The Joy of Cooking, Walthall Style

Sara in the Walthall Street apartment.

“The first morning I got up to cook some bacon and asked Russell how much grease to put in the skillet, and he realized right then that I did not know how to cook. Since Mama was right next door she was available for instructions for cooking a few things like a roast or pork chops. Being a sweet lover, I soon learned how to make desserts and got to be a pretty good cake maker. We both got fat as pigs that first year, trying out my cooking and eating my desserts.

Russell with one of his Heinz displays.

“He would leave home about five o’clock every Monday morning and not get back until Saturday. I was working and slipping by and eating with Mama a lot and visiting at night with the two girls on the other side of the duplex, Lena Bruns and Hattie Frances Kelly. I would back cookies and cakes and test them out on them.

“Our little apartment had a small living room, a bedroom, bath and kitchen. There was a little screened in porch and a big backyard. To get from the living room to the bedroom you had to walk down a very narrow, dark hall through the bathroom. We adjusted very well to our meager accommodations though and did a lot of entertaining in the bedroom and kitchen since the living room was so inconveniently located. We would set up a card table in the bedroom to play cards or eat and even entertained one of Russell’s bosses, Mr. Ortmeyer, in the bedroom. He was a good friend and knew that we were married and since he despised Mr. Thompson, he got a kick out of knowing it when Thompson didn’t.

“Outdoor cooking was just getting popular then. I ordered a barbecue grill from Goldsmith’s in Memphis and we started having folks over for hamburgers in the backyard. We had bought our living room and bedroom furniture from G.D.’s place of employment, Jordan’s Furniture Store in Cleveland, and got it half-price, which was cost. We are still using the same furniture [1992].

“Mama was pleased that we were living so close by and especially since our apartment was in the house where she had once lived and had her first date with Daddy. The house has since been moved from that spot and where the house stood is a parking lot.

“About a year after we married Mr. Thompson found out that we were married and that Russell was maintaining his residence in Greenwood, not Clarksdale, and he transferred him to Greenwood and gave him a raise of $2.50 a week. Despite Mr. Thompson’s reputation and strict discipline I always felt he was a good friend to us and remained so until he died.”

Russell knew he was in trouble that first morning back on Walthall Street, and he still loved telling that story about Sara’s bacon debacle years later. I’m sure he had to learn to cook just to survive or at least to man the counter at Findlay’s Drugstore in Greenville. Sara, on the other hand, grew up in a house with three adult women, two older sisters and a female cousin, and one younger sister. She probably never got near the stove at the Stott house, so how in the world would she have known that bacon has a funny habit of producing its own grease?

The amazing line in these paragraphs is the modest comment that she became “a pretty good cake maker.” What an understatement. She would be up way before dawn most mornings, bustling about in the kitchen, whipping up the most amazing cakes and cookies, anything with sugar in it, filling the whole house with this incredible cloud of confectionary bliss. I will always believe my ticket to certain Girl Scout troops and clubs depended solely on other girls’ mothers envy of Sara’s cooking. Having a bake sale? Her stuff flew off the table, and if you had the good fortune to be in mine or Cathy’s class during one of her numerous Room Mother years, you were going to leave that grade a chubbier child than when you started. Her “cooking” was never anything other than mundane (largely because we had Georgia for that chore), but her “baking” has never been matched.

When I got my first apartment, Sara typed me up a little spiral-bound cookbook. I still have it, 36 years later. There are 2 or 3 recipes for real food and page after page of divinity and chocolate pinwheels and brownies and strawberry cakes and fudge pies. And when I cleaned our her East Adams pantry in 2009, I threw away 14 boxes of sugar, most of it hard enough to break your toes if you dropped it. Sweet lady, sweet tooth.

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About sec040121

Hello....I'm in possession of a priceless collection of memoirs and memorabilia left by my mother, Sara Evans Criss. She was a native and lifelong (88 years!) devotee of our small town, who covered this peculiar and volatile corner of the world for 30 years as the Memphis Commercial Appeal's Greenwood bureau chief, a job that started out with debutantes and high school football and wound up spang in the midst of one of the twentieth century's most enduring social upheavals. This blog is dedicated to her memory and the legacy she left behind, both for her family and her community.
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3 Responses to The Joy of Cooking, Walthall Style

  1. jenny says:

    In the first photo, that chair that she’s sitting in is now in my den in Alabama. It’s one of my favorite pieces of furniture

  2. Nancy Webb Phillips says:

    I was one of the fortunate ones to be in your class several times and to relish those great cupcakes, cakes and other treats your mom baked. I can still recall how good they tasted. I also remember Halloween parties at your house, and going upstairs to the “Haunted House” for a tour. What fun!!!

    • sec040121 says:

      She was certainly the master of sweets. My favorite creation of hers was “surprise balls,” where she’d wrap up a toy or candy in colored crepe paper, tie it all together and then decorate it for the appropriate holiday. And the parties: No one ever did spaghetti intestines and grape eyeballs like my mother! I wish I had some of that creativity.

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