Editor’s note: In lieu of her usual CMT Hot Dish column about country music and its celebrities, we asked Hazel Smith to share some memories of Thanksgiving and Christmas holidays and to provide a collection of recipes sure to put a country spin on your seasonal menu.
Caswell County, N.C., where I was born and raised, does not lay claim to have an over-abundance of millionaires, but I’d stack the home cooking against any person or place on earth. My mama, Linnie Phillips Boone, was one of the best, and I ain’t too bad, myself.
Mama could go in the kitchen at 11 a.m. and have a table filled with tasty food by noon. Mama wasn’t a fancy cook, nor was she a chef by any stretch of the imagination. She’d never put a sprig of parsley on mashed potatoes to pretty them up, but she added plenty of fresh butter. Mama went for taste, and so do I.
Back home, holidays were a special time for family sit-downs. Used cars and pickups with slick tires and spattered with red dirt from those dirt red roads would fill a yard by midmorning. By noontime, tables would be loaded full of food and surrounded by overall-wearing men stabbing homemade biscuits and fresh baked cornbread and sipping sweet iced tea.
“Stewed beef,” as they called it, was fork tender and swimming in a bowl of yellow grease we claimed was gravy. Pinto beans, green beans, potato salad, Brunswick stew, chicken and dumplings, chicken pie, cabbage, butter beans, crowder peas, fried corn, sweet potatoes, jars of homemade pickles — cucumber and beet and watermelon rind — turnip greens, deviled eggs and boiled country ham.
I can see it now. Each vegetable bowl had a good-sized slab of fat meat for seasoning, swimming in the bowl with the veggies. My great uncles would whack off a piece of fat meat from each bowl and leave the table rubbing their filled bellies. Scream “unhealthy” if you want to, but most of my relatives, including mama, lived past 90.
On the side table, there’d be fruitcake, coconut cake, chocolate cake, orange cake and pineapple cake baked with fresh butter and sinking in the middle with country goodness. I remember the steaming blackberry cobbler swimming in butter and sugar with latticed-crust topping along with fried peach pies stacked high and hypocrite custard baked in a crust with fresh butter, eggs, sugar and dried California peaches.
Most of the families were tobacco farmers, but we also raised vegetables and canned them — green beans, tomatoes, corn, greens, butter beans, peas. Eventually, when we got electricity, we’d freeze them. No matter how poor we were, there was always plenty to eat in the country. We saved everything we raised. One of the perils was getting eaten up by chiggers while picking wild berries, but nothing tasted better after school in the winter than a bowl of blackberries we had canned. With sugar piled snow white like lava spilling over the top, it would fill your belly and make your mouth turn blue.
We raised chickens for eggs and to eat, raised and slaughtered hogs for pork and raised cows for milking. After we got electricity, we’d fill the freezer with beef from a fattened cow my daddy would slaughter. We lived hard, worked hard, ate good and enjoyed life, especially during the Thanksgiving and Christmas holidays when we’d go from house to house feeding our faces and enjoying our kin.
Before the scare of E. coli and all the other illnesses, farmers back home would slaughter a fattened cow, load the meat in the back of a car or their pickup and then go from house to house selling beef. Mama would always get some extra fat with her stewed beef. Keep in mind, until I was in my teens and we got electricity, she’d have to build a fire in the cook stove and cook the stewed beef right then. That old icebox could not keep beef fresh.
People who didn’t grow up in rural areas probably don’t realize it, but funerals were a big deal — the favored place for socializing and for eating. Men wore a suit or dress pants to a funeral. They hardly ever went to a wedding. Weddings were for women. Mostly women filled the pews on Sunday. Preachers ate supper during weeklong revivals and talked about the fine rations from the pulpit. Food at funerals was like holiday eating, and the gravediggers were always fed before the grieving families at country funerals.
Thanksgivings in Nashville
When I moved to Nashville in the early ’70s, I brought a head full of cooking but not a cookbook to my name. Eventually, that changed, though, and I read cookbooks like I read the Bible. A lot of it, I figured out on my own. I had baked chickens almost from the time I was in the cradle, so I figured you’d bake a turkey the same way — only longer because it’s larger. So I tried it — also making dressing, giblet gravy and mashed potatoes — and it worked.
