By Connie Denney
Editor’s note: The essence of this column was first published Dec. 2, 2008.
Picture this: It is 1923 (or there about). It’s summer. You’re six years old and riding in the general manager’s car on a steam-powered Clinchfield Railroad train.
Now, that’s a powerful memory.
As the memory goes, the return trip from Spartanburg, South Carolina, to Erwin could mean fresh peaches onboard. “Everybody who was old enough” was expected to help peel those peaches later for her grandmother to can, the late Hilda Rucker remembered, as she allowed me to listen in on her reflections, during a visit at Unicoi County Memorial Hospital’s Long-Term Care Unit.
I had asked her about “ ‘Bob,’ Chef on Car 2” referred to in the 1920s era cookbook (the subject of an earlier column) I had found at an estate sale. You see, Mrs. Rucker’s grandfather, Louis Henry Phetteplace, was general manager of the railroad at the time. She, indeed, did remember Bob Harrington, saying, “Everything he cooked was good.”
Harrington, a black man who lived here at the time, did the cooking for Car 2, the one in which Phetteplace traveled. In addition to a kitchen, it had bedrooms, a living room and “porch” with a railing she remembers “Granddaddy” looking over to see how the tracks were being kept.
As she tended to get motion sickness, her Grandfather would have her lie down and sleep. White cherries stand out in her mind as especially good when she woke.
Harrington made “good hot rolls. I remember those,” she said, adding, “Whenever I could eat, the food was always good.”
One of Harrington’s recipes printed in the Erwin Cook Book was for “Eggs a la Trip,” which included hard boiled eggs, pimentos, green peppers and onions. The other called for extra select oysters wrapped in bacon and served on toast with a butter and lemon sauce.
The cookbook also included Mrs. Rucker’s Grandmother Phetteplace’s recipe for “Roast Turkey With Celery Dressing.” She remembers her Grandmother cooked the whole turkey. “I always liked the dark meat,” she added, noting that is something you don’t get when using only the turkey breast.
Her Aunt Mary Phetteplace’s recipe for “Ward Belmont Spice Cake” was also printed. She thinks it was named for Ward-Belmont College, the Nashville school her Aunt Mary attended.
Memories seem to topple out one over the other. After her father, Richard Campbell Parsons, died at age 32, when she was six years old, her mother made the kids sleep in one room so others could be rented to school teachers from out-of-town. Her sister, the late Sue Beard, was nine and her brother, the late Dick Parsons, was one.
All of this has me thinking of the importance of memories and how we do not have control of all the circumstances. By the time you read this, thoughts will have turned to upcoming Thanksgiving and Christmas holidays. Snapshots of gratefulness and good times past are important to the present and future.
We like to think we are capable of giving gifts that are not only beautiful as they are opened but thoughtful enough to merit reflection for a long, long time. Among the most meaningful gifts we can give each other, perhaps, is keeping in mind that we all suffer from the weaknesses of the human condition and doing what we can to ensure the making of good memories.