At times, Alice would also go farther back into her memory and share with me stories from her childhood. Growing up in the South, in the time period she did, there were a lot of mill towns. In some places there still are in the South, though sadly many have closed as cheaper production options have been outsourced. Her family worked at one of the cotton mills in town, they lived in a mill house, in a neighborhood filled with other residents who all worked at the same mill. She and her siblings had chores to do when they would come home and in particular certain chores for each of them that pertained only to Christmas.
They were lucky, Alice said in that they had a screened-in porch off the back of the house, through a door that led out of their kitchen. That became their “extra” fridge in the winter. That always made me smile, as my grandmother would do the same thing on her back porch, using the icy air to keep the pies she had boxed up and ready for the holidays.
Alice’s Mother would make a variety of cakes and pies and cookies through the Holiday season starting about 2 weeks out from Christmas. She would leave notes for her children to prepare different ingredients for her, so when she came home from a long day at the mill, she could begin baking after dinner. One of Alice’s jobs was to chop up all the nuts and fruits that would be needed.
She would come home from school and go straight to the kitchen. There she would find a list that her Mother had left her and her siblings of their directions for the day. Alice would go to the pantry and collect the bags of nuts that she would need and sitting at the table with a bucket between her knees she would begin to shell her pecans and other nuts that her Mother’s recipe required. She always said pecans were her favorite to shell, walnuts were always so fiddly, for her mother wanted them out whole. Biting her lower lip with her brows drawn in concentration on her task, she would always seem to break more than she could flick out in their entirety with the aid of a little metal nut pick.
After shelling everything, she would begin to either roughly or finely chop the nuts, depending on what they would be used for and would place the finished items into bowls and place them on a sideboard. She would often have to fight off her brother from stealing handfuls of her hard-work to munch on while he completed his homework.
In the coming days, she would then turn to working on the fruit. Slowly and surely she would chop up candied and dried pieces of fruit for fruit cakes and cake decorations. When her Mother arrived home from the mill she would check on their progress and see if any more nuts or fruits would need to be prepared for her nightly baking.
Over the coming days her Mother would begin to bake cakes and pies for Christmas. Alice’s favorite, was a pecan cake that was a delicious vanilla cake filled with spices and chopped pecans, iced in a buttercream frosting with chopped pecans thrown around the sides of the cake for decoration. I think it was her favorite, because she had the job of “throwing” the pecans onto the sides of the cake. Her Mother would decorate the top with a little piece of holly and a circle of pecans wreathed around it.
All the pies and cakes that were made were stored outside on their screened-in porch along with the country ham that they would collect. That was always a special trip and certain years would include one child, instead of the whole family, getting to ride with their Daddy up to the mountains, to get the ham from a huge farmer’s market. It would hang outside in its burlap bag on a hook her Father had fastened into the porch ceiling, until their Mother prepared it for Christmas.
Alice, said nothing was better than that first slice off of the ham, you had waited so long to finally taste, sandwiched between the tender golden flaky discs of a biscuit and smothered in butter. The best part was licking the salt and biscuit crumbs off of your lips!
There are many things that have changed in the South and many that have not. And, that goes for any place. As time moves forward, family memories and traditions are things that we carry with us. As hardworking as her childhood was at times, it was still filled with the sweetness of Christmas.
I could always envision this small child coming home from school in her little plaid slip dress, covered with a sweater, little knee socks and mary jane shoes, a big bow in her hair, running in to her house to see what Christmas jobs awaited her. This small child who grew into a beautiful woman and continued to keep her kind outlook on life, never forgetting the beauty in the little things.