The Folklore Project
By Sue Riddle Cronkite
I settled on the piano seat south of the entrance to the fellowship hall of the First Methodist Church in Apalachicola, Florida, and placed a recorder so I could capture conversations.
Every third Sunday is potluck lunch. The women of the church bring side dishes and dessert; the church buys huge piles of fried chicken. Attendance goes up exponentially.
My hobby is preserving colloquialisms, the accents and idioms of my people and those around me in our seafood village at the mouth of the Apalachicola River, where it flows into the Gulf of Mexico. Women were bringing in containers of vegetables, salads, and desserts.
Louise wobbled as she came in the door, her Sunday dinner offering wrapped in aluminum foil.
“You’re limping, Lou. What happened to your leg?” Edna asked.
“Bumped it on the concrete steps. Whatever happened to wooden steps?”
“Them steps been there a long time. The church is over a hundred years old.” Edna held a large casserole dish by its handles.
“Guess that predates me. Har-de-har for concrete.”
“What did you bring?” Edna asked, as she put down her dish, expertly slid purse straps off her shoulder, dropped the purse into a chair, picked up the dish, and headed toward the dessert table.
“Mama’s fudge cake.” Lou was right behind her. “Didn’t have yellow cake mix, so it’s chocolate. All chocolate. Be too sweet to eat. What you got?”
“Banana pudding. Old fashioned, like Lee and Raymond used to make. Covered in real meringue. No fake whipped cream for me.” She put the casserole dish of banana pudding on the already overflowing dessert table, positioned a spoon, and stood back to admire it.
Lou sighed. “We used to make real whipped cream. Wonder when that stopped.”
“When they started making that whipped stuff out of chemicals, ready to buy at the grocery store, and cheaper than real cream.”
The pastor called everyone to order. They joined hands in a circle around the big room, said the blessing, sang “Happy Birthday” and “Happy Anniversary” to those honored, who moved to the end of the long table, newcomers right behind them, and the circle became a line.
The line meandered down the full-to-running-over table, which was actually the edge of the stage where the youth group practiced music.
“Deviled eggs, roast beef, potato salad, butter beans, chicken,” Edna announced gleefully. “I may come back for seconds.”
“Seafoam salad, dumplings, garlic shrimp, Ferris peas, pickled okra,” Lou crowed. “We ought to buy bigger paper plates.” They headed to the table they had marked with their purses.
“Aha. We beat you back!” Luther and Janet were already seated.
“We got a spare chair, anybody wants it,” Luther called out.
“I can never get enough peas,” Janet said around a mouthful.
“Or chicken.” Louise took a big bite. “Seems chicken has juicier meat than when I was a kid.”
“We never got at the breast pieces when we were little.” Luther waved his fork in the air. “I always wondered why the preacher and his wife got the best parts, and we got the leftover scraps of chicken.”
“We even ate the scratchers,” Janet chimed in.
“I have a theory about that.” Edna looked thoughtful.
Lou raised her eyebrows. “Edna has a theory. Bet it’s a good one. Ha.” But nobody joined in her laugh. They turned eyes to Edna.
“We were so poor back during the Great Depression that the church couldn’t scramble up hardly any money for the preacher and his family. But on the farms, we grew our own food, so they swapped the preacher’s family around for a good Sunday dinner.”
“You’re right,” Luther agreed. “He might not get money, but he ate real well.”
“We shared our garden greens, potatoes, onions, rutabagas and such, too.” Louise took another bite of chicken breast. “Also we gave a tithe in eggs, when the hens were laying, and at hog-killing, everybody in the community pitched in, and shared the meat.”
“Don’t know how that’d work out these days,” Edna wiped her mouth on the paper napkin.
A younger woman in a frilly pink blouse walked up. “I’ve been meaning to tell you, Lou, I admire you very much.”
“You do? Whatever for?” She tilted her head and peered at the woman through her bifocals.
“You taking in those grand-nieces like you did. They have grown up into right smart girls, and absolutely beautiful to boot.”
“You’re right about the smart and beautiful, but them living with me was no big thing. Their mother needed a period of adjustment. They needed somebody and they wound up with me. Not that I’m much, but I guess I needed them too. That’s what you do, when you got blood kin. You help them out if they’re in a fix.”
