Sam Elmore


On the phone with my sister Ruby one day during the summer, we talked about home cookin' and things we used to eat when we were youngsters: pork neck-meat with rutabagas, hot water cornbread and side meat, poke salat scrambled with eggs, etc.

Sister had been a little surprised when a friend of hers declared that soup was not suitable fare for summer, and should only be served in cold weather. That don't make much sense to me. We had soup year 'round, when we were kids. Not every day, mind you; but it sure wasn't considered 'seasonal fare' at our house on the farm.

Ruby told me that she had cooked a pot of 'Mama soup' just the day before. I asked her what 'Mama soup' was, and she said it was just regular ol' vegetable soup. She called it 'Mama soup' because our Mama (Miz Hattie) had told her one time: "when you make this soup, you put everything in the pot 'cept'n the dish towel."

On a recent Saturday morning, I watched a cookin' show on PBS....(yeah, I watch 'em thangs....there's more entertainment on PBS than all the other channels put together.) The cook on that show is the Master Chef at one of the famous restaurants in New Orleans. He was making chicken and sausage jambalaya, in a skillet.

As the Chef busied himself at the stove, he explained what jambalaya was, and how it got started. He said it was simply a one-dish meal that the Creoles made whenever they decided to ‘clean out the ice box'. The way he described it: "They put everything in the skillet but the kitchen sink." (Sound familiar?)

A writer friend of mine had a story published, titled: "When A Transient Is Not A Tramp", about the Great Depression and the movement of unemployed people across the country in those days. As I read the story, I tried to remember what 'transients' were called at our house when I was a kid during the depression. I didn't recall anyone ever using the words 'tramp' or 'bum.' So, as I always do when I draw a blank in the thinkin' department, I called my kin-folks.

We pooled our thoughts (I must admit they didn't make a very big pile) and concluded that they were mostly called 'Gypsies' at our house. In those 'hard-times' days, transients would occasionally pass our place on the gravel road by our farm in south ARkansas. For something to eat, they would barter such items as thimbles, needles and thread, or offer some labor for chores. What I remember most, was that they were (in the main) the most polite people you ever saw.

They'd walk up to the front yard fence and rap on the gate. They wouldn't enter the yard unless they were invited. Mama or Papa would come out of the house and talk to 'em from the front porch. They would offer to cut wood or do some other chore in exchange for a meal. I don't recall any of them being turned away without a little something to eat; generally consisting of what was left over from our last meal.

Mama would fix a plate of food for them, and Papa would invite them to have a seat on the porch; but they generally preferred to stand in the yard, or sit on the steps, to eat. Us kids were terrified of them because of what we'd read in books, or from horror stories we heard at school. Such things as: 'Gypsies can cast a spell on you from twenny feet away'; or, 'Never look a gypsy in the eye; he can steal your soul out through your eyeballs!' Grownup's talked about gypsies, too: 'Don't try to oiut-trade no gypsy; they'll skin ye' alive.' Papa always confirmed that Gypsies were ‘natural-born traders.'

Us three youngest boys would hang around and watch every gypsy that stopped at our place. We'd watch with one eye closed. We figgered, in our infinite wisdom, that both eyes prob'ly had to be open before they could steal our souls; so we felt a little less terrified of them with one eye closed.

Papa and the gypsy would carry on a grown-up conversation while he ate his food; mostly about economic conditions in other parts of the depressed country the feller had traveled through. Us kids'd be barefooted and spring-loaded to take off, if that gypsy so much as glanced in our direction.

Sister's reminder about 'Mama soup', and the PBS cookin' show reminded me of this: to the best of my recollection, the following is The Original Recipe for Nail Soup, as I heard it s'plained to Mama one time by a gypsy who leaned on our yard gate.

He walked up from the gravel road, rapped on the gate, and Mama came to the front door. He removed his ragged cloth hat, bowed from the waist, and said:

"Top o' the mar'nin' to you, ma'am; and isn't it a graaaand day at that?"

Mama just nodded, as she keenly watched to see if there was any danger indicated. Papa and the big brothers were all off somewhere plowing, so Mama was cautious with strangers around whilst the men-folks were all away.

The gypsy reached into his pack and brought out a gr'et big tin can; all dented up, and black on the outside, from cookin' over an open fire. Me'n my two brothers (one older, one younger) were poised on tip-toe by the corner of the porch, watching like chicken-hawks, and ready to flee.

"M'Lady, I wonder if you would be so amenable as to contribute an ingredient or two towards the construction of a pot of nail soup?"

"A pot of whaaat?"

"Nail soup, madam. It is standard fare amongst gentlemen with a penchant for travel. I need only the very basic ingredients to have sufficient materials for a pot of nail soup."

"Wa'al, I ain't never heard-a no such thang. What do you put in it, anyhow?"

"Ahhhh, just so, m'lady! Please allow me to elucidate."

And 'lucidate, he did! That feller used some of the hi-falutin-est words ye' ever heard in your life. What bothered me'n big brother was this: little brother, who was about seb'm year old, was prob'ly understandin' every blessed word the man said. If the man made a mistake, little brother would more'n likely call 'im on it!

The gypsy reached inside the tin can and pulled out a piece of twine about a foot long. Attached to the end of the twine was a bent, rusty, twenty-penny nail. He held the string up and dangled the nail in the air.

"You see, ma'am---to make perfect nail soup, one must first be in possession of a very sturdy nail. I am proud to affirm that this magnificent specimen has faithfully traveled with me across the breadth of this graaand Nation of ours!"

By this time, Mama was gettin' a little fed up with all the smooth-talkin' jabberwocky the 'gypsy' was flangin' around.

"Mister, I ain't got all day. What is it you want?"

"Ma'am, I apologize for the verbosity of my speech. The menu for nail soup allows for remarkable flexibility in it's compendium of ingredients. Perhaps you could spare, for instance, a tomato or a carrot, a pod of okra, a few butter beans, an ear of corn....oh, and perhaps a pinch or two of salt, as well---then, I believe I could fashion a veritably delicious pot of nail soup."

"Wa'al, if ye' put all that in 'ere, what in the dickens do ye' need th' nail for?"

"Oh, I beg your pardon, ma'am. I was remiss in not explaining. In the vernacular of we gentlemen of the road, the nail is called a 'starter.' We are very careful to withdraw the nail before serving the soup, ma'am."

Mama ended up giving the gypsy a nice parcel of garden-fresh vegetables, as well as a little salt and pepper for seasoning. The man tucked the parcel into his pack, then doffed his hat and bowed deeply from the waist. He thanked Mama in some of the prettiest-sounding words ye' ever heard, then he strolled out onto the gravel road, grinnin' and whistlin'. We watched him 'til he was clean out of sight, thinkin' how wonderful it would be to go wandering anywhere your heart told you to go.

On the phone with little sister, I told her:

"That 'Mama soup' you made? Gal, you ain't done a blessed thang but make a pot of Gypsy ‘Nail Soup'."

Everything in the pot 'cept the dish towel ? Yes, indeed! And goooood eatin', no matter what the season.

(Remember to take the nail out, 'fore ye' serve it.)