Grandma Della's Dutch Oven
Karen Clark Rasberry
For several years I toyed with the idea of buying one. As a woman who was passed over by the love-to-cook gene, it was quite unusual that I often found myself browsing culinary shops captivated by lavishly displayed avant-garde cookware. It was always the ridiculously expensive Dutch ovens in trendy colors that pleaded, “Buy me! Look at me! I will make cooking fun and effortless, and you can be like them.” By them, I am referring to my mother-in-law, Ouida Walters Rasberry and her mother Della Loper Walters, rolling pins down, two of the best cooks in Mississippi. Since Mississippi is the cradle of many of the best things about America--including down-home cooking, the Blues, country music, and rock and roll--that puts them in some pretty fair company.
Back in the spring, after exploring around his mother’s shed and our adjoining land (his private Utopia), my husband burst through the back door and excitedly asked me to come outside because he had brought me a present. The key thing to understand is there is a huge disparity between the words brought and bought when used by my husband. Brought invariably means he found something that no one else in the world wanted, but in it he saw some redeeming quality that made it impossible for him to leave it behind. Over the last three decades he has “brought” me a plethora of basically unredeemable objects. For example, he thought I might like to decorate the mantle with a rusted out World War I helmet because it was an historic conversation piece. Once he presented me with a slop jar/chamber pot because you never know when you will require one. Just this summer, he hauled up a small mountain of sandstone rocks because they looked “old-timey.”
With one hand placed daintily on his hip and the other one gracefully sweeping toward the prize, he struck an amusing resemblance to Vanna White. I thought he said, “Look what you’ve just won--grandma’s cast iron Dutch oven!” As it was with the rocks, I have learned that you don’t argue with a piece of Utopia. Instead of reprimanding him for his good intentions, I took the sad old pot into the kitchen and hoisted it into the sink with both arms. At first it didn’t seem possible that I could salvage the neglected vessel that had surely been baptized in the hot fires of woodstoves, then mysteriously banished to an old tractor shed. Most of the black iron on the outside had turned to rust, but the inside was still seasoned with the fat of countless homegrown meats. Then it hit me. If it could talk, it would tell of hard times during the Depression and down-home meals shared by innately happy folks. It would tell of days filled with more toil than rest, more laughter than tears, and more love than anything else. It would tell the story of my husband’s people--my children’s forbearers--and of a woman whose greatest joy in life was to cook for the ones she loved. After hours of scouring and an abundance of TLC, the orphaned pot that my husband brought me has become my prized possession.
It tips the scales at a whopping twelve pounds empty and when fully loaded with supper, it requires straining with both biceps to heave it into the oven. It still gives the food cooked in it a slight metal twang (not unlike the taste of an iron supplement) but with some salt and pepper you could slow bake an old pair of work boots to fork-tender palatability. Much like a hunting rifle, it could be dangerous if mishandled, and after each use it must be cleaned gently and greased generously before putting it away.
This Thanksgiving it will definitely play a major part in the cooking of our traditional dinner. Since I am next in line to become the matriarch, my home has now become the location of the Rasberry Thanksgiving dinner. All who will enter my house on Thursday are descendants of Grandma and Grandpa Walters either by marriage or blood. So many of the people we loved and learned from are no longer with us, but we will give thanks for the inimitably Southern customs and values they passed down to us and to those descendants who never had the privilege of laughing, giving thanks and feasting at their dinner table.
She was the standard bearer for grandmothers, and I can still hear her laughter and see her standing over the stove, silver hair twisted into a bun, content in her soul because she knew the true recipe for happiness. Grandma Della also left a mighty big pot to fill as far as Southern cooking goes. With a lot more practice and a little help from her Dutch oven, I think I can make her proud.
Karen Clark Rasberry is a native of Laurel, Mississippi, where she writes a weekly column for The ReView of Jones County. Her book, Travelers in Search of Vacancy, was recently awarded a gold medal for best nonfiction in the South by the Independent Publishers Awards.
Karen Clark Rasberry