In a book entitled What Is Art? Leo Tolstoy writes, “The satisfaction of our taste cannot serve as a basis for our definition of the merits of food.” In other words, being accustomed to a particular dish does not mean it’s good for us. In his own convoluted way, Tolstoy was defining “comfort food.” He was a nineteenth-century aristocrat who sold portions of his vast estate to pay off gambling debts, so his concept of comfort would differ mightily from yours and mine. He also got depressed a lot. He lost four children to early death and killed a bear at point-blank range, making him dang near a Russian version of Daniel Boone. He certainly thought like a Southerner when he wrote the opening line to Anna Karenina: “Happy families are all alike; and every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.”
When my father died, we sold the land. He didn’t have gambling debts (or much money), but my siblings and I still managed to squabble over Dad’s leavings: my brother wanted the rugs, one sister took Fifties-era glassware and a dinner gong, and my other sister took the “semi-precious” stones Dad had bought from a mail-order company that was subsequently sued for fraud. I got his rifle and his desk and his porn. Our mother moved to Mississippi and one of the first foods she prepared in her new home was pimento cheese, a comfort food Tolstoy never ate. If he had, maybe he wouldn’t have been so depressed!
My great-grandmother, Ruth Bell Offutt, was known as “Mom” in the family. This distinguished her from my grandmother, Helen Spanninger Offutt, who went by “Maw.” Helen was Ruth’s daughter-in-law. The two women didn’t get along. (They had their reasons: my great-grandfather put the moves on my grandmother. The wife blamed the daughter-in-law.) When someone visited Ruth, she sent them home with a jar of homemade pimento cheese. Helen believed Ruth did this not out of generosity but to bribe guests to return. I know this because Helen told my mother, who told me. My mother loved the pimento cheese but Ruth kept the recipe highly secret.
When I was two years old, Mommy took me to visit Mom in company with Maw, and received her tiny jar of pimento cheese. Three days later my mother called my great-grandmother with a fabrication: Baby Chris refused to eat anything but pimento cheese and would Ruth mind divulging the recipe. Within a week it arrived in the mail, hand-written on a scrap of stained paper. Ruth died shortly afterward and bequeathed my father five dollars. Dad returned the check to the lawyer. The only third-generation “family heirloom” is the recipe my mother lied to acquire. Fifty-three years later, she gave it to me.
It is difficult to reveal the following family secret, one that violates the very fabric of Southern life, particularly one’s upbringing, and most specifically the treacherous betrayal of a mother by her son—but the sad fact is, my mother was never a very good cook. Food preparation was duty, same as laundry and housework. Her own mother died young and, as eldest daughter, Mom was thrust into the role of female head-of-family. As a teenager she suddenly faced the thrice-daily task of feeding her father and sister, then her husband and children. For six decades she prepared thousands of meals with a pragmatism born of necessity. As a result, Mom adored any food that came in a box or a can, with a recipe consisting of just-add- . (Fill in the blank: water, milk, a convenient seasoning packet, or my mother’s preference—cheap hamburger meat.)
My own interest in food began while working in restaurants as a young man. But it flourished when I was a single father for a few years and followed my mother’s model for cuisine. Within six months my son announced he was a vegetarian. Years later he admitted that his motivation had nothing to do with animals or politics or youthful rebellion—it was a response to my horrendous meals. I protested, but he reminded me of the time that I had burned the paint off the window sill while cooking tacos. I was “dating” during this time, if my feeble attempts at companionship qualify for the term. (My notion of a date was a twenty-minute walk to see if I could stomach another twenty minutes.) None of the women really worked out well. Finally I married the first one who could cook. Now I’m fat.
The only time my mother made pimento cheese from the secret recipe was at Christmas. She packed it in jars which she gave as gifts. I never liked it much, preferring the exotic pimento cheese she made with real cheddar, unfairly reserved for my parents. (I snuck bites with a fork.) Even as a young child, I recognized that Christmas came at the wrong time of the year: it made no sense to force multiple generations of family beneath one roof when the weather was unsuitable for prolonged periods of escape outdoors. The hills of Kentucky were too cold and my clothes were never warm enough. My father explained that nobody really knew when Jesus was born, and that mid-December was chosen because the pagans already celebrated the solstice then, which made it handy for the Christians to usurp. I was eight and none of that made sense. Jesus received a great deal of attention for his birthday while all I got was school clothes that didn’t fit.
