Like little stars.
You can have only one favorite grandmother. Your affections for each might be so close that you’d need a photo finish to determine which Velcro sandal or bosom shelf crossed the line first, but one will always edge the other out.
As a child, I voted with my belly. Both grandmothers were excellent country cooks. Granny, my paternal grandmother, was famous for her cathead biscuits, tomato gravy and mustard greens. Nannie, my maternal grandmother, countered with prize-winning buttermilk pies and eight-layer chocolate cakes. My very favorites were Granny’s blackberry doobie and Nannie’s fried green tomatoes.
We ate them during the summer months, when their farms were in high season, when a “Butterbeans — You pick!” sign on the side of the road meant we might get a few new children to play with for an afternoon. Then, when the season ended, the blackberry doobie and the fried green tomatoes disappeared, just like our temporary playmates.
The blackberries grew about a mile from Granny’s house, in the ditches of a red clay road. Granny would send me, my brother Ben, and my cousins Will and Darlene out to pick them, saying, “Y’all take Duke with you.” Duke was her homely mutt, black and tan and stubby-legged. We called him “Wiener” because sometimes his wiener would roll out like a tube of honky-tonk lipstick and get stuck that way for half a day or longer. When he wasn’t distracted by his faulty privates, he dutifully protected us from unlikely strangers and probable snakes.
Headed back with our full pails and badly scratched limbs, we always argued about whether it was safe to eat a few — surely some animal had peed on them. Inevitably we’d arrive at the house with stained mouths and half the berries we’d started home with gone, hoping there were enough blackberries left for Granny to make her blackberry doobie — a sweet blackberry broth, thick with tender dumplings, topped with vanilla ice cream that quickly melted, creating a creamy purple soup. It was all the more delicious because we had picked the blackberries ourselves and had the laborers’ scars to prove it. (Duke/Wiener got a bowl too. He did his part.)
Nanny’s fried green tomatoes were easier to come by, though she often seemed reluctant to make them. I think she felt it somehow wrong, sneaky almost, picking a tomato before it reached its promised hue. But if I followed Nannie out to the garden, and if I begged her to make the fried green tomatoes, she’d pluck three or four real quick, before the other tomatoes could see and wither themselves with worry about dying young.
In the kitchen I watched her slice them and dredge them — first in seasoned flour, then in buttermilk and egg, and finally in cracker meal — before she slipped them, one by one, into a large cast-iron skillet shimmering with hot oil. As they sizzled and popped, I hovered like a gator over a turtle’s nest.
At the table, Uncle Odie, who was pastor and lone parishioner at the Church of Uncle Odie, gave the blessing as if he was capable of writing a book every bit as long as the one God wrote. I let the eye that faced Uncle Odie pray, while the other eye searched the platter for the darkest, crunchiest fried green tomato. My mother would want that one too, and I’d need an advantage if I was going to get to it first. By luck or prayer or my mother’s indulgence, that gloriously crispy tomato usually landed on my plate. Along with others, just as tasty.
As hard as it was to choose between them, between their kitchens, I did have a favorite, but I can’t bear to say the winner’s name out loud for fear that Granny and Nannie might somehow hear. Now that they are gone, I miss them both equally. I truly do. I’m glad I have their recipes, and that I can share them with my family and with others.
Maybelle’s fried green tomatoes
Lola’s blackberry doobie
Like little stars.
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