The Noontime Meal at Grandma’s House

It’s always been a bit confusing to label the “noontime” meal. My family always referred to it as “dinner” (and we called the evening meal “supper”) but depending on where you live, the noon meal is “lunch” and the evening meal is “dinner.” Just for clarity’s sake, whenever I refer to “dinner” I am referencing the noontime meal. Old habits are hard to break…

It always seemed to me that, whenever we were at my grandparents (which, by the way, was in eastern Kentucky, Breathitt County, to be specific), a large part of the day was spent eating. As soon as the breakfast dishes were done, Grandma began to work on dinner. There were many times when all of the family was together (before we–the grandkids–started marrying) that Grandma was cooking for 27 people, three times a day. And the amazing part is that she made it look to easy.

Dinner was a whole new meal. It usually consisted of some type of beans (soup beans, green beans or cooked dried green beans which she called “leather jackets” or “shuck beans”), cornbread, fried chicken, potatoes and whatever else she decided to fix. During the summer months, we also had whatever fresh vegetables that were available from the garden.

I cannot count how often I have seen my Grandma go out to her chicken pen which sat behind the house, grab a chicken, and as quick as anything, wring it’s neck and begin to pluck the feathers off. We ate fresh, free-range chicken before the word “free-range” was in anyone’s vocabulary. Eventually, she bought chicken from the store but even then, Grandma kept a few laying hens for fresh eggs and a few older ones to use as stewing hens for her chicken and dumplings.

Grandma made the absolute best chicken and dumplings. And again, it was without a recipe which is sad because no one can quite replicate what she did. In the same big old metal tub of flour that she made her biscuit dough, she would make her dumpling dough. Grandma would then roll this dough out with a drinking glass (usually one that she had gotten from a box of soap powders years earlier) and pinch the dough off into little pieces, dropping them into the rich broth from the stewing hen. When they were ready, she would carry the big old cast iron dutch oven full of dumplings over to the table. There would be a layer of bright yellow chicken fat on top. The thicker the layer of grease, the better the dumplings would taste. My aunts and uncles often referred to dumplings as “slickers.” No wonder.

One of the best fried chickens I ever ate was at Grandma’s house. I always pestered her to let me gather the fresh eggs. Because of black snakes and roosters, she would usually do it herself but she let me go. As I grabbed the galvanized bucket and was headed to the gate, she hollered out to me, “My girl. Leave that old rooster alone.” In the literary world, this is what as known as “foreshadowing.” There was a huge rock that I had to climb to reach the laying hens. I guess I was so intent on climbing and looking out for black snakes that I failed to hear the clucked warnings behind me. I had gathered a few eggs before I noticed the sounds. As I turned, my heart began pounding. It was the old rooster–he was clucking, prancing around and staring directly at me!

I slid off the rock that I was on, grabbed a much smaller one and threw it at the old bird. That was mistake number two… Mistake one was going into the chicken pen in the first place. He immediately stepped up his pace and started towards me. As I made my way to the gate, the rooster did too. Panicked, I grabbed at the gate and couldn’t open it. At this point, the old guy began to flap his wings. Having been previously “bitten” by a goose, I didn’t want to feel the wrath of this chicken. With no other options available, at least none that occurred to me at that moment, I decided, one way or another, I was getting over that fence.

My mother, who was looking out the window above the kitchen sink, watched the drama unfold. Years later she told me it was an awe-inspiring sight: the bucket thrown up in the air with eggs flying in every direction and me, her 12 year old daughter, vaulting over the fence like a conditioned Olympic athlete with the rooster right at my heels. All I can say is that fear is an amazing motivator. I ran into the house, leaving the frustrated rooster flapping his wings against the fence. Wanting to get away as far as possible from that old bird, I briefly relayed the story to Grandma before I shot out the front door, in search of a far less dangerous adventure.

Later, as we gathered for dinner, there was a huge platter of fried chicken on the table. As I sat down, grabbed a piece and began to eat, my family asked me how it tasted. It was delicious (Grandma’s fried chicken always was) so why would this be any different? Laughing, they told me I was eating the old rooster. With Grandma’s help, I got the ultimate revenge. I was taking a bite of the bird that had earlier wanted to take a bite out of me!!12-2

This is my grandma, Malinda Turner Deaton. Behind her is the chicken pen and to her right, you can see where the hens laid their eggs.

Breakfast at Grandma’s House

Grandma got up before daylight to cook breakfast. As she prepared the food, she sang. The words always sounded vaguely familiar but I never recognized the melody. I was a nearly a grown woman before I found out why this was. My grandparents belonged to a non-instrumental Church of Christ. They believed that the only instrument necessary for music was the voice. So although Grandma knew the words to “Amazing Grace,” she did not sing the popularized melody but rather the one that had been handed down to her from her family–a tune that was generations old. Now I know that had I listened just a little harder and had a little better imagination, I would have heard the songs of my Highland ancestors through an Appalachian filter.

