Hopkins County Folk Lore
A Lazy Summer Night With The Neighbors
By Contributing Editor, Carolyn Buntin Eveland
It's a Saturday night in rural Hopkins County. There's no baseball to watch on TV because there is no TV. Folks won't be going to the movies because there isn't one for miles around. What do people do when there is no sit and watch entertainment to indulge in? Well, in the old days they made their own entertainment.
Let's set the scene in our minds right now. The season is summer and it is late in the day. It's about six o'clock in the evening but there's still plenty of light for the next couple of hours. The sun will be setting soon allowing the horrid heat which has imprisoned the temperature in the nineties to cool somewhat. There are some wispy white clouds floating above the little country neighborhood and the sky is still clear blue.
There are several homes within walking distance of each other and the call has been given that there will be a gathering at one house in particular. People begin arriving and pause to congregate on the front porch which extends the length of the house. A few of the men fit themselves into straight back chairs scattered on the porch as the women hurry inside to see what they can do to help the lady of the house. Of course the little wife replies while wiping her hands on the ever present dishrag, "Why not a thing. I was just cleaning up a little bit, but I'm all done now." Even the most casual events required the house be in perfect order, not a speck of dust anywhere lest it be whispered about among the neighboring ladies. Appearances were everything back then.
Children are playing on the green grass that decorates every home in Hopkins County this time of year while the older ones meet in selected huddles away from the smaller tots.
Boys wander to the grassless dirt patch that has been kept weed free for playing marbles. Bulging pockets are emptied and the trading begins. Cat-eyes, clear glass, blue ones with white strips curling through them (we know today they were made from sodalite rock), yellow, black, red and colorful hues of the Agate were all on display. Competition was stiff. Woe to the trader who tried to pass off a chipped marble. He usually had to put up an extra one along side his obviously marred taw to get any trading done at all. Soon a circle was drawn in the dirt and the game began.
Girls brought paper dolls to play with. The swapping of paper clothes was eagerly indulged in and the little dresses were soon hung upon various cardboard dolls. Tiny paper tabs were attached to the clothing at the shoulders, waist and legs which one could lick if so inclined. Paper clothes had a way of falling off quickly. Sometimes a little spit was all it took to make the tabs stay in place just a little longer.
There are rose bushes in full bloom, from deep wine, to soothing pink, white and sometimes a pale yellow. Bees are still in the process of buzzing around the petals as Hummingbirds compete with them for the nectar they each claim as their own. There are huge shade trees dotting the lawn and several hound dogs are laying under the big Oak Tree, tongues lolling out, awaiting the cooler temperatures of twilight.
There's a garden in the back yard, stalks and stems are heavy laden with ripe vegetables that are ready for plucking. Corn, marching in tall rows, tassels already brown, indicates that it's ready for harvesting. Tomatoes, as big as a man's fist, bright red and juicy bend the vines they are growing on. Beans grow in different places in the gardens in neat, straight rows. Pole Beans gingerly climbing up the strings that are hanging over them, Bush Beans, Lima Beans and fat Butter Beans, were the mainstay of the family garden. Okra stalks, as tall as a woman's shoulder offer clusters of the green pods ready for frying or pickling. Green Peas, Black Eyed Peas (they will always be called Black Eyed instead of Black Eye Peas. You are in the country you know), Crowder Peas, Cow Peas and Purple Hull Peas are there too. The squash has been given it's own section of the garden. The thick, wandering vines travel far from the main root sheltering yellow squash beneath numerous leafs. Watermelons, Cantaloupe and Cucumbers have been planted in similar fashion, their vines intermingling, producing plump, thumpable melons and long fat Cucumbers. By this time most of the salad vegetables have been harvested already. Lettuce, green onions, and radishes have mostly disappeared unless a second planting later in the Spring had taken place. Cool weather greens had been picked and you could be sure that another planting would take place so the family would have them in the fall of the year.
There is usually a scarecrow standing in the middle of the garden. He is made from two long boards or poles fashioned like a Christian cross and stuck in the ground. Pa's worn out pants have been tied to the pole and stuffed with straw or hay. Usually a white or bright colored shirt adorns the cross board and gloves could be attached at the ends, making hands. A cloth sack has also been stuffed and tied to the top of the post for the head of the figure. If the scarecrow maker was really enthusiastic about the task at hand, eyes, nose and mouth could be inked on. Lastly, a hat of some sort has been proudly pinned upon the head with straw peeping from beneath the brim constituting the hair. Now you also know why they call it a scarecrow. It resembles a man standing watch over his garden scaring away the crows and birds that would feast upon the fruits of his labor.
