When I Hurried Downstairs to Enjoy the Cool

I grew up in a house that demanded more gentility, income, and poise than my self-effacing family could muster. My dad’s vocation was hunting, fishing, and playing baseball with the neighborhood boys—to whom he contributed three. His hobby was running the family business, a mistress who demanded more than his convenient effort. Thus, our house, my grandmother’s house, oozed more elegance and munificence than its creature inhabitants. In short, like a blue blooded thoroughbred, rode by an amateur jockey, our house was more than we could handle. We were outclassed, so to speak, by our domicile and we all knew it.

The kitchen, in our awe-inspiring house beautiful that could have no doubt appeared in Southern Living was strategically placed close enough to the dining room to make food presentation quick and efficient. But it was far enough away to keep the heat from the kitchen, so to speak, literarily and figuratively, from the dining room.  

As the ceiling fans gently shook the cut glass crystal chandeliers, Mammy brought fried eggs, grits, and biscuits to our bountiful, olfactory Shangri La dining room table.

The adults never ate on a small table in the kitchen, like we do in all the houses in which I have lived in my adult life.  It must be a Yankee thing.  The adults always ate their meals—no matter how simple and unpretentious—in the dining room—with starched  1000 count Egyptian white cotton napkins and table cloth  (why not—we owned a laundry after all!).

We kids, though, were only allowed to eat dinner (lunch) on rare occasions but never breakfast.  We ate breakfast in the kitchen.

I loved those times.  The kitchen floor was made of New Orleans street cobblestones, as I mentioned previously, smelled like horse urine when they were warmed.  But the cobblestones, shiny and bright with floor wax generously bestowed by Mammy, felt awfully good on little boy feet.  The cobblestone kitchen floor was only second in line to the veranda blue tile floor.

No one every worried about dropping food on the kitchen floor.  Either Mammy would sweep it up, or another helper or what my mother called “a girl” who twice a week helped Mammy clean, would clean it.  Besides, Mammy had a habit of dropping wet sticky wax on whatever was on the floor so I distinctly saw traces of previous culinary masterpieces on the floor.  Like shellacked pictures on Christmas pictures to Mammaw, Mammy Lee carelessly preserved previous meal excesses by putting generous portions of commercial wax on previous floor messes.  Thus, in effect, our kitchen floor was a museum collage of previous meals we had eaten in the last ten years, or at least all the meals since Mammy Lee ruled our household.

In the right corner under the mixer was a stain from a memorable chili dinner last December.  Mammy’s chili was legendary.  The best in Southeast Arkansas. Carefully preserved by Mammy’s exuberance and wax, the remaining chili still felt good when I saw it. On the other hand, the green English peas under the right edge of the ice box, were a nightmare I would gladly forget.  Somehow Mammy spilled a few peas on the floor and forgot, or chose, to leave it there, even when she waxed the very same corner.  Those green peas were from the same genus and species, from the same meal, as the one I secretly deposited my requisite supply of English peas into my right front jean pocket. “No thank you,” I told my mom. “I am quite satisfied with the English peas I had already received.”  And I was.  The darn things had filled up my pocket!  Unfortunately, though, before I could deposit my treasure in the commode, I forgot about it.  The little rascals resurfaced in Mammy Lee’s Wednesday wash and I must tell you she was not amused.  Yes, I did not enjoy looking at the English pea shrine under our ice box.

Every morning Little Bill had two fried eggs—yolks broken—grizzled edges.  I had two over easy, with running yolk eggs.  We both loved thick bacon with heavy rind.  My big brother Bill was so good to me—he sometimes shared his precious treasure with his little brother—he would yank that sucker out and give it to me to chew.  He is still a generous soul.  John Hugh, on the other hand, inevitable preferred left over cornbread, buttermilk, and copious amounts of sugar.  To top things off Mammy would top everything off with fresh squeezed orange juice—I didn’t know they make it any other way until I went to college.

I don’t know what breakfast was like in the dining room but in the kitchen it was a veritable cornucopia of joy.  We were polite to one another.  We shared our homemade preserves and bacon.  There was a surplus of good feelings and good.  And, by the way, we did not worry about dropping things on the floor—in fact, to assure later good memories, we purposely deposited a few memorable items.  I wonder if that bacon rind is still where I dropped it?

The kitchen was not the dining room.  It taught us that life had limits and ceremony.  But we did not mind.  Life is that way too.  Sometimes the kitchen is not the dining room with crystal chandeliers but it is comfortable and it doesn’t matter much if you drop something on the floor.  Perhaps the price that one pays for pompous circumstance is too much and we should all be happy in the kitchen.  Think about it.

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