The breakfasts Grandma cooked were wonderful! Certainly not made up of the foods that, in our health-conscious society, we would eat today. All the foods were of the home: homegrown, home-raised or homemade. A typical breakfast always consisted of fried meat (usually some kind of pork but sometimes chicken–even fish on the rare occasion), biscuits, eggs, fried potatoes, fried apples and peaches. Oh! And coffee! The coffee grounds were dumped into the bottom of her coffee pot, water was added and it was set on the stove to boil for hours. Espresso had nothing on Grandma’s coffee. It was certainly an eye-opener!

What remains the most fascinating food of the meal, to me anyway, was Grandma’s biscuits. Even the canned varieties today are not as uniform and exact as her’s were. Grandma kept a big metal tub underneath her sink filled with flour–it usually held 25 pounds or more. When she made the biscuits, she would pull out this tub, make a little well in the center of the flour, dump all of the ingredients in, mix it together and form her dough. If I attempted to do that, I would probably ruin the whole tub of flour. Not Grandma, she only used what she had intended to and she did it with no measuring cups, no recipe and no waste. I asked her once how she was able to do this and she told me she had been mixing biscuits this way since she was 9 years old. I think she was in her early 70’s when I posed the question.

Grandma would then take the biscuit dough, pinch off a piece, roll it around in her hands to form a ball, pat it out and put it into a pan. In no time, the pan was full of perfectly uniform biscuits. Any leftover dough was flattened out and baked to a dark brown–her version of a hoe cake. The biscuits were great fresh out of the oven and even later in the day, substituting as sandwich bread for a piece of leftover breakfast meat. My dad said that when he was a kid, she would take one of these biscuits, fill it with fried potatoes and pack it for his lunch, along with a pint of milk in a canning jar. He would keep his lunch tin the the creek beside to school to keep the milk cool until lunchtime.

Most of my biscuits memories center around using them as fishing bait. For the longest time, to get to my grandparent’s house, you had to walk across a swinging bridge. When they ended up building a flat bridge to drive over on the opposite side of the creek, we would sit on it and fish for minnows. Grandma would take a piece of thread, tie it to a bent stick pin and then give us kids a biscuit for bait. I don’t ever remember catching anything this way but at least those little fish ate as good as we did!

If you mention Grandma’s breakfasts to my sister, she’ll tell a completely different story than mine. For her, this meal stirs up memories of homemade syrup. To achieve the exact dipping consistency, the syrup had to be mixed with butter. Only then was it ready to be eaten with oven-warm biscuits. Karen says that even today, just thinking about grandma’s syrup will make her mouth water.

No matter how I, my sister or any of my cousins remember a particular meal that Grandma fixed, the one consistent story we will share is that whatever she made, it was cooked with large amounts of love.

I don’t have a recipe for Grandma’s biscuits and I have tried more times than I can count to replicate them but I have had no success. Even my aunts, her daughters, could not make biscuits like her. But I am sharing her recipe for syrup. Grandma’s Syrup

Cornbread Variations

There’s a lot to be said about cornbread in a hillbilly household.  Depending on what area of the mountains you are from will greatly affect the ingredients in your recipe.  Many kitchen wars have been waged over whether or not to use part cornmeal – part flour, hot water or buttermilk and perhaps the most divisive of all—sugar!!  (I only have one thing to say about that…  This is cornbread we’re talking about.  It ain’t cake!)

To me, the best cornbread to eat with soup beans, chicken and dumplings or green beans is just plain, old cornbread.  Here are some things I’ve learned over the years.

I always try to use white cornmeal when I can find it and not just any old white cornmeal.  I prefer old fashioned or “unbolted” cornmeal.  It’s stone ground using the whole kernel.  It’s gritty in texture and has the most nutritional value.  Unless you are going to finish off the bag quickly, it should be stored in the refrigerator or freezer because it contains the whole kernel and the “oil” stored there can go rancid if stored at room temperature and kept too long.  This is the kind of cornmeal that my Grandpa Deaton ground on the old stone grist mill in his barn.  (Yellow meal of the same type will work too.)

I also make my own “self-rising” mix and I do not add flour to my cornbread.  For my mix, I add 1 tablespoon of baking powder and ½ teaspoon salt to every 1 cup of cornmeal.  I make up a fairly large batch of this at a time and keep it stored in the refrigerator to use as needed.

