Sunday, August 27, 2006

A Piedmont Homecoming

(Broadcast Essay, WVTF – Roanoke, Va. (NPR) November 21, 2003 )
As we approach the holiday season with its family feasts, Charlottesville writer Kay Slaughter remembers a long ago homecoming in Virginia’s Piedmont.

Just beyond Warrenton, Daddy exclaims: “There’re the mountains. We’re almost home.” The Blue Ridge meant home to Daddy. . . and Mama too. It’s the 1940s, we live in the faraway land of Northern Virginia, my brother Jack and I don’t have Virginia accents like our parents. But we’re going home for the holidays.

A little further on, we drive into Culpeper, and I watch the buildings slide past: the pitched roof of the old brick courthouse, the steeple on St. Stephen's, the clock at the bank, Lewis' Drug Store and cater-cornered from it, Gayheart's Pharmacy. Past the movie theater and the long shaded porch of the stately brick Lord Culpeper Hotel, and we’re at Katherine’s street, at the house where she lives with her husband and their son, John. Katherine and Jennie are Daddy’s sisters, and they both married Thornton brothers.

As I crawl out of the back seat of the car, I smell the pungent woody scent of the boxwood hedge, standing like a sentinel along the brick walkway to the front door. More than 50 years later, the scent of boxwood still evokes Katherine’s presence as she throws open the door and reaches out her arms to embrace us.

Like the Virginia Piedmont, the landscape at Katherine’s mahogany dining room table also holds mountains – mountains of salty Virginia-cured ham next to hillocks of turkey, divided into juicy white and drier dark meat. And sitting in the rolling foothills is a mound of mashed potatoes accompanied by a gravy boat on a lake-like silver platter. Nearby, on the sideboard is the tomato aspic, a gelatin dish that I taste but never enjoy until I grow up.

There’s a clinking of ice filling the glasses and chattering of voices sounding like so many birds with Katherine's voice standing out like the cheery and raucous song of a cardinal: "Come on y'all, fill up your plates, we've got some eating to do...."

The grown-ups help themselves to the food and sit in the living room, white napkins in their laps, china plates balanced on their knees, while we children carry our bounty to a more secure spot on the wooden plank kitchen table. Later, when I finish eating, I will sit with the adults: I’m shy but I like to listen to the stories, the rhythms of their voices, and their teasing familiarity as they joke with one another.

Obeying Katherine’s command, I pile my plate with pink ham and white turkey, but I find room for mashed potatoes smothered with salty, peppery gravy that only hints of the bird from which it gets its flavor. I mix them together so that potatoes and gravy become, as often intoned at family weddings, united as one.
I nibble a few homemade "bread and butter" pickles, crisp cucumber coins tasting as sweet as sugar candy. I can still smell the hot rolls, as I unwrap the linen table napkin holding them within the silver bread dish. Each roll a fat oversized crescent with a seam down the middle. I pry one open, like an oyster, to insert homemade butter.

But best of all is the golden spoonbread, a custard‑like cornmeal casserole. As I spoon this delicious pudding into my mouth, I know that -- even though I live in Northern Virginia and don’t have a Southern accent -- here at Katherine's, at this family feast, I am home.

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