"Basically it was great country cooking. Grandmother (Ruth) learned to cook from her mother-in-law who was a great cook and had a little restaurant in Belhaven years ago called the Dew Drop Inn. They used a lot of what was available to them at the time. There was always good country sausage for breakfast. Links and loose patties, bacon, grits, fried fish were sometimes served for breakfast. Just plain scrambled eggs or fried eggs. Biscuits with jelly.
In season there were always many vegetables on the table at "dinner time" which was the noon meal back then. Later we had supper and that was usually leftovers from dinner. She would start usually before 9:00 a.m. making dinner. Ham or ham hocks were the stock that most green were cooked in which includes collard greens, kale, cabbage, and green beans (Kentucky Wonders) were the green bean of choice for every body down there, also black eyed peas. All cooked with ham, country ham, ham hocks, or salt pork of some kind. They were all cooked until very tender. Greens usually had potatoes added towards the end of the cooking time and white corn meal dumplings.
Fish were caught locally and someone usually brought her 'a mess of fish' to cook. They were rolled in a cornmeal base coating and then fried. Don't ever remember having other than fried. Rockfish was the favorite fish to eat. Delicious! In the fall somebody would always bring her a wild goose that they had shot. She would cook it in the most delicious way with an orange stuffed inside that gave it such a wonderful flavor and took some of the gamey taste out. Okra were always served in season. Some time sliced and sometime fried whole but always fried in the corn meal base coating. The figs were picked from her fig tree when ripe and put into a very large pot with sugar and lemon and simmered for hours on the stove. They smelled so very good."
Linda Lee Shavender Sluck, 2012
My family includes a talented and tender group of women who love to talk, eat, and share. To honor the spirit and incredible regional cooking of our great-grandmother Alma Ruth Wilkinson, I have been working on a book project of recipes and remembrances, so that we may all feel closer to Ruth's heart, and kitchen, in Belhaven, NC. My great-grandmother died when I was six, and she had dementia for most of my first years, so my memories of her are bittersweet and complex. Over the years, many older family members came to my aid, sharing letters, recipes, and photos that helped me piece together her life. Some family members got rings when she passed. Others got quilts or cedar chests. The recipes are really the only traces I have of her in my life, and have provided a really unique window to her daily life, the coastal fishing town she lived in, and how her cooking glued everyone around her together (of ever color and class) no matter how good or how awful times were. While recipes are not tangible heirlooms to some people, to me they are priceless family treasure and history lesson.
The title of my project, "Wilkinson Plates," was inspired by Ruth's collection of blue willow dishes, ubiquitous at my mother's table and every special gathering during our childhood. The story goes that the plate collection started small but grew after a turn-of-the century hurricane barraged the Outer Banks and its low country neighbors, flooding stately Victorians and farmhouses alike, and depositing their contents on the banks of the Pamlico Sound and Pungo River. Just as those waters pulled possessions and treasures from their homes, her children and grandchildren were pulled beyond the Tidewater and deposited across the region, country and world. Just a couple of generations later, we have Chinese American, Persian, Italian and Slovak foodways to add to a mix that started with Ruth and a white Victorian house on a swampy river.
Do you have old family recipe books or handwritten recipes stuffed into your parents' cookbooks? If you haven't perused them in a while, take another look. Are there ethnic recipes that reminded them of a faraway home or loved one? Did they make those foods on certain occasions? Or do they include regional foods that were only available in that area (before the Interstates brought shelf-stable foods across the country)? Do they mention long-gone brand names or ingredients people just don't use anymore? Were they cooking things grown in their own backyard? Take a closer look and see what old family recipes can teach you about YOU!