“Granny, can I help you cook supper tonight?"
"Yeah, Baby, but you have to do everything just like I tell you."
Those were the words exchanged whenever I wanted to help in the kitchen. It was something of a ritual. I knew she'd let me help, but by asking, Granny got the satisfaction of knowing I was taking an interest in cooking, and I got the satisfaction, at a young age, of knowing I was being helpful.
We were a family of 11, so when we cooked, we cooked a lot. If you're familiar with Southern cooking, you know that collard greens were No. 1 in a Sunday night supper.
Granny, who was stationed more comfortably in the living room, told me to put the pork fatback in the oven and the ham hocks on the stove.
Before I did that, I took Granny a knife and some newspaper so that she could start picking and cutting the greens. Granny didn't get around much (she only had one leg), but I knew she'd have those greens ready to wash by the time I came out of the kitchen.
I sliced the fatback and put it in the oven. Then I washed the ham hocks and put them on the stove over medium heat. I knew how much seasoning to put in the pot. I'd done that lots of times. And sure enough, when I came out of the kitchen, the greens were cut and ready to be washed.
"Okay, Baby," Granny said. "Take these greens to the kitchen and put them in the sink. Sprinkle a little baking soda over them, then fill the sink with water and let them soak. While they're soaking, we can do the potatoes for the potato salad."
I did just as she said. As I peeled them, Granny diced the potatoes and we soon made short work of that chore.
This was my first time helping to make potato salad, so when we had the potatoes ready, I asked her what to do next.
"It's time to put the lima beans and greens on now," she said. "Take the cast-iron pot out and put half of the fatback in it. Wash the greens three times, then put them on top of the meat. Then put the other half of the meat in on top of the greens and pour in the grease from the fatback. Turn the stove on high so they can come to a boil."
I did just as she said.
She didn't have to tell me how to do the lima beans. They'd been put in a bowl of water the night before to soak. I knew to just pour them in the pot with the ham hocks, water and all.
"What to do now?" I asked. Granny said, "Take the potatoes and rinse them real good. Put them on the stove over medium heat but don't add salt or anything to them. While they're cooking you can put the bread in the oven."
"Okay," I said. She didn't have to tell me how to cook the bread either, because I'd made corn bread before. When I got the bread in the oven, I went back out to Granny.
"Is it time to make the potato salad yet?" I asked. "No, Baby, you have to have eggs to go with the potato salad, so go put six eggs in the pot with the potatoes. And then I'll show you how to make it up."
I went in the kitchen and put six eggs in the pot with the potatoes. While we were waiting for everything to get done, we worked on a jigsaw puzzle. Granny loved doing puzzles and always had one on what she called her "puzzle board."
Soon it was time to put the potato salad together.
"Drain the potatoes," she said. "Bring the mayonnaise, pickle relish, bell pepper, celery and onions. Put the eggs in some cool water."
I was on my way to the kitchen when I stopped in my tracks. "What do you mean, put the eggs in some cool water?" I asked Granny.
"They'll be easier to peel, Baby, if you put them in some cool water first." My hand flew to my mouth.
"What's the matter?" Granny asked when she saw the look on my face. So I told her. I had cracked the eggs into the pot. When she didn't say anything, I thought she hadn't heard me. But when I looked at her, I saw that she was laughing. I started laughing, too. Finally she stopped.
"That's all right, Baby," she said. "Just boil six more eggs in another pot. Then we'll make the potato salad. The next time you'll know how it goes."
I did just as she said.
Supper wasn't ruined that Sunday night, it was just a little late.
Virginia Harmon lives in St. Petersburg.