Every once in a while I have a real hankering for grits. Even though my North Carolina grandmother moved to Montana as a young girl, she learned to cook southern style from her mother and older sisters. I remember her cooking grits two ways. Grits served with salt and real butter, or grits topped with bacon drippings gravy. “True grits” in the south are served with salt and butter only. It is almost a religion, and I remember an old saying that goes something like: “Grits brings out the glory in a man”. Although adding toppings, like gravy, or sprinkling grits with sugar, may be considered “sacrilegious” in the south, being the rebel that I am, and a born and bred Yankee, I most often eat mine with milk gravy.
Grits are one of those “love or hate” foods. It seems they have to grow on you, if you did not grow up eating them. I loved grits from the first spoonful, yet it was my grandmother’s biscuits that stole the show for me. And her crackling biscuits were to “die for”.
My grandparents raised and butchered their own pigs. One of my first memories was of walking down the road from my parent’s cabin to see grandpa. I rounded the corner of the pig shed to see a huge swine strung up by its back legs with throat cut from ear to ear, blood all over the ground, and grandpa in the process of performing a disembowelment. I was only three or four years old, yet it has remained embedded in my mind. The memories that tend to make lasting impressions for the long-term, seems to be either traumatic, or having to do with comfort food. In the case of this swine, he “became” comfort food.
Grandpa would butcher a pig, and then grandma would take the pork butts, side pork, shanks and hocks, smoke them, and hang them in the cellar to dry. As with the depression generation, nothing was wasted. The organ meats were cooked and eaten right away. The hog head was boiled and turned into head cheese (homemade luncheon meat).
Rendering lard was an arduous task, performed outside over an open wood fire in a huge cast iron pot. What was left over at the very bottom of the pot, after hours of stirring to melt hog fat off of the pig’s skin, were delectable chunks of crispy pig candy which grandma called “cracklins’! Eating these bits of pig candy out of the pot, must be where the origin of the cliché “being in hog heaven” came from. Cracklings were strained out of the lard, chopped and stored in a cool place to use for seasoning vegetables (like home canned green beans:) and to make my favorite childhood comfort food “cracklin biscuits”. Made with fresh eggs, lard, and homemade buttermilk; there was no other “Southern comfort” food that compared to grandma’s flaky crackling-studded homemade biscuits.
Every spring, grandma hatched around two hundred chickens in the attic of their log home. After a couple of weeks, the chicks were moved out to a large chicken coop. I remember watching 8 mm home movies showing grandma throwing out chicken feed to ravenous red hens. Grandma Bina would use her “egg money” from selling eggs to neighbors, for buying luxury items such as candy, cocoa, coffee or yarn. Every weekend, she would spend a whole day, chopping off chicken heads, singing off feathers, plucking, and cleaning chickens to take into town and sell to the local store. So, most often, Sunday dinner was southern-fried chicken, homemade cracklin’ biscuits, and bacon-drippings chicken gravy, that although humble fare, could only be described as “glorious”!