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DEBRA HALE-SHELTON: Embracing the sweetness of seasonings

by Debra Hale-Shelton | May 17, 2020 at 1:43 a.m.

Mama always said I was "made of sugar and spice and everything nice." I have no reason to doubt her words.

After all, I ate a lot of egg custard when I'd visit Nana's and Papa's, my grandparents who lived on Union Street in Marked Tree. That pie was smooth and yellow with a healthy sprinkling of spicy nutmeg on top. And when I went to my other grandmother's--Mammaw's--small green house nearby, I'd peek into her kitchen cabinet to see if she had any chocolate pie. She usually did, and I usually ate a slice.

Mama was busy going to college, teaching, and doing housework, so she didn't make as many pies and cakes as Nana and Mammaw. But when she did, I always made a point to sample them.

I remember Mama's molasses cookies. They were big but thin, round and crunchy with bits of pecan in them. Many years later, I made some of those cookies to take to a parenting class while my husband and I were preparing to adopt our daughter. By meeting's end, the plate was empty.

Mama also became famous in our strictly teetotaling family for her rum cake. She'd have Daddy buy the rum at John & Frank drug store, located just across the street from his barber shop. The drug store was locally famous for its hometown owners the Brunner family, friendly longtime employee Richard Fleming, and its resident mynah bird Shane.

Shane was a chatterbox of a little guy. When the phone rang, he'd try to imitate the pharmacy workers and say, "John & Frank. Are you sick?" By at least one account, Shane's accent made "Frank" sound like "Trank."

Shane was also notorious for his wolf whistles when he saw passers-by--men or women, he did not care. They didn't even have to be good-looking. But one day, Shane apparently grew weary of a too-talkative customer and declared, "Awww, shut up!"

I'm not sure how Daddy explained the liquor purchase, but I am certain he offered an explanation because just about everyone in that town knew he didn't drink anything stronger than Maxwell House coffee.

I don't know any of the other ingredients for that cake. I presume it had flour, eggs and sugar, though. Oh, and cinnamon; that was the spice in it. I love cinnamon, especially when it's mixed with rum.

By the time Mama landed that recipe from one of her teacher friends, Mammaw was living in a nursing home but came home to visit with us one Christmas. I still remember Mammaw had seconds on that rum cake, and Mammaw was never one to brag on her daughter-in-law's cooking. Mama was smart: She didn't tell Mammaw there was Bacardi rum in it.

Years later, Mama and Daddy moved to Jonesboro, then Conway. Unlike Marked Tree, both of those towns are in dry counties. I guess that's why Mama hasn't made more of those rum cakes in recent years. But I'd be happy to drive to Maumelle or Little Rock for her and get some rum if she'd just ask.

Oh, and I know sage is an herb, but I'm going to count it as a spice because Mama put lots of sage in her chicken and dressing every Thanksgiving and Christmas. It's been said that sage makes us wise. I guess that explains how I got that $250 college scholarship back in 1968. Today, that might pay for one or two textbooks. I'm sure my mom could mention a few things I've done that defy wisdom, though, like the time I was making hot chocolate and used a cup or so of salt instead of sugar. My dad was the poor soul who got the first taste.

So that takes care of my sweet and spicy sides. Now, for "everything nice."

I suppose I should include the red-eye gravy I ladled onto those big, ruggedly round biscuits Nana made for breakfast. I know a pig's bacon drippings don't sound that nice, but that gravy tasted mighty nice. So did the thick, white gravy Nana and Mama made, with flour, milk and more bacon drippings.

I realize it sounds as if I never ate healthy food, but I did--lots of fruit, especially watermelon on each Fourth of July and tangerines and bananas most any time. Back in the 1960s, I developed serious thyroid problems and lost weight no matter what I ate. One day, I ate five bananas in one sitting, and didn't gain a pound.

I also ate "nice" vegetables, like red potatoes fried in Crisco. Mama chopped up some green onions to cook with them. And I loved the turnip greens at Britling Cafeterias in Memphis. I think they were simmered with a chunk of salt pork.

Mama always made lots of beans--pinto, Great Northern, green, lima, you name it--and I liked most of them. They say it's not nice to eat too many beans in public, but they never had my mama's beans. Her secret: A chunk of salt pork in the bean pot left to simmer for four or five hours. So, when my Chicago-area sister-in-law asked about 30 minutes before dinner if I'd like to have some "mushy" Southern green beans, I dismissed the suggestion and no doubt rolled my eyes.

My newest favorite food is avocados. It turns out they're a fruit, so I can add them to the bananas, tangerines and watermelons.

Panera Bread makes a spicy sandwich I love. It's called chipotle chicken avocado melt. I've grown weary of most meat and poultry in recent years, so I get the chicken on the side for my dog Shady (my sweet and nice side), and devour the rest of the sandwich. I think chipotle counts as a spice; the cheese, a protein; the bread, a grain.

I've lost a lot of weight lately due to illness but still a good thing. So, I'm good, even nice.

Debra Hale-Shelton can be reached at Follow her on Twitter at @nottalking.

Editorial on 05/17/2020

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