Sundays are supposed to be a day of rest, but growing up in my family, Sundays were hectic. First it was Sunday school for me and my brother. Usually Dad stayed home to do yardwork, and mom took us to the United Methodist church, where she attended services in the sanctuary and we were relegated to the basement for Bible stories and games.
The fun part was afterwards, when we got together in the social hall for donuts and hot chocolate. That was the highlight for us kids. But that was only the beginning of our day. Still dressed in our Sunday best, the next stop was to our grandparents’. And that punctuation is correct, it was to both my Mother’s and my Father’s parents’ homes that we visited, in a single day.
It might’ve seemed a feat to travel from our home in Annandale, in the suburbs of Washington DC, to the westerly locations of the small town of Haymarket and then to Warrenton in a single day, but thanks to the entertainment provided by the windy gravel roads and bucolic scenery, which we actually looked out the window and observed back in the day, that part was all good. It was the eating that was a challenge.
Don’t get me wrong, the food was delicious, but my parents felt obligated to have a meal at each of their parent’s home, so generally it was lunch at one house and then dinner at the other. And this all happened within a space of several hours.
In case of my Father‘s mother, the cliché about the grandmother who always insists that you eat more was exact. And Grandma Brown made some good eats. One of my favorites was her old country ham, which was as salty as the day is long, using Southernism oft heard around her home.
Virginia ham, a family tradition, lovingly prepared
The magic of grandma’s Southern ham was in the making of it. The process started many months before we would enjoy this old-fashioned cured delight. Grandma would get what they called a green ham, which was an uncured hindlegs quarter, obtained from the local butcher, since fresh green hands were not stocked commonly at the grocery store. She would start with about a 25 pound ham, and then she would mix up her cure, which consisted of mostly salt and some brown sugar, red pepper and paprika.
She was careful not to add too much sugar, because it would spoil the ham. Then she went through the pain staking process of wrapping the ham in paper bags then stuffing it into what was known as a ‘sock,’ which was a stretchy knit bag that the ham fit tightly into. Because she didn’t have a barn to hang the hand then, she put it in a large pot under the bed where it would stay for around 60 days.
During that time, the cure would force the meat to lose its moisture, and the ham would reduce its water content from about 70% to 50%. Grandma would check the ham and dump out the water as the cure penetrated and wrung out the water, and the larger crystals stayed on the outside of the ham, which contributed to the color and flavor.
After this process, she would remove the covering and place the ham in a new sock, and then she would store it again for approximately 6 to 9 months so that it would age and the enzymes would break down the proteins and fats to give the ham its flavor.
After all this process, she would take out the ham and place it on a raised rack and then bake it in about 325° for about four hours, checking it constantly and adding water. That’s when the house filled with the aroma that forever I will remember as the aroma of home and family gatherings. I did not fully appreciate as a child all the trouble grandma had gone to in order to serve us this favorite dinner, but now that I do, this meal is ever more special to me.
My grandma Pruitt also had her special dishes that bring up wondrous memories of family gatherings and great meals shared together. One of my favorite recipes of hers was for lima beans with ham. As a woman who raised her family of three children during the depression era, grandma learned to make do with very little and yet provide abundantly for her family.
Southern-style Lima beans, heaven on a spoon
Her lima bean recipe was a dish that represented one of the good things that came out of her learning to live leanly when the going was tough. Her simple Southern style lima beans were not so simple by today’s standards.
She started with a couple pounds of dried beans, which she would pick through to get out any cracked or bad beans, stones and debris. Then she would rinse them off by stirring them around in a pot of water, and then she would put them on the range under a couple inches of water to bring them to a boil. Then she would drain them and rinse them and then put in fresh clean water to boil them again. She would add in some baking soda to soften the skin, and then she would season the beans with salt.
The secret to the flavor of grandma’s lima beans was bits of ham. She would save ham bones and boil them and carve off the small leftover pieces of ham, which she would set aside and then add into the beans about 15 minutes before they were done.
Grandma then served the beans in a small saucer, where she added a little bit of milk and butter. The soupy mixture of the milk with golden swirls of melted butter created a delectable spoonful of beans, eaten with a spoon.
Meals that make memories
The meals we had at grandma’s house were the centerpiece of our afternoons spent with our grandparents. Food was always the communal piece of our gathering, when the kids all came in from playing outside, Mom and Dad and uncles and aunts all helped out in the kitchen, setting the table and bringing the hot dishes to the table where we all sat, extra chairs squeezed in, and the clamor of passing dishes around and across the table created a hum of voices and laughter.
While time marches forward and we can never go back to our childhood or days past, in our memories we can relive these precious moments, and in eating these favorite dishes we can experience the scents and tastes of joyous times, and we can celebrate and remember those who gave us such wonderful memories in passing on their traditional recipes, sharing them with our own children, and creating our own recipes that our families will cherish for him generations to come.