In the soft afternoon light, the activities are about to get underway and the children suddenly become hyperactive, hopping from one foot to another and jumping up and down. Already licking their little rosebud lips, they watch as Pa brings out the ice cream maker at last.
Mother has made sure the Iceman has dropped off an extra block of ice just for this occasion. It has been stored in the icebox all day long. Youngsters and even Father himself were warned in voices full of kitchen authority, "Don't open that icebox, I said! You'll let the hot air in. You want the ice to melt? Is that what you want? Well git away from there and I mean right now"! The block of ice sat in its secluded chamber, undisturbed, while Mother diligently patrolled the kitchen area. At last she relinquishes her watch and the ice is now brought to the yard.
Everyone takes a turn with sharp ice picks chipping the block into small fragments. Small boys beg for a turn at the chipping while the older boys wished they could get out of it. The little lad's pleas are repeatedly rejected for safety's sake. They soon learn to be content with snatching pieces of ice, salting it liberally and cramming it into their mouths. With great sucking noises and crunching of teeth the ice is devoured by the handfuls much to the aggravation of those still chipping methodically away.
The old fashioned ice cream maker was much in demand in those times. It consisted of a wooden bucket with a metal container that fitted inside it and a dasher that sat within the container. Of course it had a lid and a stubborn hand crank to turn the container.
Finally a nice rounded heap of chipped ice was ready. The bucket was brought forward with the container already full of the ice-cream mixture with the lid solidly in place. A thick layer of ice was dropped into the bucket around the metal container. Following that, coarse rock salt was laid onto the ice and so on until the bucket was about two thirds full of ice and salt.
Ice-cream makin' was always conducted in the yard. It was way too messy to undertake in Mother's clean kitchen. Besides it was always cooler outside than in and more often than not there were at least two or three ice-cream makers going at once.
In those days a towel was usually wrapped around the lid to ensure the melting ice wouldn't seep under it contaminating the concoction with salt water. Now it was time to get down to business. Let the cranking begin!
There was a rhyme and rhythm to the cranking. Too little, too fast, too slow could affect the consistency of the ice-cream. Turning the handle began slowly at first, no hurry, about forty revolutions a minute until a pull in the crank was felt. Then the speed was tripled for about five minutes or so. After this furious activity had taken place, it was time to remove the lid adding diced fruit or homemade candy to the container. With the lid firmly in place once again, adding fresh ice and salt if needed, it was time to tackle the crank once more.
Only about seventy five or eighty turns per minute were needed this time, not the triple rotations of a few minutes before. Tired arms took a rest at this point and another set of fresh strong ones took over the job.
I had a job too. My job as a child in the making of ice-cream was questionable. Not that I had a job, because I surely did, but the purpose of what I was asked to do remained a mystery to me. Several towels were folded and placed on top of the lid. There I was unceremoniously plopped and told to sit still. That was it, nothing more. I felt quite superior about my role in the ice-cream makin' and I sat as still as a church mouse through it all. I sat perched atop the pile of terry cloth with as much grace and dignity as my braids, grass stained knees and bare feet allowed. Oblivious to the person who was grunting and sweating profusely while wrestling the crank, my chin was tilted skyward as I regally received the envious glances of the other children.
Now as an adult I began to wonder if perhaps someone, out of the cold meanness of their heart, just planted me there as comic relief or maybe they were just trying to shut me up. Naw, I don't really believe that, I didn't chatter on THAT much! I recently asked my mother, after all these years just exactly why I had the privilege of sitting on that heap of towels. She laid all my doubts to rest when she assured me that I was actually doing a service. As the ice-cream became frozen it became harder and harder to turn the crank and the metal container would jump around inside the bucket. Someone had to hold it down while another person turned the crank. That was my job and it was a real job. Looking back on it all, I still conclude that I was quite good at it if I do say so myself.
After thirty minutes or so, the contents were examined for consistency and hardness. If it wasn't ready, back to the icing, salting and cranking once more.
Finally it was ice-cream. Young and old alike stood in line with bowls and spoons at the ready. Mother or sister usually served right there in the yard.
Now we're not talking about frozen rock hard ice cream like you buy in the stores these days. This dessert was smooth and creamy and a little soft. There was nothing on heaven or earth that compared to the goodness of it.
People did little talking while slurping their way through the first bowl. Kids wiped sticky mouths on shirtsleeves and begged to lick the dashers. Men and women alike drank the last melted dregs from upturned bowls. Mother even fed the baby from her own portion and the little toothless mouth gummed the mixture between squeals of delight.
Fresh cantaloupe and watermelon had been set on the porch just in the wee chance that someone might prefer fruit to ice-cream. Naturally those items were totally ignored when cold, sweet ice-cream was within easy reach. How could anyone in their right mind exchange the sweet satisfying taste of homemade ice-cream for melons. After all any person there could have walked the short distance to their homes and picked a watermelon out of their own garden.
