When it comes to down-home country cooking, nobody on earth can hold a candle to Nell Smith down in Opp.
OK, so she’s my mother, but that doesn’t have anything to do with it. Facts are facts. Just give her a few basic staples—flour, cornmeal, salt and pepper—and she can turn any cut of meat, any variety of vegetable into lip-smacking, soul-satisfying food that words cannot adequately describe.
Mother—or Mama Nell, as she’s been known since she and my daddy, “Papa” Cecil, became grandparents 34 years ago—has a few seldom-if-ever-used cookbooks in her kitchen, and she does have a recipe notebook where she’s written and stashed a good many “keepers” through the years. By and large, though, her cooking is all sans recipe. It’s cooking by ear, something she doesn’t even have to think about, sort of like breathing.
That’s why the Mama Nell recipes you’ll find below don’t include some of my all-time favorites, like her crunchy skillet cornbread, or her out-of-this-world seedless blackberry cobbler that’s nothing but perfect bits of crust floating in syrupy sweet juice. There’s also her chocolate meringue pie that if you knew nobody would ever find out, you’d hide somewhere and devour the whole thing at once, or her beyond-description cornbread dressing that will surely be on the menu in Heaven. Those recipes aren’t in any book or written on any piece of paper anywhere.
Still, the recipes that follow are all great, and you’ll notice, too, they’re all quick and easy. That’s because Mother doesn’t have much time to dawdle in the kitchen.
For the past decade or so, she and Daddy, now ages 74 and 81, respectively, have been raising their third crop of “young’uns”: first, my older sister and me, then three grandchildren, and now, two great-grands. And although she retired a few years back from 20-something years as head of housekeeping at the Opp hospital, Mama Nell still works practically full time when school’s in session as an in-demand substitute at the local elementary school. It helps pay the grocery bills, she says.
Oh, how I could go on, because I haven’t yet even scratched the surface of all that’s remarkable and wonderful and amazing about Mama Nell. However, I’m sure she’s probably ready to wring my neck by now, so I’ll end it here.
Thanks, Mama Nell. You are loved.