Food, Love and Ms. Fannie Neal


As a choir of tree frogs and cicadas sang the night’s lullaby, the soft laughter of Fannie Neal’s survivors echoed off the evergreen trees and rusted junk cars. The thickness of a Kentucky summer still hung in the air, perspiring onto the blades of bluegrass and weeds that grew together in a sort of conflicted harmony on the lawn. The crooked porch of the small white home was filled to the brim with new and old generations, telling stories and celebrating the 100 years of life that Fannie lived. The smell of Kentucky Fried Chicken blended with the exotic aroma of the potted aloe vera plants that covered every banister, and sat atop old wooden stools and rusted metal garden tables. If Fannie had been there, the fried chicken would have been spitting its grease in the kitchen, and fried potatoes and grease gravy would have been overflowing from her cast-iron skillets. As I sat and munched instead on a chain-made leg, I couldn’t help but feel she was there, sitting in that old wicker chair across from me, frowning.

Growing up in the small mountain town of Stearns, Kentucky, my Grandma Neal, as I called her, would have never spent a dime on something she could have made herself. Later in life, this law of hers would make some exceptions for Little Debbie Brownies, 7-Up and vanilla ice cream. But for the most part, Fannie grew up as, and remained, a frontier woman. When it came to food, this meant no waste. Leftovers were made into something else. Vegetables were grown in the garden, and berries were scavenged for homemade jelly.

I must add that when I say “scavenged,” I mean it literally. One hot summer day, my Grandma Neal, 95 years young, dragged my mother and me up and down hill after hill, back muddy trails into terrain the likes of which Lewis and Clark must have encountered when first traveling west. I soon regretted dousing my body in perfume that morning and ever mentioning wanting to bake a blackberry pie. Within minutes, I had ripped my jeans, collected at least a dozen ticks and attracted every mosquito within a hundred miles. I hobbled along behind my grandma, huffing, puffing and grunting at every briar branch that caught in my long brown braids. She, wearing only a blue flower-print cotton dress and some flat-soled shoes she’d probably worn for 20 years, bounced along ahead of my mother and me, mile after mile. Her long white hair was held firmly to her head with old black bobby pins, undisturbed by her rumble in the Kentucky jungle. Even though I was 15 years old, 80 years younger than Fannie, she could have walked me into the ground. My only consolation was the sweet juice of the blackberries I sneaked from the gallon ice cream bucket I carried. When we finally emerged from the brush and took comfort in the air conditioning of my mother’s Blazer, she and I no longer felt like making pie. Grandma Neal, however, was ready for another adventure.

Any day with Grandma Neal was an adventure. Sometimes just eating dinner was a journey into the unknown. Hanging out with Fannie, I quickly learned that most of the stuff we spray with Round-Up can be deep fried or boiled and served with cornbread. She knew how to heal the body and the soul with food; how to cleanse the colon, sleep soundly, ease pain, remove poison and cure any ailment. She treated any wound with a piece of her aloe vera, even big purple and black hoof prints. She never shied away from grease, butter or whole milk. She fried everything and still lived to see 100 years. I never quite understood it, but I also didn’t understand how anyone could not own a television.

“Idle hands are the devil’s tools,” she used to say, and she meant it. Sometimes I imagine her soul lingering in the garden, weeding and hoeing until the sun goes down; or tromping through the woods, looking for mushrooms and blackberries. I can still see her walking through the yard with a mayapple plant over her head to shield her eyes. “God’s umbrella,” she called it. She always believed that God had given us everything we’d ever need. I wish I felt that way.

I wish I knew what was in her health shakes. I know, it’s a strange question to ask at such a touching moment, but I cannot think about my Grandma Neal without remembering the day I tried “The Health Shake.” I was only around 10 years old, and my sister and I had spent the night with Fannie. Breakfast at her house was special. I could eat a grown man’s portion of fried biscuits, fried potatoes, eggs and grease gravy, and then eat it again for lunch. It was heaven on a plate. But that day Grandma Neal wanted to try something different. She wanted to introduce me to her shake.