“I don’t know if I could do that.”
“Sure, you could. My mother was the oldest in a family with one boy and 13 girls, four of them younger than me. We looked after one another. Remember Little Jimmy Dickens and his song ‘Sleeping at the Foot of the Bed’? We slept sideways, five of us on a regular-size bed. I learned to shift around so as not to be poked by elbows and knees.”
“I don’t know. There was just me. I don’t think I could have done what you’ve done with those two.” Frilly pink shirt shook her head in awe.
“You have a daughter, a son-in-law, and a granddaughter. That’s up close and personal blood kin. You’d be fine with a couple more.” Louise took a long swig of lemonade.
“You’ve got to be proud of them,” Edna told her. “One in college and the other almost 17. How’s the younger one coming along?”
“Fair to middlin’, I think,” Louise pushed back her red-dyed hair that had been running to gray more than half her life. “She wants to help the needy, people with problems that can’t help themselves.”
“Yeah. She joined in with them, and now is gone to live with her uncle and his wife in Minnesota.” Louise pushed at her hair again.
“There’s a bunch of needy up there, just like here. Hope she don’t join up with them.” Edna chewed slowly.
“Me, too. You can’t never tell about teenagers these days,” Louise patted her friend on the arm.
“Ha! Never could,” chimed in Janet.
“I heard that.” A grey-haired gent put his bowl of banana pudding on the table, then sat down in the empty chair. “May I?” he asked politely.
“Sure. Help yourself.” Luther pulled his chair over to make room.
“How come the older one got so many scholarships to college?” the newcomer asked, around a big bite of banana pudding.
“I imagine it was because she bothered to apply.” Louise looked him in the eye. “Your grandson’s really smart. Why didn’t he get scholarships?”
“He said he wanted to tong oysters like me, be his own boss.” Another spoonful disappeared down his gullet.
“Atlanta sucking up the fresh water out of the river took care of that dream,” Edna piped up.
“Humpf.” A frown and another spoonful disappeared. “I’d say ‘damn it all to hell,’ but I don’t cuss.”
A pretty girl appeared behind the banana-pudding gobbler and grabbed him around the shoulders. “What’s wrong, Uncle Oscar? You sound like a sore-tailed cat.”
“You just lifted my spirits, young lady.” Oscar laughed. “You outshine one of our Gulf of Mexico ’sock ’em in the eye’ sunsets.”
“That’s a fact,” Edna agreed. “You know, Lou, about how natural it ought to be to care for other people, Kathryn Tucker Windham, an Alabama writer, said something that has stuck to me for years, like a wad of chewing gum under a chair.”
“‘All the Lord asked of us is that we love God and love each other, and we’ve messed up those two simple commandments.’ That’s what she said.”
Pink blouse came back, carrying a saucer. “Aha! Got the last slice of your fudge cake, Lou.”
“See? It’s not too sweet to eat.” Edna nodded at Louise.
“My mama made that cake for us when we gathered garden stuff. I was the butter-bean picker because I was small and close to the ground. After we picked the peas, we’d gather on the screened porch and shell ’em while she worked in the kitchen. ’Bout middle of the afternoon, when we were about tuckered out, we’d load on the old Plymouth and head for Pittman Creek, taking our reward. We called it the ugly cake.”
“I remember picking peas, beans, tomatoes, corn,” Oscar said. “Gathering okra was bad though; the fuzz cut my fingers.”
“Lots of good food, though,” Edna added. “Look how healthy us old codgers are.”
“Speak for yourself.” Oscar stood up just as pink blouse whizzed by.
“Here’s your empty cake plate, Lou. Goin’ back for pecan pie,” she sang in the air.
Lou stood up. “Bye, ya’ll,” she said. “I’m takin’ my cake plate and goin’ home to my brother, two cats, and a dog.” She shuffled to the door.
I stood up, too, and followed her. “I recorded some of your conversation. Do you mind if I write it down?”
“You mean like in a story or something?”
“Yes. I like your way of thinking. Heirloom language. Heirloom food.”
“Sure, write all you want.” Louise laughed as she hobbled down the concrete steps. “You have a good week, you hear? Tell your kinfolks you love ’em. Have a good life.”