The tin of chocolate covered pecans came right on time, arriving around the first week of December. Some years we would open the package upon arrival, and the pecans would be gone in a couple of days. Some years we saved them for our Christmas Open House where they would certainly be gone long before the last guest left the house.
This year they arrived in Auburn. Our cherished longtime family friend, Sally Bates from Bainbridge, had sent them yet again. Mary Lou and I opened them with great anticipation only to discover that there were twelve individual packets in the tin this year. Like all of us have done in the past year, we adjusted.
There were ten of the treasured pecans in each packet. Since early December we have opened a packet on special occasions, pacing ourselves instead of gorging on the treats all at one time. Mary Lou would slowly count them out, giving each of us one until there was a total of five on each napkin. Each time we mentioned Sally, talking about how much she has meant to our family during the different stages of our lives.
Food connects us with those we love. I can still taste my great-grandmother’s warm banana pudding as it came out of the ancient oven at Compass Lake during my early childhood years. Years later, I would ask my grandmother to make her potatoes with white sauce in the same kitchen when I visited them at the lake. The oven had been replaced, but the family/food connection remained.
My other grandmother, Granny Ponder, made a delicious egg custard that I still remember. It is not just the food or the taste that I recall, but the place and time that we shared such a delicacy.
I loved my mother’s Swiss steak, which I have not had in years. I can still taste her fried chicken in my mind, along with the homemade biscuits that I am still trying to replicate to this day. That says a lot when you owned Hardee’s Restaurants for 35 years. Hardee’s biscuits are awesome, but I still remember the cathead biscuits of my youth.
My Dad cooked catfish, and any other fish he might have caught that week, on Thursday nights. There was a steady stream of visitors and friends that came to eat the fish, French fries, slaw, and hush puppies. You did not need to change the menu each week when it was so good to begin with.
Not all our food memories are tied to family. I remember the first time I ever had bacon deep fried in oil at a breakfast at the Presbyterian Church. John Hanna and Bud Youmans fed pounds of bacon to the hungry congregation who only ate the pancakes as an afterthought. Luke Spooner, Mark Hanna, Bob Youmans, and dozens of other Southwest Georgia friends followed this same tradition.
John Moseley taught me how to make cheese grits using evaporated milk and Velveeta cheese. I remember the first night I ever tasted those grits. I have spent the rest of my life testing other recipes for grits, but none have topped his batch that first night.
Mary Goodwin, now over 100 years old, made the most amazing cakes I have ever tasted. She once brought me a caramel cake that must have weighed eight pounds. There is a lot of sugar when the icing is a half inch thick. There is nothing like a cake you must hold with two hands.
For many years, Jeanne Jones made me a butternut cake on my birthday. I remember the many years we played duets on the piano and organ at the Presbyterian Church, but I remember just as well the delicious cakes I had every September 13th.
My wife, Mary Lou, has cooked my favorite dish almost every year on our anniversary. The Chicken Divan is just as good now as it was 43 years ago.
I could go on and on about the foods of my past and how it connects memories to certain people. I expect you can do the same with your own family and friends. The mere mention of certain foods brings back memories that are so real you can smell them. Taste them. It is a connection as powerful as a photograph or an old letter.
Mary Lou and I decided to ration the chocolate covered pecans this year so that we would eat the last package on Sally’s birthday. These pecans, which we have enjoyed for years, are so good that we failed in our goal. We ate the last packet this past week.
However, Sally Bates will celebrate her birthday this Saturday, April 17th. Those that know her will join me in wishing her birthday wishes. Those that do not know Sally, can remember the foods they have shared with their friends and family that help make their own memories special.
Dan Ponder can be reached at [email protected]