As the young Stendhal exclaimed a century and a half ago upon his first taste of ice-cream, "What a pity this isn't a sin" still held true for those people in the yard that evening. Anything this good almost had to be bad for you.
Finally little Misters and Mistresses, sporting rounded bellies, wandered off to resume playing again. The men began to talk of crops, hunting and fishing in the slow unhurried manner of Hopkins Countians then and now. Women called for all to bring dirty bowls to the porch and finally rounded them up themselves.
The ice cream was gone, finished, eaten to the last mouthwatering drop. Normal activity was about to resume.
All the women present began the clean up process. It was just plain bad manners to eat at someone's home and not attend to the cleanin' up of the mess. Hot water had been heating on the stove and the breakable bowls were added carefully to the foaming suds. One lady washed them, another lady attended to the dunking of them into another hot pan of rinse water, while yet one more dried them and put them into the cupboard. Someone fetched the spoons, dried and put them away. The metal ice cream containers were washed last. Drying them thoroughly was important for keeping the rust at bay was a must.
Much impressed with the delicious treat they had just eaten, the ladies begged for the recipe to add to their own collections. With lead pencil and a scrap of paper, someone patiently wrote down the following:
- Scald over low heat but don't boil it:
- 1 cup of cream
- Take it off the stove then put in ¾ cup of sugar and a pinch of salt.
- Stir that in until it dissolves.
- Add 1 ½ teaspoons of vanilla flavoring.
- Put it in the ice box until the cream has cooled down considerably.
- Then add 3 more cups of cream.
The tired but happy hostess, now glowing from all the offered compliments explained that she had peeled and mashed peaches adding them to the mixture as it began to freeze a little. The ladies discussed their own methods of adding Strawberries (when in season) Blackberries, chocolate, nuts and even canned fruit with allowances for the amount of sugar, through the next hour.
Dusk was descending rapidly now upon the small gathering. Lightnin' bugs, those flashing neon dots of green, were chased about with no quarter given. The younger generation with jars wedged under bare arms, streaked across the yard in hot pursuit of them. At the end of the evening, each child would present his jar and a count would be taken to see who had captured the most fireflies. It was also common practice to smear the bugs across their clothing so that they too would glow in the coming darkness.
Mosquitoes began tormenting those who were sitting on the porch as soon as the sun had gone down. When swats and slaps at the pesky insects became too numerous for comfortable conversation, the mosquito remedy was brought out. A simple metal wash basin was filled with bits of old rags and soaked in coal oil then set afire. The flames were then almost immediately extinguished allowing the rags to smolder and smoke. Mosquitoes were quite cagey when this tactic was used against them. They simply hovered about, attacking each person in turn as the evening air stirred, blowing the smoke away from their victims.
As the talk continued into the early night, someone invariably sliced into the watermelon or cantaloupe, forgetting that everyone had sworn just an hour and a half ago, "I couldn't eat another bite." Newspapers or paper sacks were lain across the melons to discourage the flies who were sure to come calling. Big juicy, slices of ripe red watermelon were salted and meted out. The cantaloupe was likewise salted and peppered by some and once again the neighbors ate their fill.
Men searched in back pockets bringing forth large red or blue handkerchiefs to wipe dripping hands and chins. The small ones, uncaring of the sticky ooze that covered face, hands and body, never looked up until the green of the rind was all that remained. There was always a contest among the boys and girls to see who could spit watermelon seeds the farthest. Naturally none of them dared swallow a seed. Why, a watermelon would grow in your stomach if you did and your tummy would grow so huge that you had to roll instead of walk. This was most certainly so because they had been warned about it with the first slice they had ever eaten. They had watched the adults with serious purpose and sure enough not a one of them swallowed those seeds either. They always spit them out and by golly none of them rolled, even the ones with big bellies. Some of the women ate with spoons and even if they bit the fleshy fruit right off the rind, they were much more tidy and clean than their male counterparts.
Bedtime came early in the country and soon parents rounded up protesting offspring, called the dogs that had come visiting also and walked the short distance home among cries of " Y'all come again anytime, you hear." "We'll do it at our house next time for sure" was answered back.
It had been a night well spent. Each little family parted ways with good feelings of relaxation and harmony. Good conversations with good company had taken place and special eat'ins had been enjoyed by all. Children got to play outside longer than usual and Momma had a brand new ice-cream recipe. Father, surveying his own little clan, was secure in the knowledge that his family dwelled among good friends and neighbors. He smiled contentedly.
Now Folks, It just don't get no better than that.
Copyright © 2000 by Carolyn Buntin Eveland
All Rights Reserved
Nancy Trice, © 2000