As every Southerner knows, the key ingredient for pimento cheese is Velveeta, invented in 1918. Kraft bought it in 1927, and Velveeta gained tremendous popularity during the Depression because it was cheap to buy. The fact that it was not actually cheese didn’t bother anyone until the FDA issued an official Warning Letter in 2002 that Kraft had misbranded Velveeta. Five years later Kraft was hit by lawsuits over false labeling. These days, Velveeta is marketed as “Pasteurized Prepared Cheese Product,” a vague term that reminds me of Jesus’ warning about false prophets in sheep’s clothing. (Or in this case: false profits—ha!) Calling Velveeta actual cheese is like believing Tolstoy was a peasant because he liked to wear their clothes. (He did, a lot.)
My mother warmed the Velveeta with her hands then used an electric mixer to blend it with other secret ingredients. My seven-year-old sister watched attentively. She leaned over the bowl and her long hair got snagged by the whirling beaters, which pulled her head into the bowl. She began yelling bloody murder and my mother rushed to turn off the mixer. The beaters had already yanked a large chunk of hair from my sister’s skull, and the rest of her thick tresses were hopelessly entangled. Mom had no choice but to cut her free of the mixer. My sister recalls being inconsolable, made worse by the lopsided state of her hair. Mom evened it out by chopping off the rest of her hair. At this juncture, family history splits into three different prongs of memory. My sister recalls Mom being irritated that she had to throw out a batch of cheese. Mom says that she carefully removed all the hair and nobody knew the difference. I remember eating pimento cheese and pulling strands of hair from between my teeth.
The other traditional Christmas treat was bourbon balls. Mom’s recipe came from her mother who shared the same name: Mary Joe McCabe. For years I thought my mother and grandmother were special due to being named for Mary and Joseph. It turned out that Joe was a great uncle who always wanted to be a priest but instead worked as a mailman and took care of his long-ill mother. When she died, Uncle Joe immediately joined the seminary. Six weeks later, just before his vows, he died on the operating table during an emergency appendectomy. This family lore feels potent and full of meaning but I can’t figure out the moral: Don’t wait to be a priest? Palm your sick mother off on a sister? Guard your appendix? (Any readers with firm conclusions are welcome to communicate.)
Everyone loved Mom’s bourbon balls mainly because she injected enough liquor in them to please Dad, who’d increased his tolerance by drinking whisky every day. Many bourbon balls are dusted with powdered sugar. Mom’s variation was coating them with chocolate, using a small amount of paraffin as a fixative to make the chocolate adhere to the dipped balls. My own experience with paraffin is far less savory than eating bourbon balls.
For most of my life I lived without benefit of insurance. Fortunately I’m healthy—more so than Uncle Joe anyhow—and I employed a variety of techniques to save money on medicine, mainly by following my mother’s dictum: if it’s not bleeding don’t go to the doctor. At a certain point I realized that I didn’t hear as well as I once did. I decided to try “ear candling” as a method to clean my filthy ears. At a local health food store (you can’t go wrong there!) I bought a pack of six “candles.” They are actually cones of linen tapered to a narrow opening like a funnel. The cloth is soaked in paraffin, then wrapped in the shape of a long skinny ice cream cone. Ear candling is touted as the oldest known method of cleaning your ears—much safer than using Q-tips! And much cheaper than seeing a doctor.
My sons were young enough to be fascinated by their father’s latest undertaking, especially since it involved fire in the house. I carefully followed the instructions: make a small hole in a paper plate and put the tip of the cone into the hole. Light the wide end of the cone with a match. Lie down on your side. Insert the narrow end into your ear. The proven science behind it is that the fire creates negative pressure that draws wax and toxins out of the ear and into the cone. This is known as the “chimney effect.” Under intense scrutiny by my wife and sons, I successfully candled one ear. Afterwards, I snuffed the fire and unfolded the linen. Sure enough the bottom of the tip was filled with waxy residue that came out of my head!
