My grandmother, Gram, is one of the most experienced cooks in the world. She’s traveled to over 11 countries and began cooking with her mother—my Granny—when she was still learning her ABC’s. Granted it was mostly stirring batters or lining muffin tins, but it’s how she developed her own passion for the art. Granny was extremely meticulous about the way she cooked, and that preciseness and care yielded the most delicious southern delicacies. Of course there’s the famed macaroni and cheese casserole that Gram and Granny cooked together for almost 75 years. And rumor has it, Granny also made the best chocolate cupcakes in the South. Those homemade cupcakes were far better than any of the gourmet ones you’d find today, according to Gram.
Gram grew up in Holly Hill, South Carolina, a small town north of Charleston. The whole town is no more than 1,300 people. Gram, along with her younger brother and sister, spent a lot of time outdoors, climbing ginormous magnolia trees, drawing playhouses in the sand with sticks (quite different than the type of "playing house" you’d imagine today, with big, bright plastic houses), and roaming the surrounding miles on their bikes.
The biggest drawing factor to Holly Hill was the farming. Fresh meat, green vegetables, and the juiciest peaches you can imagine. Gram’s father, just like many of the men before him in his family, was a farmer. As you can imagine, this was a blessing for feeding the family. He had about 50 acres of land, and a good portion of the work was done with mules. When farming equipment and machinery took off, he rented his land to other farmers and became a deputy Sheriff. But Gram wasn’t done with the farming life—she soon married into a family of farmers. My grandfather, Papa C, was a man who Gram had grown up knowing in the community, and he ran a farming business, HUTTO BROTHERS & SONS. Along with his two brothers, he farmed for 50 years on the land that had been in the family for 250 years.
Growing up, I spent two weeks in South Carolina, a week at each of my grandparent’s houses. In Holly Hill, I chased Gram around the kitchen to escape the sweltering midday heat and the swimming lessons I reluctantly undertook due to her insistence. We’d pack into Papa C’s old pickup truck and go bottle feed milk to the baby calves and watch the chickens gawk about. Before Papa C retired, only a five-foot-wide ditch separated Gram and Papa C’s property from a field full of mooing cows. Papa C loved taking care of his garden in the backyard, and I loved to go help him pick his carefully tended to produce. You name it and he grew it—blueberries, tomatoes, corn, butter beans, okra, squash, onions, radishes, cabbage...all of the goodies that would inevitably end up in our meals over the course of the next few days.
As a young gal, my palate wasn’t quite reformed yet. So I cooed over Gram’s cinnamon sugar toast, perfectly crispy turkey bacon, and chocolate meringue pies. Papa C graced the kitchen ever so infrequently only to whip up beer-battered catfish and the most amazing buttery biscuits for breakfast. My siblings and I would gather at our usual barstools, stuff our golden brown biscuits with sausage patties, and dip the corners into sweet maple syrup while watching weekend cartoons.
Dinner was another story. As soon as I heard, “Cara, go wash up!” I knew it was time to scramble to the bathroom, wash my hands, and come sit down at the dining table, wide-eyed at the feast prepared before me. The dining table was always a work of art. Pans of steaming meatloaf resting on old oven mitts. Crystal glasses of ice cold sweet tea. A myriad of side dishes cluttering the table...cole slaw, homemade pickles, sliced tomatoes fresh from Papa C’s garden. And the shake, shake, shaking sound of salt and pepper graciously being sprinkled onto plates. We’d say grace, turn down the news on the TV, and dig in.
We’d stuff ourselves silly, only to take a small break, chatting or playing cards until our stomachs could handle dessert. Dump cake was a crowd favorite—one of the desserts that contains approximately zero ingredients from the garden. And I’m okay with that. It starts with a colorful fruit cocktail poured into a cake pan. On top of the syrupy fruit bits goes a packet of dry vanilla cake mix. On top of that? Cold slabs of golden butter. Yup, that’s it. When it comes out of the oven, you couldn’t even dream up the sugary, fatty, deliciously ooey gooey mess that it creates. And that smell...heavenly.
Thanks to my grandparents, I’ve grown up being obsessed with food. Watching Gram and Papa C cook helped me gain the skills and wisdom that I will undoubtedly pass down for generations to come. Their southern food traditions are deeply rooted in my family, and it’s easy to tell how the friendly nature of southern hospitality has deeply infiltrated the kitchen as well. When I asked Gram why she loves cooking so much, her response was sweet and simple, “The thing that makes any person enjoy cooking is seeing people enjoy eating what they have prepared. Not every recipe has been a success...sometimes when I tried a new recipe, we liked the dish so well that it became a staple. Other times, after we tasted the food, the recipe went in the trash can. So, others' enjoyment is a must.”