It was only after I lost my grandparents that I appreciated what disappeared with them. They lived at the foothills of the Ouchita Mountains, rocky knobs of earth that demarcated the western grass plains of Oklahoma and the shallow ridge of hills and forests that stretch east into Arkansas. Likewise, my childhood was spent in an in-between place; on one side were the poverty and scrappy hardiness of people like my grandparents and on the other, the upward mobility and middle class dreams of my parents' and my own generation. The house my partner and I recently bought has central heat and air. I don't think my grandparents ever even had air conditioning. I remember an attic fan that would kick on, pulling hot air upward and pushing cool air back down. In the winter, they used a wood burning stove in the corner of the room.
My grandma was a quiet woman with large bright eyes; dark, wrinkled skin; and long, black hair that defied gray, which she usually wear in a bun on the back of her head. Her wardrobe veered toward opposite ends of the spectrum: she wore either grandmotherly, print dresses or brightly colored slacks and shirts that were the epitome of fashion in the 1970's. My memories of her are wrapped up in the food she cooked. She preferred a wood cook stove and baked in cast iron skillets. Every night she cooked pinto beans and fried potatoes for my grandfather, and for the holidays, she baked home-made pies with golden meringue whipped from egg whites. She was quiet; she left the talking to my grandfather. Unassuming, modest, soft-spoken--my mother says that my grandmother was truly a lady in every sense of the word. She didn't have fancy clothes, servants, or any of the other markers of the elite, but she was a lady nonetheless.
My grandfather was the storyteller in the family. His throne was a green and yellow woven armchair, which sat in the far corner of the room, next to a love seat where my grandmother sat catty-corner to him. I wish I could remember the stories he would tell. But I can't. I do remember his voice though, the look in his eyes as he retraced the stories of the places he'd been, the people he'd known. It was mesmerizing, truly so, in a way that I've not encountered since. A person could sit and listen to him for hours, like a favorite song on the radio. For me, listening to my grandpa was an experience resonant with comfort. Outside, the weather was hot, the locusts were buzzing to kill a chainsaw, and inside, my grandpa wrapped us in the safety and familiarity of his storytelling.
My grandfather loves sweets; my grandmother abhorred them. His favorites were lemon cake and ice cream. I remember we would bring him cartons of ice cream for his birthday. Although far more talkative than my grandma, he was not a loud man, nor arrogant. He liked to laugh, found amusement in his children and grandchildren. He laughed with his mouth closed, and his laughter shook his whole body and twinkled in his eyes. Being the person who made him laugh was a special prize, like an unexpected gift on your birthday.
I could say my grandparents were simple people with simple lives, but I don't think anyone's life is actually "simple." If they aspired to touch stars or see unicorns, I never knew it. They worked hard all their lives and seemed satisfied with the bit of comfort they had accumulated at the end of their lives.
I have a lot of regrets when it comes to my grandparents. I regret their early deaths. My grandma was 59 when she died; she had struggled with diabetes and asthma for a long time. She died about a month, I think, before I graduated high school. I remember she kept an oxygen tank in the living room. My grandpa died several years later, lost and lonely without my grandmother by his side. I regret not listening closer to my grandpa's stories, not writing them down and asking him questions. I regret not telling my grandparents how much they meant to me, the way they shaped every aspect of my life. I regret an incident that occurred when I was a kid, maybe ten or eleven years old; the guilt has plagued my entire life.
It was Christmas. My grandparents never got us presents. They couldn't afford it. They lived on beans, potatoes, and government commodities. But that Christmas, my grandma had bought me a pair of earrings. And when I opened them up, I gave a snort of some sort, and my "thank you" was ripe with sarcasm. I thought I was cool; I'd heard the same sort of contempt come from some character on a Disney sitcom. But of course, I was just being a fool. My older cousin pulled me aside and told me not to act that way, and I told her my ears weren't pierced. I had no need for earrings. Funny that I felt no remorse at that point, but I've suffered from it every day since then.
I guess an adult can excuse such childish behavior as the folly of an immature mind. I guess I can chalk up all my regret that way. But I just can't balance the lasting impression my grandparents' had on my life with my indifference toward them when they were alive. Like most young people, I took my grandparents for granted. I can only hope that the residue of their lives that I carry in my DNA and in my memories pays them the respect that I owe them so dearly.
I am not what you would call cultured. I don’t hang out in art galleries. I hate jazz. I don’t slosh wine back and forth in fancy glasses and extoll its floral bouquet. I think art house movies are annoying. I've never read Proust, and, frankly, I'm not even sure how to say his name. No, I am not cultured.
But I do have a culture.
Culture isn’t about being fancy, or at least, I don’t think so. It is a much more casual thing. It's the everyday happenings that fill up our lives. My culture is paint-splattered shoes that should have been thrown out months ago and t-shirts with bleach spots. It's a dog with a muddy rear end and a bucket full of kitchen scraps.
It’s beans and fried taters.
If there were ever a meal that bespoke the culture I grew up in, that would be it. Beans and taters. They evoke the warm sun of my childhood. They make me wax nostalgic. And it seems I’m not the only one who finds poetry in this meal of legumes and spuds.
I did a little google search to find out what other people thought about beans and fried taters, and here’s just a sampling of what I uncovered:
My grandmother used to make these, and I didn’t get the recipe before she passed away.
We had these often growing up.
I have been trying to make these like my mom did . . . when I was growing up.
I am a true Okie and these were a staple growing up.
When I was a kid, beans and fried taters were as common for dinner as milk is for breakfast. Everybody ate them. Well, maybe not everybody. Just poor people like us. But I didn’t know we were poor. All I knew is that we ate a heck of a lot of beans and fried taters.
So what happened, then, to this simple fare? Progress. Progress in the form of boxes of processed food that is quick and cheap. Before this so-called progress, if your stomach was empty and so was your wallet, what you turned to was a pot of beans and a skillet of crisp fried taters. Not anymore. It seems like nowadays they’re appreciated more for the memories they bring back than their affordability.
I, for one, ate a lot of beans and fried taters growing up. My sister, my brother, and I ate so many, we thought it must be our dad’s favorite food. It was! But, of course, that’s not why we had it every night for dinner. As we grew up, my dad worked his way up the financial ladder until more mainstream foods began popping up on our plates--hamburgers, spaghetti, tacos, macaroni and cheese--and less of the more traditional, cash-strapped stuff.
And like many others whom I found online, when I think of this rustic cuisine, I think of my grandma. For as long as I knew her, she made beans and fried taters every night for dinner. There was never any question about it. Every night. Thanksgiving. Christmas. It didn’t matter the occasion. There was always plenty of beans and taters for everyone.
My grandparents worked hard all their lives. I mean HARD. Not 40 hour work weeks. I'm talking about the kind of work that has you out in the fields before the sun’s cracked open the horizon, the kind of work that soaks you in so much sweat that bugs stick to your skin, the kind of work that builds your muscles and breaks your back. They hauled hay, chopped wood, worked in the broom corn fields, and heaven knows what else. Mind you, it was nothing illegal--no, nothing that would have gotten them rich.
By the time I knew my grandparents, they were old. Or at least, to my immature self, they were. And every memory I have of them, I cradle in my brain as gently as a newborn baby.
So when I say beans and fried taters are my culture, this is what I mean. They are a tradition passed down through the generations. They are my family. They are my childhood. And today, when I fix them for my own little girl, I am not just feeding her dinner; I am memorializing our family history.
Word and Book Lover.