Texas has a special ability to create identity and character for those who call it home, and perhaps nothing is more central to a Texan’s worldview than our food culture. I am a sixth-generation Texan myself, and the recipes I’ve received from the women in my family are as integral to my heritage as any other tradition.
One woman in particular embodies my family’s love of food, as well as the history of food in Texas—my grandmother, whom we affectionately call “Mimi.” Between her unmatched personality and her decades of experience, Mimi is a legend in the kitchen. Not only is she known for whipping up the world’s most indulgent Southern food, but she makes it look like a piece of cake…or in her kitchen, pie.
“Oh honey, I don’t know,” she says as she takes off the silver rings that she’s worn my whole life and places them on the counter. “I don’t follow recipes.”
Mimi and I are planning a simple meal using a few undeniably modest, but unquestionably Southern, recipes that were passed down from her mother and grandmother. But if I’m looking for an established set of directions, I’m not going to find them. In fact, I don’t think I’ve ever seen her pick up a measuring spoon. She relies, instead, on the memories of cooking with her family on their farm.
“You’ll need grease the size of a hen egg,” she says, as she dips a spoon into a jar of shortening and looks at me over the top of her glasses—her hair neatly twisted and stacked atop her head. “People always say, well, an egg is an egg is an egg—but of course, it isn’t! We had guineas growing up, too, and those eggs were too small!” Then she pauses to sip the chicken broth bubbling on the stove. “Hmm…needs more salt.”
Born and raised in the Piney Woods of Newton, Texas, Mimi grew up during the Great Depression. Although times were dire, she credits the food her family grew and ate for a happy upbringing, as well as for her family’s ability to thrive during one of our country’s greatest crises.
“We had a farm on a city block’s worth of land,” she says, as we snap Kentucky Wonder beans and toss them into a heavy, cast-iron skillet to soak up a savory brine of salt pork and water. “I was so lucky to grow up in the country instead of being a city girl! We had pecan, fig, pear and apple trees for all our fruit pies, and a barn and a smokehouse for our pigs and chickens, and a syrup mill down by the Sabine River. The first cold spell of the year was hog-killing season and the whole family would get together to make sausage. It was my favorite time of year. The people living in the cities, well, food was hard to come by for them. But we had everything we needed.”
Back then, chicken and dumplings was a family favorite for filling up hungry bellies, and it remains a favorite for my siblings and cousins today. As we roll out the dough for our batch, Mimi suddenly hoots with laughter.
“You can’t just go out there and catch a chicken, Michal! They run away from you! Mama had a wire she called a ‘chicken hook’ that she hung up on the porch outside. She used that thing to grab a chicken around the leg and then grab it by the neck and whip it around and around until finally it would just up and die.” She whips her arm above her head with enthusiasm as she talks. “And during hog-killing time, it was the woman’s job to be in the kitchen rending the lard. Let me tell you, it was hard to be a mama.”
With our beans and dumplings now simmering on the stove, we turn to a bowl of bright nectarines. In our family, dessert requires no special occasion, yet Mimi’s homemade fruit pies are incomparable. She peels four nectarines in the time it takes me to peel two, then we chop them and boil them down with a cup of sugar and butter. Mimi insists on making her own crust every time, and the extra time it takes makes all the difference. Many a time have I caught my own mom sneaking the last bit of crust from the bottom of a pie pan as a family party is winding down.
I like to think about the previous generations of my family that probably did the same thing: grabbed every last crumb with relish and licked every plate clean with gratitude. The only thing that can beat a home-cooked meal is the closeness I feel to those who’ve been making and enjoying these same recipes for years and years—the most special person, to me, being my grandmother.
By Michal Ann Morrison • Photography by Jules Slütsky