We never went Down Home for the holidays, but there were many years when the farm on Mill Pond Road came to us. When the box from Roper arrived, my mother would briefly forget her critical pretensions and delight in the warmth it brought to her in Pennsylvania.
The contents that I remember best were from the land itself – shiny magnolia leaves for decorating, peanuts, pecans, jams, watermelon rind pickles – and gifts for me that my Aunt Margaret made by hand.
When I was 10, she made a dark blue velvet dress with a white lace collar for me, with a matching one for my doll. When I was a teenager, she made me A-line wool skirts with matching hand-knitted sweaters that rivaled the preppy manufacturers’ skirt/sweater sets.
Those Down Home boxes, so filled with Margaret’s handiwork, never disappointed. What was disappointing – aside from the fact that I only remember two Thanksgivings and no Christmases spent with any relatives – was the Something that my mother missed.
She’d mention yule logs or shooting guns and fireworks at Christmas. (Not New Year’s, Christmas!) She’d mention chess pie or her mother playing the piano and I’d get the feeling that those Depression-era holidays in Washington County, NC had been better than any I would ever know.
Her brother would send us a Smithfield ham, but still, something was missing. It was her mother, more than anything else, who had made the Down Home holidays so memorable, so rhapsodic -- Inez, who died when my mother was in her mid-twenties, before I was born. It wasn't the sandy soil or the Spanish moss or the bird dogs or the floating island custard she was missing. It wasn’t the 400 miles between us and Roper that created the empty space in her life. It was not having a mother in her 20s, 30s, 40s, 50s and beyond.
I pull out her Lilly Wallace New American Cookbook (1947) and a falling-apart copy of The Joy of Cooking and rifle through the many handwritten recipes tucked between their pages, looking for some remnant of the regionalism she brought North with her. On withered notepad pages, I find her recipes for corn pudding and spoon bread, white peach pie and sweet potato pie. Always appreciated, but not specifically holiday fare.
I find her scribbled notes for sand tarts, the ones she cut out in the shapes of hearts, diamonds, clubs and spades, dusted with cinnamon sugar, glazed with egg wash and a pecan half. Down Home for the holidays, I think, and jump to Pinterest to find good pictures of sand tarts, only to find them described as an Amish Christmas cookie. Really? Not Southern?
Tell me what I’m missing. Tell me about the down home holiday foods you remember and still make. Tell us how you make them, serve them, why you still love them.