Long about 4:30 in the morning, Mom put the beans in the oven.
Two earthenware crocks, a gallon or so each I’d guess. One tallish, about as big around as a salad plate, the other shorter but big around as a dinner plate. Which came in handy, since Mom used an old salad plate — white with a green stripe around the rim — as the lid for the tall crock and a cracked blue willow dinner plate as the lid for the other. A pound of beans apiece, Great Northerns (her preferred bean) or navy beans, picked over for pebbles or broken bits or shriveled specimens and poured into the crocks with water almost to the top of the crock, put to soak about 4:30 the afternoon before.
Soak 12 hours, bake 12 hours in a slow oven. That was Mom’s rule of thumb.
Before the beans hit the oven, Mom stirred in a good amount of chopped onion, some brown sugar, a dollop of dried mustard and some black pepper, as I recall. And buried in the midst of the crock would be either a hunk of salt pork or a really meaty ham hock.
And then, the baking. Every couple of hours, maybe a little more, she’d pull out the rack in the oven and check each crock: push the lid-plate to one side with one pot holder and take it off with another, then stir the beans up from the bottom and down from the top so they’d cook even (but around the ham hock or salt pork, so the beans got flavored well). She’d add some water if the top layer looked too dry, but not too much; the beans had to be creamy and rich, not soupy or watery. The house would fill with the aroma, and when folks started to arrive, they’d say they could smell my mom’s baked beans all the way down at the curb!
Of course, I’m getting ahead of myself. First there was the potato salad to make, and the fried chicken.
The potato salad was pretty much Southern-standard, I guess, with the hard-boiled egg yolks mashed with mayonnaise and mustard and salt and pepper and a little of the sweet gherkin juice mixed in for the dressing for the cubed potatoes and the whites of the hard-boiled eggs and the diced gherkins. (If she was feeling lazy, Mom might — might, mind you — use a couple tablespoons of sweet pickle relish, but not often.)
Under no circumstances did she add black olives. 🙂 My aunt did, I think, and Mom always looked at her funny.
The fried chicken, of course, was soaked in buttermilk flavored with salt and pepper in a big bowl. For years it was a big yellow Pyrex bowl, the largest in a set, but one day Mom dropped it — full of soaking chicken! Man, was that ever a mess and a half. Like to broke her heart, too, both from the waste of food and the loss of that bowl, which she’d probably had longer than she’d had me. Anyway, the chicken soaked overnight, usually, or at least for several hours. Then she mixed flour and salt and plenty of pepper in a brown paper bag, drained the chicken, then dumped it in the bag a few pieces at a time and shook that bag for all it was worth. Meanwhile, an inch or so of shortening melted in her deep cast iron skillet. When all the chicken was properly floured, into the skillet it went.
Oh, man. Oh man oh man oh man, it smelled SO good. And I hovered, because when the chicken was done, however many batches it took to fry off, there were The Crunchies, those wonderful little nuggets of fried crust that we’d (sort of) fight over. As the cook, Mom got dibs, but I always managed to snag my share. When I started cooking, I’d make brownies or her recipe for red devil’s food leave-in-pan cake (NOT red velvet cake. NOT.) or cheesecake.
If baked beans were Mom’s best thing, cheesecake is mine. But the only recipe I used for years is one she cut out of the food section of the local paper.
So. The food being dealt with, company started to arrive, and the back yard filled with good friends and more good food and drinks and we ate and paused and ate and paused and usually ate some more, just to fill in around the edges. When it started getting dark, we’d get out the fireworks, starting with the sparklers and working our way through however many boxes everyone brought along. As if that wasn’t enough, we could stand on the front patio and see fireworks all along the horizon for a good 120 degrees, more if you included other people’s home versions. We’d hear the sharp pop of the firecrackers the neighbor kids had, the whistles and shrieks and crackles of the Piccolo Petes and the rest of that ilk, and drifting in from far off would be the heavier thuds and (not very earth-shattering) ka-BOOMs of the professional shows from half a dozen cities or more. The smell of gunpowder and burnt matches hung in the air like a fog, tickling noses, punctuating the greater sonic onslaught with local sneezes.
And then we’d have dessert, or more leftovers, and the rest we’d divvy up to keep or send off, and clean up what the guests hadn’t cleaned up, and go to bed.
That’s what the Fourth of July was like most of the time, when Mom was still alive. After she died, I had a few Independence Day parties, and made her baked beans, and a time or two tried her fried chicken, and everyone said they tasted as good as Mom’s. I hope they did.
I was always going to get back into the habit of having Fourth of July parties, but I never did. Now not only is my mom gone, but the house is, too, and I stood in the shower tonight after dinner at the shelter and cried a little.
But here’s my hope: that this time next year, I’ll have a place of my own again (even if it’s “just” my own apartment). And at least one of those bean crocks will have survived in storage, ditto Mom’s cast iron skillet, and I’ll invite over some friends and make baked beans and fried chicken and we’ll find somewhere to watch the flash and flower of fireworks, and celebrate my new independence.