PHOTO BY ROSALIE HARRINGTON
Rosalie’s Sweet Potato Pie, one of her grandmommy’s best recipes.
By ROSALIE HARRINGTON
My stepgrandmother lived on a plantation in Crystal Springs, Miss., a short distance from Jackson, the capital. Like most people of her generation, she had raised her family in the same house where she was raised, in a home that had been built by her parents.
When I was about 9, my mother and her second husband told my little brother and me that we were going on a trip that would end in Crystal Springs, where our stepfather had been raised. It was exciting for us to imagine what it would be like, but we really had no idea what to expect. Who could imagine at that age the difference it made in everyday life to have no running water or electricity?
It has grown even harder to fathom — could anyone today even adjust for a weekend to such primitive living?
The thought was on my mind this past weekend as I watched my grandsons play, their lives so tied to their devices and the wall sockets that make them possible. “How do you think she washed clothes?” I asked them. They were baffled by the idea of having to heat water on a fire and then rub the clothes over a scrub-board in an aluminum tub like the one I used for their play pool when they were small.
I told the boys about how the home in Crystal Springs had a separate little house, out behind the barn, with a wooden knee-high counter that was the “toilet.” If you needed the toilet in the middle of the night, though, there was a china bowl under the bed you would use. I have often thought what that would be like for me now, at this stage, a frequent visitor to my bathroom during the night.
My grandmother, who I thought of as an old lady — probably about 55 then — certainly made an impression with how she managed everything so well without any modern conveniences.
Playing Monopoly with the boys, I thought of her again as I considered if I wanted to buy Water Works and Electric Company and become the family’s first utility tycoon. That would be sweet revenge for my grandmommy, who didn’t even own any electric appliances.
“How come,” asked 9-year-old Nick? “No place to plug them in,” was the unfathomable answer, even though it’s not the first time they’ve heard about it. My brother and I were just a little younger than the boys as we laid out our clothes for the trip, my new father reminding us that there was no washing machine like we had in East Boston because there was no water or electricity to plug it into.
The basic living didn’t turn out to be the big story for me though, as it was love at first sight when I met my new grandmother. She was a smaller version of my noni, but she wore a similar apron and she smelled good, too, the mirror of her Italian counterpart. The two would never meet, but they were the product of similar times, both highly skilled cooks and managers of kitchens (and much more) that kept big families working.
After a trip to the chicken coop, where my brother and I helped her gather warm, just-hatched eggs, we went to the barn where she showed us how to milk a cow. Anthony, who at 6 was about three years younger than me, was excited — maybe a little scared — but I was in heaven. The afternoon was busy; making buttermilk biscuits, fetching water from the well, operating the wooden churner to make butter — it was all so different, so hands-on, and for me, so powerful to be exposed to a self-contained food chain.
Though I was a bit startled to see grandmommy wring the neck of two chickens for dinner, the shock was quickly absorbed into the transformative event I was experiencing. My brother was back at the house, enjoying the front-yard swing, thankfully, or he might still be recovering from the casual efficiency with which our newly acquired loved one could kill. Our supper of fried chicken, okra with tomatoes and biscuits, and sweet potato pie for dessert still remains a blissful food memory. Nothing could have tasted any better.
My brother and I helped gather vegetables from the garden and pick peaches from the tree in the back of the house Later, I would help make a cobbler from those same peaches. Grandmommy made magic on that farm, and I was enthralled by her powers.
My stepfather was named N.J., after his father, who had the name of Nelson Jasper. The nearest house to ours was about a half-mile up the road, so it was an event to visit friends and relatives who lived in the area. There were three girls in the family of that closest household, one of whom was soon to be married. When they heard that N.J. was coming back home after being away for many years in the Navy, they arranged a little welcome-home visit.
The about-to-be married sister, hearing that N.J. had a 9-year-old stepdaughter coming for a visit, put together a gift for me, three dolls with clothes in a wicker basket, a high chair and a tub and scrub board for washing their clothes. She said that now that she was getting married,she wanted to pass them down to a new generation of girls who loved playing with dolls.
After a week or so our trip was winding down. I begged to stay longer. I couldn’t bear to leave this life and my grandmommy. It took some convincing, especially since the Mississippi school year was about to start in a week or so. But with grandmommy’s help, I convinced them.
The first Sunday we were alone, she took me to her Baptist church and I was baptized in a big vat of water. Friday afternoons, the mule was hitched to the wagon, as there was no car, and with the help of one of her “hands,” workers who lived in a shack on her property, the wagon was loaded with watermelons from her huge patch. I made a sign, “5 cents,” and we headed downtown. We sold those melons till dusk, when the callers came for the folk dance at the nearby railroad station. The whole town swung their partners as the yodeler, caller, yelled the calls, “Now do-si-do your partner.”
Grandmommy was a good partner, and not just on the dance floor. She made some pinafores for me to wear to school out of pretty, flowered seed sacks, then made some clothes for my dolls with the leftover scraps. We gardened, we baked — cobblers and pies — endlessly. We put up vegetables and pickled peaches and watermelon rind. We had tea parties on the front porch, sometimes with visitors, but mostly just the two of us and the dolls.
My best memory was sitting with her on the front porch on the swing while we shucked peas. “Tell me about your day at school chile.” She wanted to know about the details, the new friends, what I learned. She was interested in me. It was just the two of us for about a month that summer of ’49, one of the best summers of my life.
The lack of modern luxuries like running water and electricity made life harder, I suppose. But that only made the joy of working with grandmommy, and learning from her, that much richer.
Here’s one of her best recipes.
Grandmommy’s Sweet Potato Pie
Boil 4 to 5 medium sweet potatoes in salted water to cover, until pierced easily with a fork.
Cool and peel off the skin, set aside to cool. Mash the potatoes until lumps disappear.
In a medium bowl, beat together 2 large eggs, 2 tablespoons molasses, ½ teaspoon nutmeg, 1 teaspoon cinnamon, 3/4 cup brown sugar (light or dark), ½ teaspoon salt, 3/4 cup light cream, heavy cream or yogurt (all good), and 6 tablespoons Marsala wine, dry sherry or dark rum.
Add the mashed potatoes, and blend all the ingredients together.
Pour into a 9-inch partially baked pie shell. Bake in a preheated 425 degree oven, and immediately reduce heat to 375. Bake for 35 minutes until the pie is set in the middle.
Serve warm or cold with whipped cream. If you have extra filling you can bake it in small ramekins for 20 minutes or or until set.