I use buttermilk…  I’ve tried water.  I’ve tried regular milk.  And to me, nothing works quite as good or gives that distinctive taste like buttermilk.  And the best part about buttermilk, you can keep it well past the expiration date.  With buttermilk, I always look at the expiration date as a “suggestion” date since it’s sour tasting to begin with how do you know when it’s gone bad?!!

And finally, always bake cornbread in a cast iron skillet.  A hot skillet produces a crust and texture that a baking pan will never match.

So, with all that being said, I have more than likely scared you away from ever trying to make cornbread.  That was never the intent.  Cornbread is one of the easiest and tastiest “quick” breads to make and goes with a variety of different foods.  I’m just sharing a few lessons I’ve learned over the past 30 or so years that have finally produced a consistent and tasty cornbread.

You can find my recipe on my blog here.

 

Cornbread

 

 

My Grandparents

This is a tribute to my grandparents, Jay and Nancy Dunn Yelton.  I am the daughter of their daughter, Susy.  I have very few memories of my Grandpa Yelton because he died when I was four years old.  I used to sit on his lap at the kitchen table and he called me “Peaches” because it was one of my favorite things to eat.  I don’t know if I actually remember this myself or recall it because I’ve been told the story through the years.  As for my Grandma Yelton, I was 31 when she died and we were always very close.  I have so many memories of her.  I combined this tribute just because of this.  Following you will find biographical information about my grandparents with stories and memories.

Nancy Deaton Mullins

James Blades “Jay” “JB” Yelton was born on May 4, 1917 in Pendleton County, Kentucky to George Everett and Neva Mae Loomis Yelton.  His siblings included brothers, Charles Elbert, Carl Hubert, Clifford, and sister, Lenora (Mae) Marie Yelton Ashcraft Norton.  He wed Nancy Caroline Dunn on July 31, 1937 in Grant County, Kentucky.  They had three children:  Danny Joe Yelton (6-3-1938/5-18-1939), Donna Sue “Susy” Yelton Deaton (4-28-1940/4-17-2004), and James “Jim” Elbert Yelton (4-9-1944).  Jay was a World War II veteran, serving stateside because of asthma, a lifelong medical condition that, coupled with other factors, would lead to an early death.  One of my mom’s earliest memories of her dad is when he came home from the war.  They lived in Falmouth, Kentucky at the time and she said that she was outside playing and looked up and saw a soldier walking down their street in his uniform.  He called out to her and that’s when she recognized him.  She told me that was how she always remembered her dad, as that handsome young soldier, hugging and swinging her around the street that day.

In their early years together, my grandparents were sharecroppers, moving around Pendleton and Grant counties from farm to farm, trying to make a living.  It was a hard life.  I can remember in later years driving through Pendleton County with my Grandma and her pointing out various places where they had lived and farmed.  In the 1950’s, they moved to the city, Newport, Kentucky.  Financially, things stabilized for them once my Grandpa took a job at Newport Steel.  This move didn’t make them wealthy but it provided a more predictable income than farming.  Because of his asthma, the work in plant was physically hard on Grandpa and contributed in a decline in his health.  That, along with smoking, led to his death from a heart attack on November 21, 1968.  He was only 51 years old.

My Grandpa loved to fish.  While I don’t have specific memories of this, my cousin, Jay, does and other people have told me this as well.  I have been told by numerous people that my grandparent’s home was always full of people.  Even though they didn’t have much, they shared what they had.  There was always room at the table for anyone who dropped by at mealtimes.  I have been told that I provided daily entertainment to my aunts, uncles, and grandparents, always willing to sing or repeat some commercial I had seen on tv, usually for a nickel.  I do know that my grandparents cared for their parents at their home.  My great grandpa, George Everett Yelton (Jay’s dad) and my great grandma, Cora Agnes Fornash Tucker Dunn (Nancy’s mom), lived with them until their deaths.

From here, I will give a brief biography of my Grandma and then continue the story…

Nancy Caroline Dunn was born on January 16, 1921 in Pendleton County, Kentucky to Joseph Richard and Cora Agnes Fornash Tucker Dunn.  Her siblings included brothers, William Hubert, George Elbert, David Franklin “Buck”, and sisters, Cora Elizabeth “Midge” “Sissy” and Betty Loraine.  From her dad’s first wife, Martha Abercrombie, who died, she had half-brothers, Russell and Brod, and half-sisters, Gertrude, Lucy Ruth, and Susie.  Her mother’s (Cora) first marriage to Ovie Tucker, who died of typhoid fever just two months before his sons were born, produced stillborn twins, Obie and Ovie Tucker as known as Joseph and John “Jack” Tucker.

