From Side Meat to Sunday Dinner

Published 9:44 am Thursday, February 24, 2022

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I don’t know how the conversation turned to momma’s cooking, but it did. My friend and I began to recall our favorite meals from our family’s tables of long ago. Most of the time they were simple meals, but memorable; too delicious to forget.

As a pastor, I am asked to officiate many funerals. When the subject is momma, inevitably, momma’s cooking is mentioned. “Momma was a great ‘cook’” is often said and I’m curious as to what was their favorite meal. It’s not “chicken cacciatore” that’s mentioned, but simple pan-fried chicken with gravy. And, of course, biscuits!

My friend said that they had chickens in the yard and he learned how to run down a chicken easily. Then, he’d take the chicken to momma who would, with a deft snap of the wrist, wring the chicken’s neck and pretty soon the lard would be sizzling hot and the chicken would be frying in a perfectly seasoned cast iron skillet.

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We might have had some chickens in the yard, but when we had fried chicken, it was store-bought and cut into nine pieces. That meant there was a “pulley bone.” That also meant a figurative fight for who would get the coveted pulley bone.

Pan-fried chicken, mashed potatoes, and field peas made the meal. Oh, and there were those homemade biscuits to eat with the chicken gravy. Momma made a thin, crispy biscuit but I was fortunate to have two grandmothers, nearby, who made different kinds of biscuits.

Big-Mama made a thick biscuit, while Granny made a much larger, thinner biscuit, also known as a “cathead” biscuit. Why cathead? They were about the size of a cat’s head.

To illustrate the simplicity of the old-time meals, there was one in particular. The entrée, although we didn’t know that word and never used it, was what we called side meat. It was a kind of bacon, but the pieces were shorter and the meat was much fatter and saltier. Unlike bacon, it usually had a hard rind to it that was left uneaten.

After frying the side meat, a gravy was made by adding flour and a can of tomatoes. We called it tomato gravy and plenty of people love it to this day. Side meat, tomato gravy and biscuits might be the extent of the meal and, if you think you need something else, just add some sweet tea.

In those days, Sundays were notably special, more so, if the preacher and his wife were coming to dinner, as the midday meal was called. The preacher coming to dinner meant a very special meal, like maybe a roast. It could be a beef pot roast or a pork roast. Plus, that meal called for eating on the dining room table and using the finest plates and silverware one might have.

Whether beef or pork didn’t matter to me. I knew there would be potatoes and carrots roasting along with the meat. The roast would have been seared in the morning and then put in the oven with the timer set to have it ready as soon as we all got home.

The table would be full of wonderful side dishes like peas, butterbeans, fried okra, and some creamed corn taken out of the freezer. We children did not have to be told to mind our “Ps and Qs.” That’s language for using your best manners. And the question of the day was do we pass the dishes to the right or to the left?

Without even thinking, I’ve taken you from side meat and tomato gravy to Sunday dinner with the preacher. To be truthful, it’s not all that long a journey.