Last week I went back to Anderson, South Carolina, my parents' home town and the site for some of my best childhood memories and earliest cooking experiences. It was the first time I'd been back in at least twenty-three years, and was bittersweet.
It was surprising how much was just was it had been when I last drove away from it, as if the ensuing decades had passed without touching it. But so much had changed—and a good bit of it for the better. By the time I was in college, the old downtown was rapidly going to seed. But it has since experienced a Renaissance. The courthouse square, which had been paved over as a parking lot in the fifties, has been reclaimed as a small park and the site of a new courthouse annex. Trees lined the center median of Main Street, and new shops, restaurants, and hopping night spots have filled the old storefronts that line its edges.
But. While all the places that had meant a lot to me were still standing, many of them were in peril. Southside Baptist Church, where my parents met, grew up together, and were married, was sadly neglected. Its trademark steeple was shedding shingles and louvers from the bell chamber openings, the latter of which had been boarded over for so long that the paint on those boards was faded and peeling.
Next to it, the tree-lined streets that made up Gluck Mill Village, where my father was born and raised, now have an uneven canopy from so many of its trees succumbing to age and neglect. The neat rows of cottages, once carefully and lovingly tended, resemble the snaggle-toothed grin of someone whose dental hygiene has been grossly neglected. For every house that is still neat, square, and shining with fresh paint, there are at least three that look beaten-down and defeated.
The sturdy brick school house, which, when I started at Clemson had only recently been neatly restored into a community center, is now abandoned and has deteriorated into a boarded-up, dilapidated ruin, overrun with weeds and Virginia creeper.
Just a block away from it stands the house where Dad was born and raised. Though still in the family, it has the down-at-heels look of a place that's no longer loved. The yard where Paw-Paw Fowler, with less than two weeks left to his life, stubbornly stood on weakened legs to watch the church until my parents came out so he'd know they were married, is cluttered and overgrown.
The little duplex where Granny (Dad's mother) moved after Paw-Paw died, and spent the last thirty or so years of her life, was still in fairly good repair, but was so changed that it was barely recognizable, and the porch where I can still see her rocking was no longer screened, but instead had a strange heavy, modern railing that clashed with its simple architecture.
We left the village and drove less than a mile down Old Starr Highway, now called South Main, to where it splits and merges with Murray Avenue to form a divided highway. We stopped on the small island of land formed by that split in the graveled lot of a long, still-sturdy, brick storefront whose wide front porch hugs the edge of the highway.
The faded but still legible signs on its flank read Master's Country Store, but in my youth it was just "Master's Store," a grocery, dry-goods, butcher's shop, and service station that catered both to the surrounding farming community and the mill village.
For more than thirty years, my maternal grandfather managed that store, pumping Texaco gas, checking oil and tire pressures, scooping ice cream, and delivering boxes of groceries (yes, delivering) to the elderly widows in the neighborhood. But mostly, he was the butcher.
He made sage-scented pork sausage that lured customers all the way from Atlanta, ground beef chuck, cubed round steak, and cut rib steaks to order from carefully aged whole sides of meat. And with an ancient, cleaver-like carbon-steel cheese cutter, he cut fat, orange wedges of cheddar from cloth-bound wheels that he'd aged for at least two years in the meat locker.
As I stood on the shady porch of that store and peeked through its dusty windows, I could still smell, if only in my mind, the sawdust that covered the butchery floor, the pungent aroma of sage, red pepper flakes, and salted pork fat, and the mustiness of old, oil-stained wood. But most of all, I could smell and almost taste the tang of that cheese.
It's natural rind nearly russet-colored with age and its center studded with the same protein crystals that mark a mature Parmesan, it was so sharp that it would literally take the roof off your mouth—and was indescribably delicious. I've not tasted its equal since.
Wistfully, I turned away and wandered next door to the only other building on that "island," a modest arts-and-crafts cottage where my maternal grandparents lived for half their marriage. In their day it was always gleaming white, its porch, surrounded by flowering hedges and beds of black-eyed Susans, sported a double swing and bright rows of red geraniums in fat clay pots that were at various times rusty natural clay, sun-yellow, dark green, and wash-cauldron black.
