Bogalusa, Louisiana 1955, a church under construction.
On the left, back row, are Brother Ray and Sister Fern Jones, Daddy and Mother. In the front row are deacons and farmers in their Sunday clothes, but it was the women in the back row holding everything together. Church Ladies helped raise my brother and me
Pioneer pastoring is what Daddy was good at. He conducted tent revivals, found followers, raised funds, built churches, grew congregations and then we moved along, back to the revival circuit where Mother sang for large audiences. Whether we were criss-crossing the Deep South or settling in one town for a while, church ladies were the constant.
At any gathering, an All-Day Singing or a regular Church Supper, the food was magnificent. Giant pots of soup and covered dishes with treasured family recipes, biscuits and risin’ rolls and cornbread and Jello molds and tables of baked goods and washtubs full of sweet tea at the end of each table.
Daddy’s sermons mentioned how we need to work down here to gain our rewards up in heaven. He told churchwomen they were earning extra stars in their crowns with their fine cooking. I gave an extra star to the ambrosia. Leslie Ray picked the platter of crispy chicken wings and deviled eggs on the side. Daddy hugged a woman over a pot of pintos with ham hocks. Mother, owner of the family’s most ardent sweet tooth, always started with dessert first.
Our Church Ladies didn’t have Costco or Crock pots, but they turned out food that fed multitudes of believers with plenty to share with backsliders.
Here’s Mother with a song that surely has some Church Ladies in it.
Bacon has magic in it. The aroma. The sizzle. The taste. The grease. Bacon grease is a staple for Southern-born cooks. We put it in cornbread and biscuits and a good gravy roux isn’t possible without it. Sometimes it’s butter and bacon grease creamed together, but only one of those is crucial.
Gramma kept a grease can like this near her stove. It had a strainer inside because some people filter out the chunky bits.
Here’s my jar. Layers of delicious bits are in here. I scoop them up and they go right into my cooking. When the jar runs low, I render bacon just to refill it. Put bacon on to cook and every creature in the house gravitates to the source. Two times lately I’ve been cooking up a couple of pounds of bacon while repair people were here working. The refrigerator service person and the pilot light fixer both left with slices of bacon and paper towels.
I come from a family of gospel gypsies, led through life on the road in the Deep South by a preacher and a singer. Our big sedan was filled with musical instruments and Daddy’s cooking implements. A cast iron skillet went everywhere with us, providing suppers from hot plates in motor court kitchenettes. A jar of bacon grease made every trip. Sometimes supper was only cream gravy, featuring fresh milk from a nearby dairy, poured over anything – rice, potatoes, or leftover biscuits, and in a pinch, over white bread we picked up at our last stop.
If we stayed at a tent revival site for a couple of weeks, we’d get fresh churned butter nearby, which of course, didn’t go on the road with us when we left, but the bacon grease jar, refreshed, emptied and cleaned, was the constant companion.
A sale on thick-cut bacon is still cause for celebration around here. There’s always room in the freezer.
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Music this week is “Tea For Two” from our friend, Colin Tribe, in England.
In decades past, we carried Grandma’s gravy and barbeque sauce home on the plane. I still take food home after family visits, but it’s easier now because I drive between San Francisco and Los Angeles with a cooler in my trunk.
Holiday mornings always include Mimosas and bacon – in a quiche or with eggs, or snatched from the platter before it’s cooled. This year, my daughter and granddaughter surprised me with a batch of biscuits made with bacon grease. Best biscuits ever.
We Southern-born cooks put bacon grease in just about everything except dessert. We add it to breads. We sauce our vegetables with it. Gravy? Not possible without a roux that begins with bacon grease. Sometimes it’s bacon grease and butter creamed together, but the bacon grease is crucial.
My people kept bacon grease in a tin can near the stove. I keep mine in a jar in the fridge, and that’s the only part of the equation that’s changed. Bacon grease is the prize ingredient. We buy bacon just to render it, so we can own the drippings. As our holiday visit was ending, I remembered that the bacon grease jar in my fridge at home was almost empty, and made a note to stop at the market to buy several pounds of whatever bacon was on sale.
While packing to come home, I heard whispering and giggling from the other room and then my granddaughter appeared with a big grin, both hands hidden behind her back. She held out a gift “from Mom and me” – a small, round container with a red bow on the lid, filled with bacon grease. The last gift of the season is, so far, top of the list of Best Gifts Ever.