Yvonne, David, and Vera Cecelski at the family homeplace
by David Cecelski
My mother and I always go to our local farmers market on Saturday morning. Today we had a lovely, clear sunny day, a good crowd was there, and you could find the tail end of winter’s bounty—collard greens, cabbages, turnips, sweet potatoes—and the first signs of spring’s coming: lettuce greens, spring onions and garlic, tulips and daffodils and lots of bedding plants. As always, there were also fresh eggs, fruit preserves, locally-made cheeses, some incredible-looking baked goods and lots of locally-raised, antibiotic-free, free-range pork, beef and lamb.
We walk through the market once just to see what the farmers have brought with them that week. My mother, now eighty, loves to watch the crowd. “Everybody is so happy,” she tells me. She adores watching the children run and play. She also says, referring to the farmers, “You can tell they care so much about what they’ve grown.” We take our time. We look at every vendor’s wares at least once. Then we buy cups of hot apple cider and sit on a bench and mull over our options.
Then we make a second pass through the market. Today we bought baby turnips, broccoli, two kinds of lettuce, three bouquets of tulips and a half leg of lamb. On our way back to my car, my mother said that this was our best day at the farmer’s market ever. “And the sky,” she told me, “I don’t believe the sky used to be this blue when I was child.”
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She forgot how to cook two summers ago. At first, I made great pots of a hearty vegetable soup, one that her mother used to make, and left some in her refrigerator and some frozen in her freezer. She ate it nearly every lunch and supper. When she visited me at our farmhouse, the old antebellum house where she was born, I foisted whole hosts of seafood dishes on her. The farm is near the coast and I love fixing fresh seafood when I’m there.
That summer I made clam chowder, roast jumping mullet and boiled shrimp for her. I fixed her a shrimp and pesto pasta dish and served her plates of freshly-smoked bluefish. We always ate on the front porch, her in the swing, me in a rocker, a little table between us, and we watched the cars go by on 101 while she told me stories about growing up in that house.
I also made a lot of crab dishes that summer. Our neighbor is a crabber and he was having a pretty good year. So I fixed great pots of steamed blue crabs. I made crab cakes by the dozen, fried hefty plates of soft-shell crabs (which is maybe her favorite dish) and concocted a crab and okra stew based on what I remembered about one old Doc Borden fixed me at his fishing camp on South River probably 15 years ago.
I also fixed a lot of stewed hard crabs, because I was still learning how to make that old, traditional dish and I needed a lot of practice. I found getting the gravy right downright confounding. The recipe calls for a big pot of blue crabs mixed with white potatoes, onion and corn dumplings that turn into a thick gravy. So I kept trying, again and again, until I got the gravy the way I remembered it when my grandmother used to make the dish.
In the summertimes of my youth, my grandmother and we kids used to catch blue crabs under the bridge behind our house. Then she’d often make stewed hard crabs and lacy cornbread for dinner and I thought they were incredibly good.
Yet when I made stewed hard crabs for my mother, she almost always said, “I don’t think crabs ever used to taste that good when I was child.” Or she’d say that they—or my fried soft-shell crabs or my okra and crab stew—were “the best thing that I have ever eaten.” She was that enthusiastic about all my cooking that summer, and my mother never lies and is a stranger to insincerity and exaggeration.
One day that summer, a little before dusk, we were walking across the back fields after taking a walk down to the creek. The sky was a lovely red and pink. My mother said that she couldn’t remember a sunset so beautiful in all her life. She wondered aloud if we should call the TV news or somebody else who could let people knows about it. “I don’t think there’s ever been anything like this before, has there?” she asked. I said, no, I don’t think so.
Most of my culinary endeavors that summer, it seemed, were “the best meal ever.” My mother relished every lunch and supper, ignored the times I overcooked a dish or seasoned one awkwardly, and savored every bite. She wasn’t just being polite. If you had seen her face, you would have recognized in her radiant blue eyes a supreme happiness, an exultation that reflected what I could only interpret as, out of my cooking, the sudden revelation of life’s goodness.
That was true no matter how much some other things in life no longer made sense to her. So of course those meals made me happy too. After all, what cook doesn’t enjoy being told that he just prepared the “beat meal ever”? What chef doesn’t relish those times when a meal makes someone, anybody, radiantly happy? Who doesn’t need to be reminded to take the time to savor a meal or look at the sunset? Yet that summer I had those pleasures several times a week. And now that she lives up here, I have it, among other times, every Saturday morning when we go to the farmers market.
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I still do not fully understand why the sky seems so blue to her now.I can’t quite comprehend why today’s sunset or the autumn leaves or the cherry blossoms make all those of her earlier life pale in comparison. I see their beauty, but beauty that makes one want to call the TV news and tell the world about them? Or fried soft-shell crabs that are nearly always “the best meal ever”? I don’t know.
All I know for sure is that my mother experiences the world a little different now than most of us. Though she has lost so much else, she somehow holds onto the essences of things. She can’t remember the words geese or bird, but when she sees a flock of Canada geese high in the sky, the sight takes her breath away. It’s as if the details are gone, but beauty remains, and more intense than ever.
Likewise, she doesn’t always remember that I am her son, yet she loves me fiercely, in a way that makes me feel bathed in pure light. Again, the details are gone, but the essence of things is not.
And so every Saturday morning, we go back to the farmers market and we walk hand-in-hand among the crowds and vendors. We fill our arms with tulips and narcissus, dahlias and daffodils. We fill our bags with sprigs of fresh mint, little bundles of tender carrots and baby turnips, baskets of sweet potatoes. We watch the children play and talk with the vendors about the best way to prune our grape vine or make persimmon pudding. We savor our hot apple cider. And the whole time I know that our little trips to the farmers market have become, like the bluest sky ever, once-in-a-lifetime experiences for us both.
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Here’s a recipe for stewed hard crabs from Ada Willis that was first published in the Harkers Island United Methodist Women’s cookbook, Island Born and Bred. This is pretty much the way that my grandmother made the dish too. I don’t add flour to my dumplings.
Stewed Hard Crabs and Dumplings
2 dozen hard crabs, cleaned
3 slices fat pork
1 Tbsp. cooking oil
12 white potatoes, quartered
2 Tbsps. salt
1 Tbsps. pepper
1 cup flour
2 cups cornmeal
1 tsp. salt
Fry fat pork in bottom of large pot. Add cooking oil, crabs, potatoes, onions, salt and pepper. Cover with water. Cook about 1 hour.
Mix dumpling ingredients and water to desired consistency. Form into cakes and add to pot. Cook about ½ hour more.
Note: In last half-hour of cooking, mix 1 Tbsp. meal and a little water. Add to pot of crabs to thicken gravy. Add water, when needed, to keep crabs from burning in bottom of pot.