by Gina DiCicco
Mary Beth May grew up in her mother’s kitchen. She can’t remember the first thing her mom taught her to cook, because she’d been gradually learning to cook since she could hardly see over the counter. After their work on the farm was done, Mary Beth, her two brothers and two sisters spent their days in the kitchen, watching their mom work, listening to her sing and helping with chores. She was always singing – while she cooked, while she swept. It was the soundtrack to Mary Beth’s youth.
Often times her mother would make chores into games to keep the children excited about their tasks. For example, when shelling mounds of fresh, speckled butter beans, their mother challenged them to find a solid colored bean. Mary Beth and her siblings blew through piles of beans, eagerly hoping to “win.” Needless to say, variations of this game were made for string beans, black-eyed peas, and just about every other food item that needed prepping. “We didn’t think of it as work,” Mary Beth says. The kitchen was the heart of the home and she was happy to be there.
Even during the hot, humid Virginia summers, the kitchen was alive. As Mary Beth notes, “we had to can what we had.” And can they did! They canned fruits, vegetables and meats from their farm, including blackberries, apples, tomatoes, sausage and tenderloin. In fact, canned meats are one of the things she misses most. Grocery stores have replaced family farms raising pork and beef. People can now easily buy fresh meat from the store, but when Mary Beth was young, that was rare. Instead they raised their own animals, and preserved their meat by canning or drying them. She misses these salty, home-processed meats that they made during summer and savored during winter as a little reminder of seasons passed.
Mary Beth’s favorite food when she was growing up was her mother’s hot rolls. She loved them when they were fluffy, fresh and hot. By the time she was nine she could bake them herself and she did so regularly. Every week Mary Beth would bake a batch of her mother’s hot rolls and walk them to the elderly couple next door. Her community was close knit and neighbors looked out for one another.
Mary Beth still bakes those hot rolls. When she does, she can again hear the eager chatter of her siblings, can feel the heat of the old wood stove, and can hear her mother softly singing as she worked. With each bite, she reaffirms her connection to that old farmhouse kitchen in Fluvanna County.