by Ralph E. Gordon
I canít remember when Mama didnít cook spaghetti and meatballs, but she didnít fix it too often. Spaghetti and meatballs was a special dish for special occasions, not unlike dressing or chicken and dumplings. Mama fixed her meatballs the old fashioned way.
She got Mr. Bill, the butcher at Mathews Grocery and Feed in Union, to grind a little pork up with the beef to create the perfect blend of the two. Forget about measuring spoons; Mama put a dab of this and a pinch of that until she got it just right, and then it was time to roll out the meatballs and sear them in her black iron skillet. For the final touch she poured her homemade sauce made from homegrown tomatoes, homegrown onions and just a touch of store bought bar-b-que sauce over the perfectly round little morsels.
Over on the other side of the stove Mama would have a pot of homegrown purple-hull peas and maybe a skillet of fried okra. Mamaís Southern feast was topped off with a big pan of hot golden brown cornbread which she timed to come out of the oven just as the tea was about to be poured.
Then Mama commanded: "Wash those hands and get that cap off your head" -- two non-negotiable requirements everybody, including Daddy, had to meet before they were allowed to sit down at Mamaís table. This mouthwatering, made in Dixie menu of spaghetti and meatballs with peas and cornbread was what everybody called "fittin" here in our little corner of the world . . . everybody except Daddy, that is.
One evening after supper when Mama was nowhere around, I asked Daddy if he liked spaghetti. He told me the first time he ever saw the stuff was when he was in the Navy during World War II. He said he refused to eat it because it looked like worms. I never looked at Mamaís cooking as fish bait, but I could see his point. Daddyís comments about spaghetti were soon forgotten and I still loved Mamaís special treat -- fish-bait or no fish-bait -- but his comments left me a mite bewildered. Obviously my Grandma Gordon somehow missed out on this great icon of Southern cuisine, seemingly one of the greatest mysteries of all time! Ten years later a trip to the Gulf Coast helped clear up some of that mystery
When I was a senior in high school, my cousin Rabbit and I went to Gulfport to go fishing and flounder gigging with my older brother, Bernard. Bernard loved to show off the Coast to the folks from back home in the hills. That didnít really impress Rabbit much since he had been in the Marines and all, but he went along with my brotherís grand tour just to be polite.
Bernard knew of a swanky Italian restaurant where he wanted to take Rabbit and me for supper (or should I say 'dinner'?). I donít remember the name of the place, but it was in Biloxi right on Highway 90, overlooking the Gulf. My brother was used to the swanky restaurants on the Coast, and he made sure I wore my Sunday shoes and shirt before we went.
I knew this was a high class place when I saw a sign that read: "No tobacco chewing or cussing." As we entered the restaurant, my cousin Rabbit told me not to get in too big a hurry to sit down; he said a lady would probably come over and show us our table. I figured Rabbit had seen plenty swanky restaurants while he was in the Marines. After we stood there for what seemed like an hour, a lady finally showed up and asked what we were waiting for. "Yíall come on in and find a table; somebody will be with you shortly."
What a swanky place it was, and to top it all, Mama wasnít there to make us wash our hands or take off our caps.
Spaghetti and meatballs? I thought this was supposed to be an Italian restaurant and they were serving spaghetti and meatballs. I should have suspected something when they didnít have purple-peas and fried okra on the menu.
Somewhere between another round of cold Budweisers and breaking the seal on our second jar of pickled quail eggs, the waitress took our order. I went there for Italian food, and I was going to have Italian food. I ordered the number 5 on the menu, Earl's Biloxi shrimp pizza (doesnít get any more Italian than that).
Rabbit ordered the spaghetti and meatballs. If Mama knew that, it would break her heart. Why would anybody go to an Italian restaurant and order spaghetti and meatballs? The only logical conclusion I could come up with was that Rabbit planned to use any leftovers for fish bait the next day. All of this reminded me of my conversation with my daddy ten years earlier.
The next day, after the Biloxi shrimp pizza, pickled eggs and the Budweiser wore off, it came to me: Maybe spaghetti and meatballs is not a Southern dish after all.
But it didn't matter . . . nobody ever told Mama.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR:
Ralph Gordon is a fifth generation Mississippian who lives in Union, Miss., with his wife Pat. He is a retired salesman for a major lawn and garden equipment manufacturer and former executive director of the Union Chamber of Commerce. Ralph is an active member of the Newton County Historical Society and serves on the Board of Directors of The Boler's Inn Museum Foundation. He received his education at Beulah Hubbard High School, East Central Community College, Delta State University, and has studied writing at Millsaps College.
The focus of Ralph's writing (poetry, songs, humorous short stories) is on local and family history with an emphasis on Southern folklore. He is currently writing his first book. A regular contributor to the Journal of The Newton County Historical Society, his stories are also published in the Oxford So and So. Three of his songs were recorded by Mountain Gypsies, a well known Arkansas bluegrass group. The Mississippi Department of Tourism displays two of Ralph's history-based poems at the Vicksburg Welcome Center.
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