What Southern Folks Eat - Imperfect citizens of a delicious place
“[As a Southerner] I am an imperfect citizen of an imperfect, odd, beautiful, dysfunctional, delicious place.” - Rick Bragg
When my husband and I spent a summer in Arkadelphia, Arkansas, back in the summer of 1992, we befriended some interesting people we remember fondly still. Arkadelphia is a university town surrounded by lovely farms, ranches, hills and creeks, so we met people ranging from college administrators and international students to maintenance men and cattle ranchers. Oh, and one dairy farmer.
I use the term “farmer” loosely, to be honest. This was an old couple who had nailed a sign to a tree in front of their tiny old wooden home. It simply said, “fresh cow milk” in a spray-painted font. They had a couple of cows and other animals on their small property down their dusty, tree-lined road, the animals providing enough sustenance to fill their own bellies. What was left they used to pay the light bill.
My husband, who had been raised on various farms in Mississippi, caught sight of that sign one day, backing up to take a look at the place. Thinking it was likely safe, he parked his ’78 Ford truck in front of the shack and stepped out. A gray-haired woman came through a screen door and stepped out onto the porch to look at him. He called out to her, “can I buy some milk from you?” and she waved him on inside.
He watched as the old woman picked up a large bucket out of her fridge and poured the creamy cow’s milk through some cheesecloth into an empty milk jug. He paid her a few dollars for it, and he came home, happy as could be with his acquisition.
He absolutely adored the milk, so much so that it was not the only time he went to the old lady’s place to get the more. He went a few days later to get enough to make ice cream for some sweet friends we’d met on campus, Joey and Jennifer. That creamy milk made a rich, wonderful vanilla ice cream that we all ate until we couldn’t hold another spoonful.
On his last visit to the house at the end of summer, the woman waved him into the old house once again. He stepped inside the warm front room, only slightly cooled by the box fan whirring on a tabletop. As his eyes adjusted to the low light inside the room, he couldn’t believe what he saw.
Her husband was standing over the kitchen table holding a butcher knife. He was surrounded by a small flock of buzzing house flies, which he didn’t even seem to notice.
He had slaughtered a hog. He brought the dead animal inside the house and was butchering it right there, on his wife's bare kitchen table; it was like a scene from some rural horror movie. After that, I was a bit relieved that summer was nearly over and that that would be his last trip to the old woman’s house.
Not everyone who lived there was that unusual, of course. There were so many kind people (who probably never once butchered animals on their bare kitchen tables, I'm betting) that we met during those three hot months. One of those people was a tall maintenance man whose name we can’t even recall now that nearly three decades have gone by, but he did make an indelible impression upon us, culinarily speaking: he shared a special family recipe with us.
It was his mother’s recipe. She was a grandmotherly country woman who made exactly the kind of food we both love: old-fashioned Southern cooking and baking. One summer day, we tasted the most delicious cookie we had ever tasted up to that point: her molasses cookies with butterscotch chips and pecans. She had baked a batch of them for him to share with his co-workers at the university one day. My husband, the college student who worked part time with him, immediately fell in love with those dark, chewy cookies with their creamy nuggets of butterscotch and bits of crisp pecan throughout them.
He brought them home to our little Craftsman-style rental home, rushed into the kitchen, and handed me a cookie.
“Try this!” he commanded, as he reached into the fridge for some of that fresh, cold cow’s milk he’d bought from the old woman. He poured an icy glass of the creamy drink, and then bit into one of the chewy cookies, and his face was transformed. That was the look of ecstasy, my friends.
The next day at work, he asked his generous co-worker if he could possibly get the recipe so that I could make them for him. A few days later, the proud son showed up with the recipe in his mama’s handwriting, a copy of what she'd written on a sheet of notebook paper sometime before.
We were both so grateful for that gift. It’s been nearly 27 years ago, but I still have that lady's recipe, now in a protective sleeve, and I have made those incredible cookies dozens of times over the years for my husband, our three sons, and even some customers who asked me to bake for them.
I treasure old recipes; I believe it is important to preserve our region's culinary history by sharing recipes with one another, just as this lovely woman from Arkansas did with me. I was a young 'un in her eyes back then, and she did what I love to do now, and that is to share the best Southern recipes with younger folks who want to learn. This practice will help keep alive the memories of what women like her made while raising their brood of children on the farm, for example, or what our grandparents admirably learned to get by on during the Depression. Their recipes frequently shine with creativity, and are nearly always incredibly delicious. Those things are important for the preservation of our culture.
If you decide to bake a batch, you'll find that the bold molasses and butterscotch flavors, along with the lightly crisp pecans, make a chewy, decadent cookie that many will love.
The recipe makes a large batch of cookies; you may want to make a half-recipe, or make a whole batch and freeze half of the dough for another day. When the children come home from school or when you’re expecting guests, pull some out of the freezer, stick them in the oven and make them a wonderful treat!
Old-Fashioned Molasses-Butterscotch Chip Cookies
3 sticks of butter (don’t panic; remember, this makes a lot of cookies!)
1 1/2 cups granulated sugar
1 cup molasses
4 1/2 cups plain flour
1 tablespoon baking soda
1 teaspoon salt
2 teaspoons cinnamon
1 teaspoon ginger
12-ounce package of butterscotch chips
1 or 2 cups of chopped pecans, optional
In a large mixing bowl, combine flour, baking soda, salt, ginger, & cinnamon. Set aside.
Cream butter, sugar, eggs, and molasses in the mixing bowl of an electric mixer until very creamy.
Gradually add flour mixture to the creamed mixture, occasionally stopping to scrape the sides and bottom of mixer bowl. This should take no more than a minute or so.
Add the butterscotch chips and pecans, and mix them in on low speed.
Chill dough for an hour or two.
Roll dough into walnut-sized balls, place on an ungreased non-stick or parchment-lined cook ie sheet, and bake at 375 degrees for about eight minutes.
This cookie lends itself well to a range of doneness: if you prefer a softer cookie, eight minutes will likely be just right. Crispy-cookie lovers might want to bake for ten minutes.
Also, they're perfect for creating ice cream sandwiches; place a scoop of vanilla ice cream between two equally-sized cookies, press down to distribute the ice cream, then wrap individually. Place the sandwiches in the freezer to firm up before eating to avoid drips when serving.
Makes about four dozen cookies. Enjoy!
Stephanie Hill-Frazier is a writer, food blogger and regional television chef, whose on-air nickname is "Mama Steph." She grew up in Gulf County, on St. Joe Beach, a place she will forever call home.
She is married and has three sons who are substantially taller than she is. You can email her at Steph@whatsouthernfolkseat.com.