In a Tasty Memoir, Louise Dillow Preserves Some 'larrupin' Good' Dishes from the Depression Years

updated 04/20/1981 at 01:00 AM EST

originally published 04/20/1981 01:00AM

Can't think of anything good to say about the Depression? Then try this: savory chicken and dumplings, candied sweet potatoes, black-eyed peas with cornbread, chicken-fried steak with cream gravy and a tender crusted wedge of buttermilk pie. Such were the dishes that crowded Bertha Blackwell's dinner table nearly 50 years ago under a hot tin roof in Corsicana, Texas. Lovingly recalled by two of Mrs. Black-well's nine children—Louise Dillow, 61, and Deenie Carver, 65—they are the heart-and-soul food of a brand-new collection of Mama's old recipes: Mrs. Blackwell's Heart of Texas Cook-book (Corona Publishing, San Antonio, $6.95).

"A Tasty Memoir of the Depression," the book is subtitled, and with the economy limping along like an arthritic turkey, you'd think it might come in handy. But Louise Dillow isn't urging anyone to sweat all day over a wood-burning stove the way Mama did, or to save a little money by buying live chickens and wringing their necks. "We weren't the Waltons by any means," says Louise, "but it was a tough life. Those are times we'll never see again—at least I hope not." (For those who do choose to deal with their fowl a mano, she offers a bit of homespun advice: "You will hear a snap and a pop, and the cackle will have gone out of that ol' bird.")

By the time the Depression bottomed out, James Edgar Blackwell, Louise and Deenie's dad, had lost his farm. He became a cotton sharecropper, and earned extra money peddling butter, eggs and his homemade sausage. Mama tended the animals and the garden, churned butter to sell and put up more than 1,000 jars of vegetables and preserves a year. She also cooked breakfast, lunch and dinner for 11 every day—"Love on a plate," Louise calls it. The kids didn't have money for candy and soda pop, so they found their treats wherever they could. Says Louise: "I'm sorry for the child who has never sucked nectar from the honeysuckle blossoms."

The Blackwell family did the best it could with what it had—and often that was "larrupin' good," as J.E. Blackwell used to say. Two years ago five Blackwell sisters and brother Bill—founder of Bill's Fried Chicken in Corsicana—were reminiscing about the old days. "We wondered if our own children, facing the threats of depression and energy shortage and accustomed to every modern convenience, could do as well," Louise recalls. Soon they got to talking about Mama's wonderful home cooking; then Louise realized the old recipes would be lost forever if someone didn't write them down for posterity.

Louise, the fifth child of nine, didn't know any of the recipes firsthand ("By the time I came along, Mama was tired of teaching grubby little girls how to cook"), but sister Deenie, who had gloried in being Mama's little helper, remembered them all. So as Deenie recited the details from memory, Louise took notes and sent copies of the recipes to everyone in the family. Before long friends convinced the sisters they had a book on their hands. For that, of course, they realized they would have to be a little more formal than Mama was used to. "One of the hardest parts," says Louise, "was trying to put down exactly how much is a 'dib' or a 'dab.' " Included in the book are instructions for making soap and rendering lard. The recipes aren't as difficult to follow as they once were. Even Mama, Louise admits, eventually bought packaged mix for her famous coconut cake.

The book is about more than just cooking, of course. It is, as the foreword says, "a loving account of how a father and mother of nine children relied on the earth and hard work for their daily bread." When Louise, a retired federal welfare administrator who was recently widowed, herself became a mother of three in the '50s, times were easier. But she still fixed three square meals a day for her family. "They say to me now, 'Mama, you must have worked 18 hours a day,' " she says, smiling. "It makes me proud."

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