By Sean Dietrich
She was slight. Elderly. She had an old kitchen that was lit up with smells and colors.
There is no place better than the humble kitchen of an American woman. If there is, I wouldn’t care to know about it. The linoleum floor. The enamel table with chipped edges. The stove with the stubborn oven door. Brillo pads in the sink.
And Lord, the smells. I could live and die in a good kitchen.
She was dusting her counters with flour on the day I interviewed her. She covered those countertops in snow, the way our ancestors have been doing ever since they de-boarded the ark.
She wore one of those aprons that looks more like a cobbler’s apron. Two pockets. Floral print. She kneaded dough with frail hands. If you are ever lucky enough to see an elderly woman take out her aggression on a lump of lifeless dough, you are lucky enough.
When I visited her little kitchen, it was long ago. I was on a long drive from Atlanta to Birmingham. Her son asked me to visit. I only had thirty minutes to spare.
The reason she told me to come that day was because she wanted to make one of my favorite casseroles, one she remembered that I mentioned in my books a few times.
I don’t even know what the casserole is called. I’m not sure it even has a proper name. It has little diced potatoes, mountains of cheese, and — this is the crucial part — Kellogg’s Corn Flakes on top.
When I was a kid, there was a lady in our church named Miss Patty who made this casserole for every get-together. As an adult, I have yet to find it again. I guess it’s an outdated church casserole now. It’s probably not stylish for modern women to put cornflakes on top of piles of cheese anymore.
She made more than just casseroles. She cooked for local funerals, baby showers, anniversaries. And if you needed a wedding cake for your big day, but didn’t have much cash, she had you covered. You bought the ingredients; she made the cake for free.
These were real wedding cakes too, not the amateur variety. They were simple, pretty and I understand they tasted incredible.
She had a photo album of the wedding cakes she made over the years. Polaroids, black-and-whites and glossy photographs. Some photos dated back to the ‘50s.
The best part was that the cakes in the photos all looked the same. Everything else in the pictures changed as the years progressed — furniture, fashion, eyeglasses — but her cakes didn’t age.
She had a squadron of recipes. Batter frying was another specialty. She fried anything from yardbirds to watermelon rinds. Her butter beans were made the traditional way — nine beans, fifty sticks of unsalted butter.
“I cook by feel,” she told me in the interview.
I ended up staying for several hours in her kitchen while she cooked. At first, I was taking notes on my legal pad for a story about her. Then I got swallowed up with the smells.
When the cornflake casserole was done, she covered it in foil and handed me the glass dish. She said, “Promise me you won’t eat it until you get to your hotel and you’re off the highway.”
A mother through and through.
We said goodbye, I drove away. The casserole sat in my front seat. When I hit Douglasville, I peeled back the tin foil, just to look. By Villa Rica, I dug in with a plastic spoon and drove with my knees. By Tallapoosa, half the casserole was gone and the other half was on my shirt.
I wrote a column about her. Then I sent it to her. She read it and told me liked it, but it embarrassed her. So she asked me not to publish it.
Here’s how our phone conversation went:
HER: Sean, it was a sweet story, but I’m afraid that if you publish it, well … All my friends will think I’m stuck up … And I just don’t want anyone thinking I’m proud.
ME: Yes, ma’am. I understand.
HER: I’m sorry, I know you worked real hard on it.
ME: It’s alright.
HER: Did you like that casserole?
ME: I absolutely adored it.
HER: Did you wait until you got to the hotel to eat it?
ME: I absolutely adored it.
I told her I wouldn’t run the story, but we kept in touch by email. Mostly, she sent me chain letters or forwarded corny jokes from her friends.
Here’s an actual joke she sent:
“Two old women were out shopping, spending big bucks, having a great time, buying shoes and clothes when a funeral procession drove by.
“One old woman paused to bow her head and close her eyes as the procession passed. The old woman’s friend said, ‘Oh, that was a very respectful thing to do.’ The woman answered, ‘Well I was married to him for thirty-seven years.’”
She probably sent that email while one of her cakes was rising.
I got another email one morning not so long ago. It was an email sent by her son to her whole family. Attached was an unpublished story that had been written a few years ago by some nameless writer who visited her kitchen. There was an accompanying note which read: “She was the best woman I ever knew, we will miss her.”
I would tell you more about her, but she wouldn’t want anyone to think she was proud.
I hope God likes cornflakes.