Reminiscing with Bessie Richardson
Last summer, I mentioned to Steve Richardson, owner of Richardson Farms, that I was interested in the foods that were eaten in this region when my 100 year-old house was young. After ten minutes describing home-cured bacon, sassafras tea, and sweet potatoes, Steve said, “You know who you really need to talk to? My mother. I’ll get you her phone number.” So I called Steve’s mother, Bessie, to find out about Mississippi cuisine, circa 1940.
Bessie Richardson is a remarkable woman. She has lived in Mississippi for all but four of her 92 years, and she has been cooking since she was about ten. The flavors of Bessie’s youth, and the ones she still enjoys, are intimately connected with the land — the vegetables from her garden, the birds in her flocks, milk from her cows. When Bessie was young, the work required to feed a large family — Bessie was one of twelve siblings and she is the mother of ten children — was intensely physical. Beating cakes with a long-handled spoon, churning butter, milking cows, and gathering firewood are vastly different from our modern practices of grocery shopping, using electric mixers, and turning on an oven. But Bessie sees value in that labor. Raising her own food meant familiar, delectable flavors and security from hunger. Though Bessie is now blind, she still grows her own greens because they taste the way she remembers they did. They taste “right.” But don’t let me tell her story. She tells it better.
Tell us about your youth. I was born February 9, 1924 in Hines County, Mississippi. We had a house built with pine frames. It was heated with a wood-burning stove. The kitchen was a room indoors just like anything else. We didn’t have a dining room or anything like that. We just had a table where you sat down to eat.
Would all twelve of you kids sit down at one time? Oh yes. If some of them didn’t want to sit down at the table, they’d go out and eat on the porch.
What are some foods that you remember eating when you were young? We fried our own meats on the stove. We raised our own hogs and cows and chickens. We had Plymouth Rocks, Bard Rocks, Rhode Island Reds, and blue and white guineas. And I had white geese and dark turkeys with black skin. It was common at that time for people to have their own flocks of turkeys and geese. The best thing you could do then was to raise your own food.
I had about 25 turkeys, 10 geese, and about 150 chickens. I killed my own chickens and dressed them myself.
Did you sell the eggs? Oh yeah. I didn’t go out and sell them, but if anyone wanted them, they could buy them — fifty cents a dozen.
You know what eggs are going for now, right? Well, I’m blind, so I don’t go to the grocery store, but my daughter came back and told me and I couldn’t believe it.
Who did most of the cooking at your house? I did. Starting at about 15, though I started cooking when I was about ten. My parents would come out of the field at about 12:00, eat dinner, and go back at 1:00.
Tell us about some of the dinners or breakfasts you had. A good dinner was when the minister came over. When church was finished, he and his wife came over to the house and I would bake a cake — chocolate, coconut. Most of them liked chocolate cake. We’d have some green vegetables, some butter beans, English peas, any kind of vegetable. Chicken. We raised our own corn, then we shelled it and put it in sacks. Everybody brought their corn to the mill.
I baked bread, biscuits, and cornbread inside the stove. With a wood-burning fire. There were eyes [openings] on top of the stove, about the size of a plate. You could take the eye off if you wanted to cook something over the fire. Or you could just leave the eye on and it would cook real good on there too. And you didn’t have to buy your wood because you could just gather the wood around your house.
And if you had all those brothers and sisters… That’s what I’m talking about.
What tools were in your kitchen? We had iron skillets and iron pots to cook in. Dish pans, stuff like that. Forks, spoons, and bread spoons, which are those great big spoons with the long handles.
Ah, I didn’t know the name of those. That’s what they are: bread spoons. You could beat cakes with them and push down your greens as they cooked, or check your peas in the pot with them. You could use them for most anything you wanted.
Was there electricity in your house? At that time, I didn’t have electricity. When you were going to beat your cake, you had to beat it by hand and make your biscuits the same way. But now they’ve got these electric mixers. You know I’ve had one for a long time, but I never pulled it out for my cakes. I got out my bread spoon and I beat it just like I did back then when we didn’t have any electric mixers.
So you still like to beat things by hand. Yep.
Do you feel that your family ate similar foods as your neighbors? Oh yeah. We always ate the same kinds of foods. If we killed a hog, we’d pack up a big sack of meat for them, and they’d do the same for us. At that time, people didn’t suffer as much as they do now. They got out there and worked for their food. They raised it, so they didn’t worry about having enough.
Did you buy anything from a grocery store? Oh yeah, we bought sugar and baking powder. That’s about all, because we grew our own molasses and canned our own jelly. My mother would take us out with buckets and we’d pick blackberries, apples, and plums. She’d take it back and boil it and make all kinds of jelly. We made our own syrups, like river cane syrup and sorghum.
What is river cane? It’s like sorghum, but it has bigger stalks and it’s not as tall.
What was your favorite thing to eat? I always loved vegetables: peas, butter beans, okra, fried corn, and greens. Any kind of greens — turnips, mustard, kale, broccoli.
How do prepare your vegetables? I bring them in the house, wash them, and put a dishpan of them over the drainer while I have some meat cooking in the pot. Maybe some ham hocks or smoked leg bones or whatever. When the meat is about half-done, I put my greens in and let them cook down until they get done. They take about an hour, but cabbage and mustard don’t take long. About forty minutes and they’re done.
What did you like to drink as a kid? Well, mostly we drank lemonade and Kool-Aid. We had tea sometimes at dinner, but I never was a tea lover. Coffee’s another thing I didn’t drink a whole lot of. I ain’t never been crazy about it.
Is there something that you had only every once in a while and looked forward to? One thing we didn’t get a whole lot of was beef — steaks and stuff like that — but I never cared too much about steak. I still don’t like it much now. Pork is what we ate. Really, I’m not a meat lover. If I got it, I eat it, but if I don’t, I keep right along.
Were there any special desserts that you looked forward to? Oh yeah. I often cooked some kind of pie — peach, blackberry, blueberry. We had pie because my children loved sweet things. If you didn’t give them sweets, they’d go and eat molasses. I’d also have cookies for them — sugar cookies and molasses cookies, tea cakes.
How far away was the grocery store from you? About seven or eight miles. We’d go once or twice a month. The kids, they wanted to go to the store to buy candy.
Sounds like my kids. What other foods did you make when you were young? I used to churn my own butter. I enjoyed it. I’d get my bucket and go every morning and milk my cows. When the can got full, I turned the cow back out the gate, came back to the house, and strained the milk up. Then I set the pail on the floor, churned it, worked the water and milk out of it, and put it in a pile. It didn’t take long. ‘Bout a half hour. I loved it. It’s a good taste if you churn your own butter.
Now the butter and other stuff that you buy from stores doesn’t taste like it did back then. Another lady was talking about it with me the other day, how different the tastes are with stuff you buy now. It just doesn’t have the flavor we had when we were growing up.
Do you think the vegetables taste different? When you grow your own vegetables, you get a whole lot better taste than you do if you buy them at the store. I’m 92 years old and about two years ago, my son said, ‘Mama, you don’t need to worry about that garden. Whatever you want, we’ll bring it to you.’ But I just want my own garden. [She laughs.]
Thank you for talking with me. I hope you eat something really delicious today. [She laughs again.] I do too.