As soon as I walked through the door I could smell it. The thick, pungent aroma of collard greens and smoked ham hock cooked low and slow for hours. Simple fare, born of necessity, but it remains one of my favorite meals. And despite the humble nature of the ingredients, it is nothing short of delicious.

It’s Sunday afternoon. That means it’s time for the weekly gathering at my grandparent’s house for lunch. My grandpa is in the living room rared back in his recliner while some Gary Cooper western watches him nap. Dad is outside on the porch visiting with my uncle Tony and watching the dog claim the porch posts a few drops at a time.

I am sitting at the kitchen table watching my grandmother tasting the pot liquor from the large stock pot in the stove and mixing meal and buttermilk for a fresh pone of cornbread.

“Can’t beat good greens” she says.

“No ma’am. It’s amazing how something so simple can taste so good.”

“The secret is good stock. I’ve heard of some folks who just boil greens in water and think they have seasoned them just because they add a little salt and pepper at the end. But all they have after all that is a pot of green water and stringy leaves as bitter as quinine. The secret is good stock.”

And as I sit watching her make what has to be at least her millionth meal, I have to agree. Her skin is thinner than it was a few years ago. Tan, but still almost translucent. The veins on her small hands stand out like dark blue tendrils twining around those now brittle bones. Nearly eighty years have left soft brown spots along her arms. Overgrown freckles that only grace those who have weathered decades of years and tears. I think of all that she’s endured to keep our rowdy clan clothed and fed and at peace with each other. “Good stock,” I say mostly to myself.

“Do what?” She asks, turning her head so that she can hear me out of her good ear.

“It really is all about the stock,” I say again. She nods. But she thinks I am still talking about the greens.

I can hear my grandaddy snoring now. We don’t want to wake him. Sleep doesn’t come easy for him. Most mornings he is awake by two or three due to pain in his legs or pain in his chest, or due to the fact that he gets up several times just to make sure he can still hear grandmother breathing. Sunday afternoons are the closest he gets to a good night’s sleep. I suppose he is most at peace when Gary Cooper or Jimmy Stewart is routing thieves and marauders. It’s Twelve O’Clock High, and all’s right with the world.

Good stock. Born of patriots who lived through two World Wars, one Great Depression, and whatever Korea was. Dirt poor but rich in principles, honed by the traditional work ethic. Everything they had, they bought with bowed backs and bloody sweat.

These lessons have been passed down with every plate of greens and beans and streak o’lean. Supper time was a moral catechism. We ate what was on our plate because we had it to eat. Many did not. And as we watched those who prepared these meals limp around in back braces and holding ice packs on their necks, we learned to be thankful for such delicacies as deer steak, snap beans, and field peas.

Being from good stock, we were taught to love our country, do our duty, and never forget where we came from. Every meal began with a prayer, and I still remember the dinnertime liturgy from when I was a child. Grandaddy asked pardon for his sins, thanked God for our food, and then took a moment or two to pray for the troops in the Gulf War. “Be merciful to my boy,” he’d say. “He’s fighting over there in some desert. Keep him safe. And let them send all of Hussein’s bastards to hell. Amen.”

Grandmother is whipping up a meringue to crown a coconut pie now. But it isn’t for us. “We are fat enough,” she says. This one is for Brother Paul and Miss Lil. Some members of their church family who are now in the nursing home.

“Paul’s diabetic but he says if pie is how he meets his Maker then he will go to the judgment happy.” Grandmother says.

This doesn’t surprise me in the slightest. I was raised to believe that decent folks helped their neighbors, and were kind to little children, old people, and dogs.

My folks were innately suspicious of bankers, lawyers, yankees, Catholics, Jehovah’s Witnesses who tried to sell subscriptions to The Watchtower at the back door, anybody who had a job where he had to wear a tie to work, and until 9-11, Republicans. But in their defense, bankers, lawyers, and yankees didn’t have a good track record in our part of the world. And they’d never even seen a Catholic until Fr. Martinez moved up from Mexico to minister to the migrant workers in 2001.

I fear that I will never live up to my raising, but at least I can say I had some. Grandmother never let me grow my hair long or wear it multicolored. I wasn’t permitted to pierce my ears (or anything else), or wear britches so big that it looks like a litter of kittens just moved out of the seat of them, or so small that one is never left to wonder whether or not they are natural born sons of Abraham. This is a grace. I still like music that I can whistle to and think that not much tv has been fit for watching since The Andy Griffith Show. My everlasting dilemma is that although I was born into a new world, I was raised to live in an old one.

It’s time to eat now. The greens are on the table. Everybody is about to pray. My eyes go back and forth between the steaming pot and those sitting here beside me with bowed heads. The secret really is good stock.

Brandon Meeks

Brandon Meeks is an Arkansas native. He received his PhD. from the University of Aberdeen, Scotland. He serves his local parish as Theologian-in-Residence. He is also a fan of Alabama football, old folks, and bacon grease.


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