by Stephanie Kadel Taras
Stephanie is my friend and colleague in the Association of Personal Historians. She published her memoir Mountain Girls in 2013, from which the following is exerpted. Next week I’ll post an interview with Stephanie about the process of blending her personal history with her inquiry into what it means to be from West Virginia.
“I can remember when I was a kid I wouldn’t eat biscuits, wouldn’t eat cornbread,” Hazel Wood tells me today. She grew up in Elkins in the 1940s and ’50s. After Hazel’s mother, Lucy White, married Teaberry Lantz, they moved off the mountain and into town, because they’d had enough of “living out,” as Lucy called it.
“Mom would make homemade vegetable soup,” Hazel remembers, “and I’d say, ‘No, give me a can of Campbell’s.’ I look back now and think how dumb I was.”
I’ve come to the local 4-H camp to talk to Hazel (my mom’s friend and former voice student) about food. Winner of eighty ribbons in a single year at the Mountain State Forest Festival “Ag Day” for her canned vegetables, cookies, pies, cakes, candy, breads, and garden produce, Hazel is, well, pretty adept in the kitchen.
Every dish I’ve been privileged to eat at Hazel’s home—like beans and cornbread or chicken salad or fried zucchini—remains the best home-cooking of my life. Even cottage cheese and sliced tomatoes seem to taste better coming out of Hazel’s kitchen. When we were children, we begged Mom to ask Hazel to bake her famous chocolate cake with peanut butter frosting for our birthdays. I long to be able to cook like Hazel, but I won’t get there with instant gravy and frozen biscuits.
The 4-H camp is just outside Beverly on the top of a rise, surrounded by high-altitude farm fields and distant views of rolling blue peaks. This spring, Hazel and her sister, Helen, are cooking meals at the 4-H camp for public school students at a day-long science camp. Today’s lunch is beef and noodles, salad, green beans, and rolls, all made from scratch and way better than most school lunches I remember.
I went to 4-H camp in these very buildings more than thirty years ago. I can even find myself in a black-and-white group picture that hangs on the wall in the main building. I’m shorter than most, my blonde hair a bob with bangs, my skin pale, my eyes squinting in the sun.
The camp grounds today look exactly the same as they did then. After the science campers have eaten and gone, Hazel brings a plate of lunch out of the kitchen to sit with me. She is short and stocky, wearing slacks and a T-shirt that says “World’s Best Grandma.” She is sweating and wiping her brow.
“I’m always like this now,” she says. “I get so hot, the sweat just pours off me.” Hazel, like my mother, is in her late sixties. Gray is showing in her short, layered hair, but her brown eyes are bright behind big, round glasses.
“How do you make these rolls?” I ask, taking a soft bite out of a perfectly shaped dinner roll, white on the inside, browned on top.
She shrugs. “Oh, you just make the dough and then pinch off pieces and put them side-by-side in the pan.” I think it must be hard for Hazel to talk to me about cooking, since it is all a wonder to me, and it’s so old-hat for her.
“I never did any cooking when I was growing up,” she assures me, “except fried potatoes and onions. Fried potatoes was a staple in our house, and we loved onions in them. Even when I was a kid in junior high, if I wanted something to eat, I would go to the kitchen and fry me a skillet of potatoes and onions.”
When Hazel married at seventeen and had her first child, she learned quickly how to cook, sew, and take care of a household. “I just kind of picked up cooking skills, one dish at a time.” She called her mother and aunts for help. “I taught myself all the family recipes. I didn’t use cookbooks for that.”
Hazel comes from a long line of good cooks. She remembers eating at her grandmother’s house every Sunday afternoon when she was a girl. Many of the ten children of Texie White and their kids would come together for a big family meal, a softball game, and some music. Hazel loved her grandmother’s applesauce pies. “Grandma canned everything,” she says, “all her own vegetables and fruit. She made her own sausage when they’d kill a hog, and they would cure the hams with salt and brown sugar. She canned a lot of their meat, because they didn’t have freezers then to store food.” The family improvised refrigeration by building a “spring house” where crocks of milk were kept in the cold, running water from the spring. “I’d hate to even think of how many jars of food Grandma White had,” says Hazel.
I am awed at the thought of women like Grandma White feeding their families every day from the food they produced. Think of the time and skill required to cook on wood stoves and preserve garden produce without refrigeration and stretch food through the winter when the mountains could make it nearly impossible to get to a store. I wouldn’t want that life today, but I wish I had that knowledge. By the time I was a kid in the 1980s, almost nobody remembered that way of life, and I didn’t know it ever existed.
© 2013 Stephanie Kadel Taras
To purchase Mountain Girls or read more about Stephanie and her work, click here.