The first famous guest I had for Thanksgiving was Bill Monroe. Bill and his brother, Birch Monroe, along with teenaged sons, Billy and Terry Smith, were building a barn at Bill’s farm that Thanksgiving Day. All smiles, they arrived at my house at crack of noon and ordered me to sit down.
“This is our blessing for this Thanksgiving,” Bill said. Then the Monroe Brothers and my sons sang a gospel song they had all written as the drove from the farm to my house. None of them remembered the song after that, but as long as Bill lived he recalled that my table was filled with goodies galore like they cook in Caswell County. Bill ate with us often. He’d try to get me to let him open a restaurant and have me do the cooking. He’d tell me, “People who run restaurants can’t cook like you.”
Since I’d go to North Carolina and spend Christmas with mama, Thanksgiving became the time I’d cook. And I’d cook a lot. I remember the year the table was surrounded by some of my dear friends who just happened to be some of the most talented people who ever walked the streets of Nashville or any other city. The great poet, songwriter, artist and storytelling genius Shel Silverstein is most famous for writing songs such as “A Boy Named Sue” and “The Cover of the Rolling Stone,” but he’s also the one who named one of my desserts “the world’s best banana pudding.” Tompall Glaser bragged on my cooking, especially the cornbread. “It’s fine as cake,” Tompall said to the lady he married, June Johnson.
Songwriter Harlan Howard was there that day, too, and he loved my macaroni and cheese. “Hazel makes the best,” he’d say. Jessi Colter dropped by with Waylon Jennings’ son, Buddy Jennings, and her son with Waylon, Shooter Jennings. Shooter was just a child then, but now he’s a rising star. Shooter and Buddy enjoyed the chocolate pie. Ray Sawyer and Dennis Locorriere, members of group Dr. Hook, dug the turkey dressing, giblet gravy and mashed potatoes. John Hartford loved the green beans. Marie Barrett, who came over with John, enjoyed my biscuits. Pretty soon, Marie and John were together as a couple and eventually married.
As a matter of fact, the Dr. Hook guys enjoyed the food so much, they returned the next Thanksgiving. Singer-songwriter Paul Overstreet was there and later started telling people on Music Row about my cooking. Terry and Julie Smith and his sons, Tim and Chris, were there. I remember that was the year Terry ate half a pumpkin pie.
There was the time Ricky Skaggs came to the house with his wife Sharon White and asked, “Do I smell collards?” Ricky took the pot off the stove and ate all the greens from the pot with a fork.
In my opinion, the funniest man on earth is Grand Ole Opry star Mike Snider. When my son, Terry, was working in his band, Mike had Thanksgiving dinner with us. I enjoyed Mike so much and recall him saying, “Hazel, you cook like my mama and Sweetie (his wife) and all the good cooks in Gleason, Tenn.”
Robert Hicks, the bestselling author of The Widow of the South and the man responsible for introducing me to chef Emeril Lagasse, has spent lots of time in my kitchen. The first time he tasted my dressing, he ate five big pieces, went into the living room, relaxed on the sofa and fell asleep for a few hours.
Remembering Mama and Being Thankful
Now that mama is gone, I am blessed to think back on funny incidents. Mama didn’t mean to be funny, but she was. She married daddy when she was 15 and in the seventh grade. She never was much of a reader, but as she grew older, she’d read her Sunday school lesson and became somewhat accustomed to the Word.
She’d tell me on the phone what the preacher said and who she saw at Winn-Dixie grocery store. While we were on the phone one day, she all at once she said, “It’s like the preacher said Sunday: People have gotten so they go from Halloween straight to Christmas and forget about Thanksgiving. I think they’ve forgot what the Bible says about Thanksgiving.”
Realizing that Thanksgiving occurred sometime after the Christopher Columbus splashdown in 1492 and recalling that the scriptures were somewhat older than that, I took a deep breath and said, “Mama, I don’t think the Bible mentions Thanksgiving.”
“Aw, Hazel, you know what it says,” mama assured. “Be thankful!”