|Vol. III, No. 3, Winter 1992|
by Helen Vogel
My introduction to Ozarks cooking came with my marriage to a native of the region. He immediately expected his wife, a Michigan farm girl, to serve his meals Ozarks-style when I could hardly cook at all. In those first years, there were a number of fiascoes such as the time I tried to fix black-eyed peas. I seasoned them with catsup and brown sugar as well as bacon and onion, assuming they should be fixed like baked beans. And then there was the gooseberry pie I baked without enough sugar in the filling. In the thirty years of our marriage, I have become well acquainted with his type of Ozarks cooking. With the help of an understanding mother-in-law and the advice of Ozarks born sisters-in-law, I am now able to produce a meal approaching the acceptable Ozarks standard.
A typical Ozarks menu, I have learned, will have some type of fried meat--pork, ham, or chicken, and more rarely, roundsteak. The chicken and the roundsteak will be well dredged in flour before frying. I understand beef has been added to the Ozarks diet only with the advent of mechanical refrigeration. Roast anything rarely appears on the menu except for the traditional holiday turkey with a very moist dressing. Certainly the preferred meat for company meals is fried chicken or ham.
Once the meat is fried, the cook will then add flour to the drippings in the iron skillet and make gravy. Pork and steak gravy will have water as the liquid; ham and chicken gravy will be made with milk. To accompany the meat and gravy will be a huge mound of mashed potatoes well dotted with butter (Ozarkers do not count cholesterol).
Joining this basic part of the menu will be coleslaw, and a hot vegetable or two. In the spring, the cook is expected to serve wilted lettuce frequently. The wilting is achieved by pouring a mixture of hot vinegar, sugar, and bacon grease over the freshly washed leaf lettuce which has been mixed with crumbled bacon and onion. The hot vegetables will vary with the season and availability on the canned food shelf. The one vegetable, always featured at my husband's family get-togethers, that continues to give me difficulty is green beans. My husband still prefers his green beans to come to the table well seasoned with onion and bacon and "cooked to death" as one of our children put it. My Michigan family prefers them with a little "crunch" and dressed with butter. During the fall and winter, my husband will expect to see turnips seasoned with bacon grease, and not the parsnips or rutabagas that I grew up eating in the winter. Peas, corn, and greens of all sorts appear in the rotation but it is green beans and turnips that signify Ozarks cooking to me. The Ozarks housewife will also place on the table an amazing array of homemade pickles, jams and jellies. In an earlier time, sorghum would also have been on table but I have rarely seen it in my visits to the homes of good Ozarks cooks. Many cooks in the Ozarks produce wonderful light bread (yeast rolls), but that is an art that I have yet to master. Instead my table will feature baking powder biscuits upon which the diners may put their choice of honey, jam, jelly, or gravy. I think, however, most Ozarks cooks produce the biscuits for their menfolks' breakfast.
While many Ozarks cooks produce cakes and puddings as well as pies, my Ozarks menu will feature a fruit pie of some sort. It will be a big double-crusted one chocked full of apples, or cherries. I can now produce a properly sweetened gooseberry pie or a blackberry pie but the fruit for those is hard to come by in the urban environment. In season, strawberry shortcake will appear, the shortcake being a sweeter version of the biscuits.
No self-respecting Ozarks resident will want to go too long without his navy beans and hambone. Once married, no longer did my hambone or hamhocks go for split pea soup, but into the pot along with onions to season the navy beans. My husband's aunts tell me that they have been producing this concoction once a week for their husbands for twice as many years as we have been married. Since the results of my bean cooking are unreliable, the same aunts share the results of their bean pot with my husband; and I would never plan beans on the menu for guests.
Maybe by the time we have been married 50 years I will have mastered the art of Ozarks cooking. Somehow I doubt it as my sources of information are fast fading away.
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