Painted red now to match the other outbuildings of the Masters family farm across the road, the house is unoccupied, and although it's being tended, its grass is mown and its shrubberies trimmed, it no longer has the loving attention it knew in my grandparents' day.
As I stood on its front lawn, a rush of nostalgia that was warming and heartbreaking in equal measure brought back some of the happiest moments of my childhood: Chasing June bugs and grasshoppers in that yard, climbing the old chinaberry tree, lazily reading or drawing on that porch, and, best of all, cooking with my grandmother in the kitchen.
When I close my eyes, I can still see that kitchen in sharp detail, down to the contents of every cupboard. Before I was ten, its bright yellow beaded-board walls were replaced with clean, white plasterboard, and its few enameled steel cabinets gave way to modern built-ins of knotty-pine. But even though it was white for a lot more of my childhood than it was yellow, that's how it lives on in my memory.
That kitchen is where I learned how to fry chicken, make country-steak with onion gravy, sauté blanched poke salad with streak-of-lean and spring onions, slow-simmer pole beans with salt pork, stuff hollowed-out yellow crookneck squashes for baking, make my grandmother's beef vegetable soup that was thick with produce that all came from my grandfather's garden plot, mixed countless pound and layer cake batters, fried doughnuts and dusted them with cinnamon sugar, and hand-mixed the best pimiento cheese that I'd had before or since.
I can still vividly recall every detail of making that pimiento cheese, down to squishing part of the cheese into the mayonnaise with my bare hands, but have never recreated it exactly. That's partly because of the cheese that went into it, the cheddar my grandfather aged in the meat locker. But it's only recently that I realized the other thing that was missing: the mayonnaise Ma-Ma used.
It wasn't homemade. Ma-Ma wasn't a lazy cook, but if a commercial product came along that took care of a tedious cooking chore, such as beating driblets of oil into egg yolks by hand with a fork, she embraced it without looking back. So it was a commercial mayonnaise. But the trouble is that the brand she used, while still made, no longer tastes the same. Most brands today, hers included, are made with soybean oil, which has a distinct aftertaste that's not altogether pleasant.
Still, I make it, and try to get it as much like hers as I can manage. Because, even if it's only a whisper of what it was then, it's still a touchstone back to her, to my grandfather, and to a childhood that, while not always perfect, was a lot luckier and happier than I knew.
It isn't complicated; it just needs care, patience, and good cheese. Take a pound of the sharpest, oldest cheddar you can get your hands on and, while it's still cold, grate a quarter of it through the fine holes of a box grater. Yes, by hand. Set that aside. If it's not as sharp as you'd like, fine-grate a quarter of a pound of good Parmigiano-Reggiano and set it aside. Grate the remaining cheddar through the coarse holes of the grater and let it all sit until it loses its refrigerator chill.
Meanwhile, drain two 4-ounce (or one 7-to-8-ounce) jars of diced pimientos in a large wire-mesh strainer set over a bowl to catch the juice. Get out dry mustard powder and ground cayenne pepper and have it close by.
Now, put the fine-grated cheddar in a mixing bowl and add to it about ¾ of a cup of mayonnaise. Add a generous pinch of the mustard and a dash or so of cayenne. Using your hands, squish the mayonnaise and cheese together until it's smooth. Yes it's messy and a little disgusting, but if you channel your inner child, it's actually kind of fun.
Mix in the coarse-grated cheddar, pimientos, a spoonful or so of the pimiento juice, and, if you're using it, the Parmigiano-Reggiano. If it seems too thick and stiff, add another spoonful each of pimiento juice and mayonnaise, and then add mayonnaise by spoonfuls until it's a good spreading consistency, but not loose and mayonnaise-y. Taste and adjust the cayenne and mustard, keeping in mind that what you should mainly be tasting is cheese and pimientos.
You can dig into it right away, but it'll be improved by letting it rest, refrigerated, for a couple of hours or even overnight. It'll keep in the fridge for at least a week. Always let it sit at room temperature for at least fifteen-to-twenty minutes so that it loses that tombstone refrigerator chill. Slather it on thin-sliced white bread, pipe it into 2-to-3-inch lengths of washed and strung celery, or just put it in a bowl and surround it with crackers.