From the age of 6 months to 9 years old, I lived with my grandparents on the top of one of the Appalachian Mountains in West Virginia. The town consisted of two houses, one church, one general store/post office and a school to which all the children but me were bused. No children my age to play with, no activities other than church. So my time was filled with farm chores, reading, climbing trees and sitting in the porch swing and watching the occasional car drive by.

And I had the pleasure of hanging out in my grandmother’s kitchen. It was about 15 by 10 feet and modest. A large wood cook stove, which was never without fire in the firebox, occupied most of the room. A small kitchen eating table, which doubled for a food preparation surface, a cupboard and an iron sink with the hand pump competed for space. Food was kept in the root cellar or the ice house. A refrigerator, later stored on the screened-in porch, appeared with the coming of electricity up our mountain. Outside of a manual meat grinder, a butter churn, and a breadboard to place on the kitchen table to work dough for bread and pie crusts, cooking tools to ease the life of a cook and hasten meal preparation were nonexistent. Sometime in those first nine years of my life, running water, an aluminum double sink with faucets and the electricity magically surfaced. My grandmother wouldn’t accept a gift from my grandfather — a Sears & Roebuck electric stove. “It ain’t meant to make good biscuits.”

In the dead of cold Appalachian mountain winters, this room summoned me even more. It was the warmest in the house. A coal burning pot-bellied stove in the dining room provided what heat it could to the rest of the two-story old wood house, delivering a little warmth to my bedroom on the upper floor by a register. Warmth also emanated from my grandmother, always in a flower-patterned, freshly washed and ironed apron, always ready to give me a big hug. The smells of her breads, roasts, pies, soups, stews and casseroles pervaded every room. A predawn start of the breakfast smells climbed up through the register, jarring my nostrils to get out of bed; bacon and squirrel frying in the large black iron skillet. Along with these would be the sizzling of fresh eggs frying. Then the biscuits and gravy.

“MarilynRae, go wash yer hands. Time to make biscuits.”

She would sit me on books piled on a chair to watch her knead the dough. Mama Nash, the name I gave her, would give me a small piece with which to imitate her flour-covered, rough farm hands. I loved the feel of the dough, thinking I was kneading life into the small shape; watching and feeling it take a breath and rise back up after I pushed it down. The passed-down, mother-to-daughter, round, biscuit cutter would appear, and before I started begging, she would hand it to me to cut out all the round pieces from the flattened dough. She would gently pick up the perfect shapes, as one would a jewel; dip each lightly in the scattered flour and place each one in her buttered round pan. As I added on a year or two, she allowed me this delicate task.

I wouldn’t stray far from the kitchen until she brought the steaming pan out of the oven. I loved seeing how magically the little round shapes puffed up and became a golden color. Mama Nash would set the hot pan down on a rack on the table, lift me back up onto the books, and take one out of the pan, slather the two halves with her homemade butter and her huckleberry jam. The biscuit was gone by the time she poured a glass of milk. “MarilynRae, don’t put so much in yer’ mouth at once. Ya’ll strangle yerself.” And she would proceed to tell me a story about someone who had died from choking on food.

“Yes ma’m,” I managed to say. “Please may I have another one?”

When I started school, I could hardly wait until I got home to sit in the kitchen and watch her cook, always telling me the process, letting me taste dishes as she worked along. I learned to make bread, pies, cakes, cookies; fry bacon, eggs, squirrel, chicken; peel potatoes and mash them. I helped pick vegetables out of the garden and gather fruit from our trees and bushes, though she loved telling others that I ate almost as much while picking as I harvested. She showed me how to chop off the head of a chicken and pick out the feathers, and to truss it for roasting. I helped prepare vegetables and fruit for her canning.

Mama Nash’s cooking was simple and good. At the age of 9, I went to live with Mom. She didn’t have time to do much cooking, but we were never without our meals; also simple but no longer with the homegrown foods, or the time and care of preparation.

My continued growth and exposure to other foods, ethnic foods, gourmet foods, produce markets in Ann Arbor, Mich., and in Detroit, in Pakistan, India, France, Italy; these experiences and taste sensations added to my fortunate beginning in my grandmother’s kitchen. French bread replaced making biscuits. Beef, veal, fish, lamb, replaced squirrel and pork. Taste buds became more sophisticated for the exotic, the untried, the opportunity for difference and experimentation. Cooking and eating became a social, sensual, conversational experience, rather than just nourishment. So more sharing of memorable moments with food will be forthcoming in my column.

The following are recipes I experienced with this story, but please, I don’t advocate going out in your backyard and shooting those cute little gray squirrels to prepare that dish. This was a time of self-sustaining farming in poverty conditions. But just in case you get lost up in the Maine North Woods and have no food, here it is. Just remember to take a large, heavy, cast-iron skillet along in your backpack.

 

Fried Squirrel

Skin three squirrels; remove inside stuff; cut into pieces. Soak the pieces in buttermilk for at least an hour. Season flour with salt and pepper. Beat two eggs in a bowl. Sauté chopped, three to four pieces of bacon and one diced medium onion in large black, cast-iron skillet (well used). Remove from skillet to warming plate when crisp. Dip the squirrel pieces in egg and then in the flour. Add to hot bacon fat in skillet. Fry until golden brown. Add a little milk. Cover and simmer until done.

Mama Nash’s Biscuits

Sift together into large bowl: 5 cups flour, 1 teaspoon baking powder, 1 teaspoon salt, 3 tablespoons sugar. Add 2 cups buttermilk and 1 package yeast that’s been dissolved in 1/3 cup warm water. Mix with spoon until all flour is moistened. Cover and set in refrigerator until ready to use. Take out dough; roll out on floured board (about 1/2 to 3/4 inch thick). Cut using biscuit or cookie cutter and place sides touching in a buttered round pan. Bake 12 minutes until golden brown.

My Without-A-Churn-Homemade Butter

Pour heavy cream into a high-sided glass bowl. Cover with a towel and leave at room temperature for about six hours. Pour the cream into a mixer with a whisk attachment. Place a towel over the mixer so it doesn’t splatter. Pause occasionally to push any splatter back into the base of the bowl. Mix on high speed. When butter has separated from the liquid, strain the butter into a bowl. Make sure all the liquid drains out. Rinse the butter left in strainer with water to remove any excess liquid. Knead the butter with a spatula. (For salted butter, add some salt now.) Save butter in container in the refrigerator. If the cream goes bad, you can make cultured butter with it.

Marilyn Moss Rockefeller lives in Camden.