I am not much of a cook. And the two things I do cook, and that are generally recognized as my “specialties,” are not guided by recipes. Just open a beer and begin throwing ingredients together.
This presented a problem a few years ago when some church ladies asked me to contribute recipes for a cookbook they were compiling. I tried to beg out of it and told them I had nothing written down, so they told me to write it.
So, I did.
True to form, I began both with “open a beer.”
When the recipes were published, the church ladies left out the beer.
Censored by Christians.
There are people who love cookbooks. My Aunt Hazel was one. She collected them, read them, filled shelves with them and never cooked anything from them — at least nothing that her brothers — my daddy and my Uncle Mac — could ever recall.
The brothers made sport of her. Told anyone who would listen that the books were just to fool people into thinking she could cook when she couldn’t.
A family fight usually followed.
You see, Aunt Hazel was pre-Copernican. Copernicus, you will recall, argued that everything revolved around the sun. Aunt Hazel believed that everything should revolve around her.
Aunt Hazel was the oldest of the children. For years, she was an only child and she liked it. When other children were born into the family, Aunt Hazel’s status was diminished, much to her distress. By the time the fifth child arrived, Aunt Hazel was well on her way to becoming sour and, some would say, mean — a condition aggravated by her brothers’ relentless ragging.
The uncooked recipes in the cookbooks were a particularly sore subject.
Finally, she had taken all of their snide remarks she could endure. After a family Thanksgiving in which Grandma Minnie (Aunt Hazel’s mother and also not much of a cook) had fed her children and grandchildren boiled green ham and dried-out dressing — some memories cannot be erased, no matter how hard you try — Aunt Hazel finally broke under their interrogation and announced that come Christmas she would prepare the feast, and that all were invited.
Thus, the stage was set for one of those Titanic confrontations for which my daddy’s family was famous, a clash from which only one could emerge victorious. Either Aunt Hazel would prepare a Christmas dinner for the ages, or her brothers would make sure that she would never live it down.
On the appointed day, the family arrived.
The halls were decked.
The table was set.
Side dishes were scattered about in festive confusion, and in the center was a suckling pig — no lie — a whole hog with an apple in its mouth.
The brothers were humbled.
Aunt Hazel was in her glory.
And when the meal was done, all that was left of the main course was its head and its feet.
I don’t know what happened to the feet, but the head went into the stew.
Which gets me to the recipe — you were wondering, weren’t you?
Camp stew was a tradition in our family. Not Brunswick stew, that wonderful side dish that goes so well with barbeque. They are similar, but not the same.
I was told that the camp stew we make originated at hunting camps where whatever was handy was put into the pot. Over the years, as new ingredients became available, they were added to tweak the taste, but the essentials — meat and vegetables — remained the same. By the time I came along, my father was pretty much out of his hunting-camp phase; sleeping in a foxhole in Germany cured him of any desire to get that close to nature again, but he and his family continued to make the stew. My mother makes it still.
This year, when I was “home” over the holidays, I found the recipe, written down so future generations could enjoy what generations past enjoyed. It was dated 1953.
4 hogs’ heads
8 pounds of beef
6 cans of corn (2 gallons)
15 pounds of Irish potatoes
12 pounds of onions
2 bottles of Worcestershire sauce
1 bottle of hot sauce (to taste)
6 lemons, sliced, not whole. (One of the joys of our camp stew was getting a tart piece of lemon with a spoonful of stew.)
1/2 cup of vinegar
Black pepper (to taste)
Salt (to taste)
2 1/2 gallons (6 tall cans) of tomato juice
2 bottles of ketchup
There were no directions on how to cook it, but I recall Daddy boiling the meat in one big pot, the vegetables in another big pot, and mixing them in the biggest pot of all.
Makes me hungry thinking of it.
Does anyone know where I can find four hogs’ heads?
Harvey H. (“Hardy”) Jackson is Eminent Scholar in History at Jacksonville State University and a columnist and editorial writer for The Star. E-mail: email@example.com.