A generation of Southern cooks is slowly fading into memory. They are the mothers and grandmothers who helped define traditional Southern food for the Baby Boomers and every generation down to X, Y, and Z. From the bayous of Louisiana to the Appalachian Mountains, they shared one quality—if they didn’t have what they needed to get dinner on the table, they knew how to improvise.
Women like these—I count my mother, Nelle Wright Terry, and her sisters among them—grew up during the Great Depression. As my Aunt Myrtle once told me, “We didn’t have much during the Depression, but we didn’t know anyone who had any more than we did.” They knew how to wring a yardbird’s neck for supper, and whip up a quick peach cobbler while the chicken was frying.
The ultimate symbol of mama’s improvisation was her biscuit cutter. For much of my childhood, she used a Contadina tomato paste can to cut her biscuits every morning. She never used a recipe, and she didn’t even bother with a rolling pin. She patted out the dough, folded it over, then patted out the dough and folded it over again. Then she cut the biscuits with her tomato paste can and slid them into a greased nine-inch cake pan. Fifteen minutes later you’d have a pan of the lightest, flakiest biscuits you had ever tasted.
When not in use, mama’s tomato paste can sat on the kitchen windowsill, ready for use for the next morning’s biscuits. I saw it every night as my sister Suzie and I washed the supper dishes. I didn’t appreciate it for what it was then, an example of my mother’s ingenuity in the kitchen. Now that she’s gone, I sure do.
If your mother or grandmother is still with us, ask her about the old days, the days before designer kitchens with stainless steel appliances and granite countertops. Ask her about the days when Southern women cooked what they had with what they had. That’s what made Southern cooking great.