Saturday, March 30, 2013

The Best Meal I Ever Ate


Although I was born in a small town in Oklahoma I was raised as a "city boy" in a small town in California.  Happily, for me, my beautiful Okie mom brought her delicious country cooking with her out west and my siblings and I ate well at home.

But it was a meal I ate made by my Aunt Avy when I was fifteen years old that still lingers in the memory cells as the best I ever had.  And I must admit it was the "perfect storm" of circumstances that set the stage for my life's most wonderful meal.

When I was fifteen I joined my Grandmother, Uncle and Aunt and their three girls and set off for a road trip from California to Oklahoma.  We set out in an old early 50's Chevy with four bald tires and gallon wine jugs of water, for drinking and for a cranky radiator.

Every few hundred miles or so we would hit a rough patch in the road, a tire would blow, and my Uncle and I would emerge from the old Chevy and put on an equally bare spare.  At the next town we came to my Uncle would hit the junk yard and equip us with a couple of bald tires for future flats.  

Need I say that, if we couldn't afford decent tires, we certainly couldn't afford to eat in restaurants.  So our trip fare consisted of bulk baloney or those little ten cent tins of potted meat slathered on white bread.  

None the less, we okies were all on a grand adventure, a thirteen hundred mile trip back to "home country", land of our birth.  So one hot summer afternoon we crossed the border into Oklahoma.  One of our first stops was to our Aunt Avy's house in rural western Oklahoma.  Avy and her husband, Fate, lived on a farm out in the sticks.  Although it was no longer a working farm, my Aunt Avy still set aside a half acre or so and cultivated a huge truck garden.  As we pulled into a shaded back yard the chickens who roamed freely around the place scattered at the roar of the old Chevy.

My Aunt Avy came flying off the back porch and laughed with joy at our arrival and squeezed and hugged us joyfully.  We joined them in the house and sat under the cooling air of an old swamp cooler and sipped sweet tea and swapped news of family all around.

Soon my Aunt Avy declared she'd best get started on supper, so she corralled me and led me out to her huge garden.  Each of us took the handle of an old tin wash tub and walked about the garden picking fresh green beans, goobling new potatoes and picking huge juicy stalks of fresh corn.  Once we had filled the tub we hauled it into the kitchen where the women took over.  

As a huge pot of pinto beans steamed on the stove, the women snapped the beans, stripped the corn, trimmed and washed the new potatoes.  After three days of white bread and baloney my fifteen year old metabolism was crying out for real food and I had to force myself to leave the kitchen, my mouth slobbering and lusting for a good meal.

After running around outside for awhile, no doubt teasing and torturing my dear girl cousins, we were soon called for supper.  When I entered the kitchen I saw this huge dining table just laden with mouth watering food.  Let me equate the degree of my lust at that moment:  Being fifteen I had only recently discovered the Playboy centerfold and considered them wonderful!  Yet, had Miss June been spread on an adjoining table right there in the kitchen, I would have ignored her in favor of that country meal set out before me.

Huge bowls of pinto beans with hamhocks stood steaming on each end of the table.  A huge iron skillet cradled fresh cornbread nearly as big a a small wagon wheel.  Big platters of freshly cooked green beans added color to the feast and new potatoes swimming in country butter added to the kitchen glory.  A big platter of fresh shucked corn on the cob just awaiting a slab of butter added to the feast.  And there, as the grand centerpiece, was a huge tray of golden fried chicken.  My Aunt ordered everyone to sit down as she carried a plate of sliced beefsteak tomatoes and a platter of fried okra to the table.   



Set before each plate was a mason jar full of iced sweet tea.  And so we ate...and we ate...and we ate.  I had never eaten fresh vegetables from the garden before and the intense flavors just had parties on my taste buds as I mated these delights with crispy fried chicken so fresh that it was most probably pecking at corn nubs that very morning!  The fried okra mingled with the sweetness of sliced tomatoes and just added to the oohs and aahs of culinary pleasures.  



After a good hour of happy talk and happy eating we all finally leaned back in our chairs, semi-comatose from the mutual appreciation of a great meal, my Aunt Avy rose and grabbed a big old iron coffee pot from the stove and began filling coffee cups.  'Who's for Peach Cobbler?", she asked.  And who were we to say no?  You just unbuckle the belt, loosen it by one eyehole, and we were good to go!
In the half century since that wonderful meal I've eaten in fine New York restaurants, fancy steakhouses all over the west, seafood in Maryland, barbecue in North Carolina, great restaurants in Seoul, Korea, great food in Saigon, rib-stickin grub in the south.  I've been guest of honor in Bedoin tents in Saudi Arabia (and presented the goat's eyeball as honored guest).  But no meal has ever come up to the standards of that day at Aunt Avy's.

So, years later my Aunt Avy resides in heaven...for where else does one send someone capable of making heavenly meals!  Some fifty years later that meal remains the best I've ever eaten!

1 comment:

  1. There are times when I think I might be seeing a little embellishment going on here but this time, I know it's all the real thing. I had that meal on my Grandparent's farm! I think that's why I like coming here so much because your memory is so much better than mine, and I'm taken back to times that had completely left me, or so I thought. Now my Grandparent's farm wasn't in Oklahoma, it was in El Cajon, east of San Diego, Ca.
    Your Aunt Avy sounds very much like my Great Grandma Rogers! During the depression my father's family all relocated from Colorado and Pennsylvania to a couple hundred acre working farm in what is now El Cajon. Sadly Grandma Rogers died before I reached my teens but I do remember many Sunday dinners at Grandma Rogers table. Bill of fare sounds just like your Oakie menu with the exception of the okra (yuck). I remember desert was usually a Boysenberry pie with a thick sugared crust (because that was my favorite and I was Grandma's favorite) and vanilla ice cream we made in the back yard. When you mention how good those meals were, I'm reminded of all the 5 star restaurants I've eaten in. Paul Prudhomme made dinner for us right in his New Orleans kitchen, for cryin out loud, and still, I can't remember any meals coming close to those we ate outside at my Grandparent's with the flys down in El Cajon! When all was done we were served a thick wedge of watermelon during which my cousins and I, forgetting our manners, would be spitting watermelon seeds at each other(remember when watermelons had seeds?).
    My mother, wanting to cook the food my father would like, asked Grandma Rogers to show her how to make a few of her specialties. My Mom tells me the first thing she told her was to start with the right grease. My Mom was a bit shocked when Grandma opened a cupboard whose contents where several mason jars marked with different types of fat renderings used to start the many wonderful recipes, Fried Chicken, biscuits and pie crusts, she was a master.
    Grandma Rogers died, then Grandma and now my Mother's hands are bent with painful arthritis as she nears the end of her time here. Sadly all those wonderful skills were not passed down as my Sisters both have very busy schedules with their careers and kids. The men in our family were, as chauvinistic tradition would have it, instructed to stay out of the kitchen. Those afternoons with those great meals are now only a fading memory. Once again, thank you my Friend, for coming here I'm reminded of those great times. I wish my kids could have experienced those great times so they wouldn't look at me so sceptically telling me, "nothing could be that good".