MARTHA RISES TO THE OCCASION

Copyright Sam Elmore


When we were farmin' on a plantation in Louisiana during WWII, someone in the family got sick, up in Arkansas where we originated. Mama caught the Trailways Bus and headed ‘home' on Friday afternoon. She took little brother Baucum (called "the baby") with her. Left behind was Papa, my big brother Barge (called Todd, age 13), and me (age 10). We didn't know how long Mama would be gone. I was missing her and Baucum before the bus got out of sight, despite the reassurances I'd heard Papa give to Mama: "we'll be jest fine" and "don't you fret none."

Along about dark, Papa decided it was time to cook supper for us. He went in and out of the kitchen eighteen times, with me 'n Todd followin' real close't and bumping into him when he stopped.. It wasn't long before we concluded that Papa didn't know a thing about how to ‘work a kitchen'. Me ‘n Todd was wonderin' when we was gon' get somethin' to eat.

"Boys", Papa said; "How does biscuits an' gravy sound for supper?"

"Sounds fine, Papa", we answered.

"Bud, you get a far goin' in the stove", Papa bade.

Papa didn't know where a thing was located in the kitchen. He opened the same cabinet a dozen times ‘fore he found what he was lookin for--some place else. He took out Mama's big mixin' bowl, and started lookin' for flour. Todd had already greased two of Mama's square, black iron, biscuit pans; I had the fire roaring in the stove. For some reason, Mama always left one of her skillets on the stove, even when she wasn't cooking in it.

After a while, Todd and I looked at each other, and we both nodded. It was obvious that we was gonna have to put everthing he needed right in Papa's hands, if we didn't want to starve. I set the lard can on the table, and went for the salt and baking powder.

Todd brought the flour can.

"What flour's 'at?", Papa asked.

"Sir?"

"I ast what flour that is--what kind?"

"It's Gold Medal, Papa; the only kind Mama ever uses."

"Wa'al, I got her a better kind t'other day; find it", he said.

Todd finally found it, in behind everything else; it was almost like Mama had tried to hide it. He brought the five-pound cloth sack of Martha White self-rising flour to the table.

"Now, then", he said, "we got 'er goin' down hill, boys", Papa enthused.

He opened the flour sack, and with a big coffee mug, measured out six heapin' mugs of flour into the bowl. Me ‘n Tod exchanged glances; it looked to us like he was overdoin' it a little.

"Brang me th' buttermilk", Papa asked.

"Buttermilk? Uh--there ain't none, Papa; ain't no milk of any kind."

"Aw-right--I'll use hot water. Bud, put got the kittle on."

Wa'al, I didn't have to put the kittle on, because I hadn't took it off; it always stayed on the stove. When I turned to look, Mama's black iron kettle had steam twirlin' from the spout. Now, then, thought I.

"Teaspoon", Papa ordered.

"Teaspoon", I responded, and produced one.

Papa measured out four heapin' teaspoons of baking powder into the bowl, hesitated, then added three more. We had no concept how much baking powder Mama used, when she made biskits; but we thought Papa might be ‘shootin' in the dark' a little bit.

"Kittle."

"Kittle", I echoed, and brought it from the stove.

Papa poured hot water in the bowl, then stirred, and poured, and stirred some more. He'd get it too thin and add flour; get it too thick and add water, until that huge bowl was brim full.

In the meantime, Todd opened the ice box and found six pork chops, wrapped in a clean cloth and layin' on a chunk of ice the size of a softball.

We all got busy doin' something, and when we turned back to the table, the bowl of dough, self-rising to begin with, then super-charged with a mega-dose of baking powder, had overflowed the bowl. It looked like it was tryin' to crawl across the table!

"Bud, brang me a dishpan! Make haste!", Papa squawked.

I ran to the back porch and grabbed the washpan off the porch shelf. Papa an' Todd began to scoop the dough up in their cupped hands and put it in the washpan. When the pan got full, I'd run out in the yard and dash it out on the ground.

The whole kitchen floor was covered with flour, from Papa gettin' rambunctious with his mixin'. There was even a coatin' of flour inside the coal-oil lamp globe. Mama's kitchen was a disaster area!

Finally, the dough seemed to quit growin'. I had already th'owed out three pans of it. Papa added more flour to that already on the floor, when he dusted his hands to make the biscuits. He filled two bakin' pans, and Todd slid 'em into the oven; Papa got ready to cook the pork chops and make the gravy.

Mama's black iron skillet had been settin' there on the hot stove, without any grease in it. I had got so hot, it started smokin' and poppin'. Papa put a hand-ful of hog lard in the hot skillet, and it almost flamed, but he headed that off by throwin' in a handful of flour, followed by a dipper full of water--merciful Georgia! Smoke went all over the kitchen, and it sounded like ten wildcats was fightin' in that skillet; and--stink? It ‘bout gagged us all.

Papa got all excited and, tryin' to take the skillet off the stove, he forgot to use a rag. The skillet handle seared his hand, an' he commenced hoppin' around with his hand ‘tween his knees, and hollerin' like a Indian on the warpath.

Todd grabbed a rag, took the skillet, backed through the screen door, and flung the skillet out in the yard. We greased Papa's burnt hand with hog lard, and Todd wrapped it with a clean cloth. I was pettin' Papa on the head, tryin' to make it quit hurtin', and--

"The biscuits is on far!"

Black smoke was boilin' out of every openin' the stove had! Instantly, the whole kitchen filled up with smoke. Thank Goodness for big brother.

"Y'all stan' back!", Todd hollered. Taking a rag in each hand, he opened the oven door, grabbed the two pans of burnin' biscuits, backed out through the door, and flung the pans out in the yard—into the growing pile of Mama's prized cookin' stuff.

"Bud, open some winders!"

I busied my-se'f until all the winders was propped open. It was ten-thirty that night 'fore we could see good for the smoke. We sat there, starin' at the one coal oil lamp in the middle of the table. The lamp didn't give off much light, due to the coatin' of flour that had drifted inside of the globe and had turned brown. It was like we was settin' inside of a coal mine or somethin'.

After a while, Papa stood up and said:

"Les' hit the sack, boys."

"Yessir", me 'n Todd replied; somewhat glum.

We were up way before the rooster crowed next morning. It took us all day Saturday, and half of Sunday, to clean up the mess in the kitchen and restore Mama's cooking stuff. Papa admonished us over and over about what not to say, and who not to say it to--if Mama was ever to come back.

When it was nearly dark on Sunday, Papa hollered at me in that ‘last time I'm gon' tell you' voice. Reluctantly, I climbed down from the stile over the bob-wire fence, up by the black-top hi-way where I'd been settin' all afternoon--lookin' north, hopin' to see a Trailways Bus bringin' Mama and "the baby" back to us.