Southern Comfort 

Country ham, fried corn and a trip back home

My Uncle Frank told me he met his new wife, Jan, over a sack of sausage.

Not any old sack of sausage, mind you, but country smoked sausage packed tight in a cotton sack, handcrafted by a farmer up the road, permeated with the heat of red pepper. Not the Jimmy Dean plastic-wrapped kind you can find in any American supermarket, but the spicy, smoke-smelling variety that arrives at my house by mail every Thanksgiving (courtesy of Uncle Frank), wrapped in stiff butcher paper, the grease just beginning to seep through the address label.

My sons cheer the annual arrival of Uncle Frank's sausage as soon as the cherished scent of pork and hickory wafts through our front door, and usually we tear into our holiday sack immediately, slicing and frying up a pan for dinner, unable to wait for the proper post-Thanksgiving breakfast. For days afterward, my house smells of sausage.

The taste and texture of this sausage speaks of another home to me -- southern Kentucky and the northern Tennessee border where country farm foods such as this are still honored above any nouvelle or haute cuisine, where the rolling farmland is heavily wooded, flecked with lime outcroppings and streaked with slow-flowing rivers, and where a few farmers still keep smoke- houses out back. I remember my grandfather's, a dark, cool, dugout cavern with a dirt floor where hams and sacks of bacon and sausage hung, the tasty remains of last year's hog.

On a recent trip to Tennessee, food nirvana was achieved on a Saturday afternoon in Uncle Frank's dining room. Jan scurried about in the kitchen, filling serving bowls with last summer's sweet corn and green beans, potato salad, rolls and baked beans.

A platter of sweet, pink ham, the slices surrounding the center bone, sat at one end of the long table; at the other end, a heaping pile of pulled pork barbecue, the coveted crunchy, charred outside pieces laid alongside the tender strings of inside meat. Sweating pitchers of iced tea -- sweet and unsweet -- sat alongside a plate of juicy, just-sliced tomatoes, ruby red with peels removed.

Around the table, generations of cousins and aunts swapped tales, mostly of food, and Uncle Frank looked on proudly as Jan swept the room, piling refills on the plates of Cousin Mabel, Ernestine, Aunt Ruth and Dorothy -- the eldest of the gathered tribe.

The night before, my mother, Frank and Jan, Aunt Sarah and I had gathered at the same table for a nightcap slice of Aunt Bernice's famed jam cake -- a dark, wet cake full of walnuts, seasoned with nutmeg and allspice, topped with boiled caramel icing. As we ate, the women commented on the difficulty of the preparation. "I never could make a good caramel icing," lamented Aunt Sarah, and I agreed. Aunt Bernice's status as queen of the jam cake was firmly held and revered.

Saturday afternoon dinner lasted for hours, and more than once someone asked: "Jan, how'd you get all this food cooked?"

"Well," she answered shyly, "I woke up late, about 7 o'clock, and I thought, my goodness! How'm I gonna get all that cooked? So I started cookin' about 8 and got it all done."

A legendary cook herself, and not one to hand out compliments lightly, Ernestine studied her plate and announced to nobody in particular. "That Jan's a fine cook."

We traded freezing tricks. Jan told us she scored her sweet corn lightly, cut it off the cob and parboiled it briefly before freezing it. Ernestine nodded and took note. At 87, she will likely freeze yet another crop this coming summer, cramming bags into the top of her already overstuffed deep freeze.

The tomatoes, too, drew careful attention. Frank and Jan drive regularly up the road to Guthrie, Ky., where the Mennonites run a hydroponic greenhouse that turns out tomatoes year round. We all agreed they were near as good as homegrown, full-scented and ripe but firm of flesh. The box they came in admonished customers never to refrigerate them. All that was missing was the dirt.

Aunt Sarah, who lives in faraway Washington state, declared Jan's the best fried corn she'd ever tasted. A few days later, the day before Sarah was scheduled to return home, Jan fixed her a breakfast of corn and sliced tomatoes, country ham fried in a skillet, and homemade biscuits with Jan's home-canned pear preserves. "Those pears are as hard as baseballs," she said, pointing out to the back yard where they grow. "You can't do a thing with 'em 'cept make preserves, but they make a fine preserve."

I picked my mother up for the long drive home on a Wednesday. Once again Uncle Frank had ventured out to the country and had returned with a whole country ham, smoked and salted so we could transport it without refrigeration. Half would go home with my mother to Texas, the other half all the way to Colorado with me.

A couple thousand miles and a few days later, I pulled out my iron skillet, baked a pan of biscuits, and treated my sons to a dinner of pan-fried country ham, its powerful salty flavor cut by a dab of Jan's sweet pear preserves. I told the boys Jan had made the preserves with fruit from Frank's trees.

"I bet Aunt Jan's a good cook," my son mused, his mouth spilling over with biscuit crumbs.

"Mmmhmmm," I said, recalling that bowl of corn, filled to the brim. "And Uncle Frank tells me he met her over a sack of sausage."


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