As she prepared her concoction in the kitchen, I sat at the large oaken dining room table with my sister and mother, who had joined us that morning. Awaiting this new adventure, I gazed around the room in anxiety, staring at the tail of the cat clock that swung back and forth with the seconds. Tick … tick … tick. What emerged from the kitchen was a tall glass of a mysterious, thick gray matter, something comparable to—well, nothing. All I remember is the taste of banana, oatmeal and raw egg gliding down my throat. It wasn’t that bad at first. I finished the glass as my mother and sister watched in amazement. For some reason, they had passed on the shakes. When I set the empty glass on the table, Grandma Neal asked in her quiet, calm voice, “Did you like it, young’un?”

With what I believed was the polite and proper answer, I timidly replied, “Yes, it was really good.”

Her eyes twinkled in delight as she said, “I’ll make ‘nother one.”

My mother and I still laugh about that day, and the memory of my suffering as I finished another whole glass of Fannie’s health shake with a straight face. I can still taste it today, 11 years later.

Mind you, I can also taste Grandma Neal’s depression cake. Sometimes my grandma’s experiments turned out good results, and her depression cake was one of them. Years of living in the hills made Fannie an imaginative woman. I tend to think that raising four boys would have helped too. Either way, she lived a hard life, one that made being frugal and imaginative a necessity for survival. During the Depression and two World Wars, sugar, flour and eggs were in short supply. Eggs she could get from the chickens out back, but without the other two being as handy, cake was something only to be dreamed of. Still, Fannie wanted to treat her boys, and her husband, every now and then to something special. I can picture her, standing in the kitchen, pondering some new recipe and looking through bare cupboards. On the stove in a large Dutch oven, leftovers from the morning’s oatmeal would have set cooked and thickening in the warming afternoon air. “That’ll do,” she must have said as she discovered the oatmeal. There it was, a way to make two meals out of one. Leftover oatmeal, with a few other ingredients, became “oatmeal cake,” and later “depression cake” as it passed through a couple generations. Thank you, Grandma Neal.

“Are yer tater cans a dingin’?” That must have been Grandma Neal’s favorite question. It was simply in her nature to provide, to fill up every “tater can” that came her way. The stove and countertops of her tiny kitchen would become buffet tables laden with greasy beans, fried okra and cornbread. Hand-battered legs of fried chicken would pop on the stove, harmonizing with the popping that came from more cast-iron skillets of fried potatoes, and the bubbling of a boiling pot of yet more potatoes—for mashing, of course. For dessert, there was blackberry pie or apple pie, warm from the oven. Stepping into her home was a wake-up call for the senses, previously dulled by the boring flavors of packaged or fast foods. If you ever mentioned Betty Crocker to my Grandma Neal, she would have said, “Who?” She would have looked at you in bewilderment as you tried to explain adding eggs and oil to a pre-made mix. No, everything she cooked came from the heart. Recipes memorized from yellowing pieces of paper and scrawled cursive. Recipes that changed with her mood, or the time of the year. Recipes that could only be passed on through watching, learning, recording.

Her heart—that’s what my Grandma Neal always used first, and nowhere was that more tangible than in the food she fed everyone she loved. She passed that love down the line to my mother, and then to me, and I must pass it down to my children. I love to cook, and I love to feed people, and I attribute the full, happy feeling this gives me to the love my grandma taught me. As we mourned the loss of Grandma Neal that day, I realized that we, but mainly I, had let her down with our ready-made food at her wake. To this day, I can see her frowning at me each time I grab a box of “just add water” or “heat and serve.”  I hesitate, put the box back and reach instead for my cast-iron skillet and a hand-written recipe hidden away in my keepsake books.

Yes, Grandma, my tater cans a dingin’. Please, show me how.

>>Recipe: Grandma Neal’s Oatmeal Cake

Maegen Neal grew up in Corydon, Indiana, but remembers good old days at Grandma’s in Whitley City, Kentucky. She is an English writing major at Indiana University Southeast.

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  1. Sweet! This reminds me of my grandma, who happens to make the best chocolate and biscuits around. My family is also from Whitley county! My dad graduated from Whitley county high school — many a long lost cousin, great-aunt and other extended family members I may never know still live there!

  2. When I read Maegan Neal’s essay, I couldn’t believe its author was only an undergrad. It’s such an elegant, stylish, beautifully paced piece. You got big things ahead of you, girl!

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