usually buys our blueberries from fruit stands and farmers’ markets, but her mom, whom I call Mimi, found hers growing in the backyard. Mimi says she and her siblings—Casey and Marie, Perry and Raymond—picked wild blueberries and huckleberries in the woods behind their one-story, brick, little country house on the outskirts of Trenton, North Carolina. When I asked, she told me they never worried about the berries being poisonous. I imagine they kept them in a bowl on the counter or in jars in the freezer. They often spooned the blueberries over the fluffy white chiffon cakes baked for the spring birthdays by Mimi’s mother, Ethel, and her sister, who was everybody’s Aunt Mabel. It’s a quaint image: two sisters in a kitchen flooded with sunlight, lovingly and delicately folding foamy egg whites into the cake batter. But life and food on the family farm were less like chiffon and more like burlap—anything but delicate. Mimi hesitated to describe the scene to me—the hog killings and the frying of freshly-plucked “biddies”—for fear I’d think them inhumane. On the contrary, the contrast fascinates me.  In my mind, the scene is soaked in golden light and sepia-toned: strong, sun-tanned women wringing the necks of plump, squawking chickens. I buy chicken in tidy, plastic packages on cold grocery store aisles, but my grandmother’s vignette feels much more appealing, gripping and raw and real.

My maternal family cooked “the old-fashioned way,” as Mimi describes it. She says every meal was special, and in rural Trenton, North Carolina, none was more so than Sunday dinner. They served it every week for seventy years, a tradition that’s threaded through each of our childhoods, mine, my mom’s, and my grandmother’s. The butter beans, creamed corn, and country ham connect us. Mimi recalled the barbecue chicken, which was a team effort on the part of her parents, Ethel and Milford Price. On Sunday mornings, her mother, Ethel, woke up and placed the chicken in the oven. Then Milford would make his own vinegar sauce and finish the chicken while the rest of the family went to church. In their household, big breakfasts were important, too. Ethel and Aunt Mabel would make a “big ole pan” of cheese biscuits, splitting them while still hot and slipping in a “good-sized piece of cheese” off the hoop in the pantry. As Mimi observed to me, it must have been a lot of trouble for them, but Ethel and Raymond felt the work was worth it.

Mimi carried this country sensibility with her to the shores of the Neuse River, where she learned to fry seafood from her mother-in-law, the Nana whom I never knew, and where she raised her three children. The middle child, and only daughter, is my mother. Nana had made her home in Stella, a salty coastal town with a little more wealth and a lot more fish than rural Trenton. Nana made softshell crab and crab stew, clam chowder and fried shrimp, and shared these techniques with Mimi, who took them upstream to her sister Marie in New Bern. My mom says that Mimi and her Aunt Marie would buy 100 to 150 pounds of fresh shrimp each summer and store them in the garage freezer, much like their mother and her sister Mabel “put up” homegrown corn and green beans and pecans each year.

When Mimi and my grandfather divorced, and she moved west to Fayetteville, Aunt Marie became a second mother to my mom. Aunt Marie kept making the seafood. My mom says Friday night was seafood night, and she often brought my dad, her beau then fiancé then husband, to partake in the feast. Aunt Marie would fry up the flounder freshly caught by her husband Uncle Sherwood, and she complemented the fish with tiny, chopped potatoes dipped in bacon grease and rolled in an iron skillet. These meals truly were a feast for my dad. Aunt Marie and Uncle Sherwood teased him for his wide-eyed wonder over the food from their childhood kitchens that he thought could only come from a restaurant. Over the phone recently, my mom imitated Uncle Sherwood’s teasing, smoke-strained voice to me over the phone—“Boy, those are hashbrowns!”—and we chuckled to remember our uncle whose voice now is only an echo in our memories. We wondered why some families, like ours, love making food and find such joy and nourishment in the act, while others, like my dad’s family, do not. My mom paused, then remarked, maybe your dad’s mom doesn’t cook because her mother never cooked, and her mother never cooked because she had the “help” to do all the cooking. It was just never something they learned to value.

My mother, like her own mother, taught herself to cook. She says her education truly began once she married my dad, when she felt compelled by love and by custom to take on the cooking. My dad was in law school at UNC Chapel Hill, while my mom was just as busy working three jobs. They lived off my mom’s tiny paychecks and the remains of my dad’s college fund, and in their miniature apartment, my mom learned to scrimp and stretch the little they had. She developed what she calls “an eye for a good recipe,” a sense for what particular combination of ingredients might taste really good, so as not to waste expensive ingredients on a subpar meal. I hope to find I’ve inherited my mother’s knack for making something from nothing, even a nourishing meal from cheap chicken on the bone.

I can sometimes taste the country cooking in my mother’s meals—in her fried okra and the country ham biscuits she makes for UNC football tailgates. But my mom’s style is more healthy, less hearty than her mother’s. Where Mimi pairs white rice with fried chicken, my mom serves orzo with sliced tomatoes and cracked pepper with grilled chicken. My mom’s Sunday dinners usually involve a panini press, sliced avocados, and arugula (to which I can almost hear Uncle Sherwood exclaim, “Arugu-what?!”) in place of Mimi’s rolls, green beans, and cabbage.

The purpose of their meals is the same: nourishment, provision, love. The kitchen is the heart of our family, which sounds too vague and sentimental, like something from a storybook rather than the concrete foundation on which these women have raised me. The best evidence I have is this: a few years back, my mom redecorated our living room, reupholstering the dusty blue couch and installing the floor-to-ceiling bookshelves she’d always wanted, all in hopes we would finally make use of the room meant for socializing. But whenever family comes over, we inevitably end up in the kitchen while my mom stirs risotto or something else, drawn by the smells and the chatter and the gentle undertow of the sizzling, popping, abundant, concrete love.

         We come naturally to the kitchen because it is comfort, nourishment, and security. Because things make sense here. The logic and predictability of cooking counteracts the chaos of loss, of which our family has had a heaping portion. My mother and grandmothers coped by creating. Though they could not fill the empty chairs at our table or the empty places in their hearts, they could at least fill the bellies of the ones they loved with something good. And magically, momentarily, nourishing the body becomes nourishing the soul.  

I’ve recently started collecting our family recipes, the special ones I don’t want to forget, and came across the one for our blueberry cobbler. Flour, sugar, milk. Butter, baking powder, fruit. And a pinch of salt. In such sweet dishes, the salt always surprises me. But as my grandmother says, food isn’t as tasty without the pinch of salt. The reason we bake with salt is to make the other ingredients pop.

 I think about that warm cobbler with full-fat whipped cream all those years ago, and Scout, in the warm July twilight. I remember the sweetness of being a family before we became selfish, sassy teenagers, and I still feel the sting and salty tears of losing our beloved Scout. Within these tiny grains of salt is our family secret, the bittersweet truth my family’s mothers have been showing me all along. My life will taste both salty and sweet, just like all of theirs, but I shouldn’t be afraid, I can almost hear them say. Use what you’ve been given: the simplest ingredients, blueberries in the backyard or chicken on the bone. Use your hands, use your heart. There will be loss, but there will also be time and grace, pots and pans and slotted spoons, risotto on the stove and flour on the floor, and always more hungry hearts to feed.