I reversed my position on the couch, a new couch in fact, our first significant purchase in years. We liked the couch well enough to forbid the dogs from romping on it with their dirty bodies. Thus ensconced, I waited for the cone to burn down. Suddenly, my head was filled with a sharp and indescribable pain. I leaped from the couch, yelling and holding my ear, believing my hair was burning. Thankfully it was not. However, the flame had ignited the paper plate which in turn had lit the new couch on fire. My sons were paralyzed—perhaps by fear or maybe the generalized joy they’d come to periodically expect from their father’s activities. (They’d once seen me jump into a car rolling backwards and stomp the brake which slammed the door on my leg and put me on crutches.) My wife extinguished the couch fire. By this time I realized I couldn’t hear out of one ear and my balance was impaired. My wife thought I should go straight to the emergency room. I declined since I was not bleeding. She convinced me that not being able to walk correctly was tantamount to an open streaming wound.
I had to wait quite a long time at the ER as more serious maladies took priority: an accidental poisoning, a finger lost to a sawblade, two college kids who’d overdosed, and a suspected snakebite. Finally it was my turn. I was embarrassed to explain my “emergency.” I tried to use an elevated vocabulary so the doctors would know I was smarter than the average dumbass who stuck a burning tube into a hole in the side of his head. A steady flow of doctors and interns came into my little chamber to examine me. The top ear doc was off-duty and the wait stretched on two more hours. By this time I’d developed a good rapport with the nurse and a couple of interns.
When the main guy finally arrived, I had practiced my story so many times that I could relate it with ease, speaking intelligently and including some medical jargon I’d picked up in the last four hours. The specialist looked inside my ear for quite a while. His diagnosis was simple: the flaming taper had gotten hot enough to melt the paraffin, which slid abruptly into my head, then hardened. A thin layer of paraffin coated my ear canal and ear drum. He told me to make an appointment to come in the following week for surgery. I asked why surgery was necessary. He explained that I needed to be knocked out, and I asked why. Because, he said, the ear is very sensitive to pain and you need four shots of a local anesthesia in your ear: top, bottom, and both sides. I thought about this and made a counter-offer—give me one shot that’s really strong. Then when everything’s numbed, give me the other three.
To his credit, the doctor looked me over slowly, gauging my relative health and sincerity. (In those days I was fit and clean-cut.) He warned me that the first one would be extremely painful. Don’t worry, I told him, I’m a country boy from Kentucky. That seemed to tip the case my way, because he sighed and nodded. In retrospect, I believe he was disgusted with the entire turn of events and wanted to get me off his hands.
That first shot hurt like the dickens but a half hour later the doctor tore the paraffin out of my numb ear and showed me a tiny fragment of my eardrum. He reassured me that it would grow back. I went home with instructions to rinse my ear twice a day and never stick anything in it again. Quite chagrined, I had to face my sons’ smug expressions and my wife’s outrage at a long black burn mark on the new couch. (It’s still there.)
Like Uncle Joe’s death, this story has no clear moral. The irony is that in trying to save money by not having my ears cleaned, I had to pay an exorbitant bill for an ER visit. To top it off, my ears weren’t impacted with wax. I had early hearing loss, which is common in my family. (Along with gray hair.) I still retain all four wisdom teeth but that is neither here nor there.
Winter in Mississippi is very mild, which improves my relationship to Christmas. I put up a tree and stockings. I give gifts. I go outside. But I never ate pimento cheese after my sister’s hair accident, and I gave up bourbon balls due to anger at paraffin. Incidentally, my hearing has gotten much worse. I hope my readers will forgive all this digression. No one cares about family history, even most members of the family. As Tolstoy wrote: “Historians are like deaf people who go on answering questions that no one has asked them.”
Ruth Bell Offutt’s Secret Pimento Cheese