published Tuesday, July 23rd, 2013

Roberts: Country cooking and bean drink

by Dalton Roberts

The thought surprises even me when I say it was poverty that gave me my love of country cooking.

My father came to Chattanooga during the Great Depression to work as a knitter at Davenport Hosiery Mill. Davenport was considered to be one of the better employers, but my family had almost starved so long that our food budget was small.

I got used to mashed potatoes and pinto beans and cornbread and felt it was a good day when we had pieces of sweet onions to go with it.

My favorite delicacy was pinto bean juice with crumbled-up cornbread. I'd keep bringing Mother my cup for a refill with my heartfelt, plaintive cry, "More bean drink!"

I must be a case of frozen development because I still prefer the juice from pinto beans with crumbled-up cornbread and a good chunk of Vidalia onion.

Until Dad worked long enough to get a few things for the home, I clearly remember that our diet was very simple and the food budget was not top priority. We had pinto or white beans every day, chicken about once a week and maybe a pressure-cooked chuck roast.

Chuck is one of the tougher roasts, but Mother was a whiz with a pressure cooker. To this day, pressure-cooked chuck roast is my favorite.

I also loved the way Mother cooked chicken. She skinned it and fried it and, when it got to the table, it had a deep, thick, crisp brown crust. I don't care how poor you think you are, if that kind of chicken is served at your house, you can never convince me you are really poor.

We had chickens and plenty of eggs. Chattanooga had not annexed my home community of Downtown Watering Trough at that time, and we eventually even shared a cow with the Shoemate family next door.

Taking that cow with Dad to Benton's Dairy to be bred was my first lesson in sex. All I will say is it proved to be unforgettable.

As Davenport prospered with its popular Hummingbird line of women's hosiery, my father got promoted to director of safety and training. After that, I think, was the first time I ever ate a steak. It seems that the slightest improvement in family income put different foods on the table.

We also started having seafood, but Daddy had to cook it. Mother had a lifelong aversion to the smell of cooking seafood. Right after country-cooked foods, seafood is my favorite.

Earl Roden sold his produce at the curb market and told me a funny story about how my parents shopped at his place. Mother had not completely gotten over the Depression days. She would pick up produce and, when she checked the price, would often lay it back down.

When Dad noticed it, he would ask, "Do you want that?"

Mother would answer, "No, Roy, I think it's a little too high."

Dad would storm out saying, "Consarn it, Nora, if I couldn't afford to be here, I wouldn't have come!"

Possibly the greatest lesson of life is that the biggest challenges can teach you the sweetest lessons. I am so glad I was born during the Great Depression. Otherwise, how would I have known about bean drink and country fried chicken?

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