Of Graves and Gravy Matters

I just took my granddaddy out to supper.

Never mind that he’s been dead for more than 50 years. Or that even if I could somehow miraculously resurrect him, the very idea of paying the equivalent of $50 for a meal would put him right back down into his grave.

Still, Walter Bailey was with me tonight, the man I remember distinctly from my youth. In his dotage, he would root around his plate like a pig after acorns–and grunting with pure delight when he found something he really liked. Then, he’d look up and smile, flashing his few remaining teeth and say, “Now that’s really good.”
Jay Pierce, the New Orleans-born chef of Lucky 32 Southern Kitchen, a friend who’s become a co-conspirator in getting skinny-old-me to overindulge, says that he won’t put anything on his menu that your Piedmont North Carolina granddaddy wouldn’t recognize and relish.

OK, I thought when Jay asked me to a tasting of Lucky 32’s new Fall menu, let’s put that premise to the test.

For starters, Jay brought us fried chicken livers with a Texas Pete glaze. My momma said granddaddy would eat sawdust if you fried it and put gravy over it; for me, change that to Jay’s Texas Pete glaze. Next came something I bet Walter Bailey never had much familiarity with: an appetizer. Hoeing tobacco and plowing with a mule was all the appetizer he needed, but I guarantee he would have dug into the Benton’s smoked bacon combined with caramelized onions, cream cheese and, yes, lots of mayonnaise — smoky, rich and addictive as only bacon can be. Our very efficient waitress kept offering to take it away to make room on our table, and I kept moving it back to where she couldn’t reach it . . . but where I could.

My granddaddy was all about salad–or “salet” as in creasy greens or mustard — and he might have eaten a lettuce salad or two out of courtesy, but romaine lettuce was not on Piedmont tables 50 years ago. Even so, he sure would have known what to do with the country ham on the salad — again from Benton’s, smoked and aged for a couple of years and then shaved paper thin. Pair it with shrimp and Jay’s 32-thousand-island dressing and I bet he would have become a salad convert.

A plate of turnip greens came next. They would have slid right down granda’s gullet. Then, he would have tipped the plate and spooned up the pot liquor. I frankly don’t know what he would have thought about duck. The fact that it was brined and marinated in fat, turning it into confit, and then deep-fat fried, would have gotten his attention and I can’t imagine him not liking the cherry-cider glaze. I sucked the bones. The accompanying boiled peanut succotash made with yellow squash and corn might have given him pause — until he tasted it. I just wouldn’t tell him it’s succotash.

What I do know would have had him grunting in pure delight was the bone-in hog shank, knee-deep in pinto beans, topped with something he’d know all about: green-tomato chow chow. Falling apart, Jay’s shank was a tower of pig power, meat by the slab, simmered in red-eye gravy.

Miss. Take that bacon dip away. I surrender.

But what I surrendered to was the fried sweet-potato pie. My neighbor’s cook and maid, Sudie, made fried pies and brought them to our house whenever someone died in our family. It was with terrible pangs of guilt that I realized that the first thing that popped into my mind when I heard we had a death in the family was Sudie’s fried pies — and Walter, I apologize. But listen, if there’s anything that might bring you back to life, it’s Jay’s fried pie served with Homeland ice cream. Hey, you can serve it at my wake.


3 Responses to “Of Graves and Gravy Matters”

  1. Sarah Says:

    Mmmmmmmmmm…… boiled peanuts…. Wow do I miss southern food. Sounds like your partner in crime knows what’s good for the soul (if not for the cholesterol levels…)

  2. Richard Gilbert Says:

    Oh my gracious. I gained ten pounds reading this, cuz unlike you, my body wants me fat. But to fatten on food like that, whoa momma! And come to think of it, my mom cooked and ate like that, and she lived to a ripe old age. Yeah, they fry everything in the south–my mom rolled salted fatback in cornmeal and then fried it in lard– but they also eat lots of veggies.

  3. Beth Says:

    In our family, it was my Aunt Louella who made fried pies when there was a death in the family (or practically anywhere in the county). Her specialty was dried peach fried pies. Delicious food is inextricably linked to my childhood experiences of death. These days, I try hard to be far, far out of town when anyone I know dies. . . but I sure do miss those fried peach pies.

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