My grandpa died when they were moving into a home in Silver Grove, Kentucky.  If I remember correctly, this would be the first home they would have ever owned.  They had always rented.  Fortunately, for my grandma, the realtor let her out of the contract.  In a few short months after Grandpa’s death, my grandma, at the age of 48, got a job, learned how to drive, and bought her first home in Fort Thomas, Kentucky.  The house was just two doors down from my parent’s house and was in terrible condition.  My dad, Johnny Deaton, and my Uncle Jim Yelton (Nancy’s son) worked to make it livable.  During this time, my Great Grandma Dunn moved in with her youngest son, Buck, however, she died a few months later in August, 1969.

Grandma’s first job outside the home was at the old St. Luke Hospital in Fort Thomas.  She worked in Housekeeping.  Back then, the job was much different than it is today.  She not only cleaned the rooms but also changed sheets and emptied bedpans.  Her first car was a little Volkswagen Beetle, which she drove over the hill at the hospital.  Before it was remodeled, there was a steep grassy hill behind the hospital by Grand Avenue.  The employee’s parking lot was by this hill.  One day my grandma accidentally parked too close to the edge and the Beetle went over the hill.  The watchman on duty was amazed as he watched my grandma glide the car to the bottom.  He ran down to help her and asked if she was okay to which she promptly replied, “Yes but I have a run in my stocking!”  Although this was the only accident my grandma ever had, she never cared much for driving after this.  She eventually sold the Beetle and bought a Dodge which deteriorated from lack of use.

In the early 1970’s, my grandma sold her home in Fort Thomas and returned to Pendleton County.  She purchased her second and final home at 307 Barclay Street in Falmouth.  This is the place that always comes to mind when I think about Grandma’s house.  She also quit her job at St. Luke and went to work for the Dr. Scholl Shoe Factory in Falmouth.  She glued “cookies” into shoes—something similar to a cushioned arch support.  It was also during this time that my Uncle Jim and my parents as well bought homes in Pendleton County.  Although we lived outside of Butler, we were only about a 15 minute drive from grandma.

I spent nearly weekend at my grandma’s house.  We would spend Saturday mornings cleaning the house and doing yard work and then the rest of the day was for us.  While we cleaned, we would play country music and sing Conway Twitty, Loretta Lynn and George Jones’ songs to the top of our lungs.  I also thought my grandma was a “snazzy” dresser.  Following the fashion trends of the 70’s, she bought First Edition polyester suits from JC Penneys with the coordinating “swilky” shirts.  She always got her hair done and wore makeup and costume jewelry as well.

During the late 70’s, grandma started developing problems with her eyes.  She was diagnosed with acute angle closure glaucoma and later, Fuke’s Corneal Dystrophy.  I was 12 or 13 when she had her first glaucoma surgery.  She was in the hospital for three or four days because she had to lie perfectly flat to keep all pressure off her eye for so many hours after the surgery.  The doctors implanted a triangular shaped filter into the iris of her eye to help fluid drain and keep pressure off her eye.  It was the first of several over the years, not counting the corneal transplants she received as well.  Much of grandma’s later years were consumed with eye doctor visits, eye surgeries, and doctoring her eye with all the daily medications she had to take.  So rare was her eye conditions that her eye doctor, Stephen Meyers in Fort Thomas (who is also my eye doctor as of 2012) still remembers her.  Even as she was dying of lung cancer, she was still worried about losing her vision.

None of the difficulties my grandma went through in life made her bitter.  I always remember my grandma as being fun to be with.  Whether she was chasing me and my cousin, Jay, around the house with her false teeth in her hands after we watched “Dark Shadows”, or if we were at a Bingo game, or even if my husband, Billy, and I were at her house playing “500 Rummy”, we laughed and had fun.  She taught me how to do so many things—make a bed with hospital corners, clean like you should clean,  make a complete Thanksgiving meal (in fact, this was about the only thing I knew how to fix when I got married—I could barely boil water but I could roast a turkey!)—but probably, more than anything, how to continue on in the face of difficulty and do it with grace and a sense of humor.

There are so many more things I could say about my grandma but for brevity’s sake, I’ll just try to sum up the most important things about her. Grandma loved her family above all and was fiercely loyal to us.  She maybe could say something to you but no one else had better do it!  I know I always felt loved beyond measure with her.   Just like her mother who was also widowed young, my Grandma Yelton was a strong and courageous woman.  During the middle of her life, she had to learn, after so many years of caring for others, how to take care of herself.  Given that she had only an eighth grade education, I think she did extremely well.  She owned a car, owned a house, paid her bills, and had a little “pin” or fun money besides.  And she loved life, even when it was difficult and sometimes harsh, and she tried to encourage those around her when they faced difficult times as well.

My grandparents were special and they are still missed by so many people whose lives they touched and influenced.