“Watermelon man, butterbean man, save your bones for Henry Jones, for he don’t eat no meat.”
Henry Jones (the Watermelon Man)
I am totally, head-over-heels smitten by the stories about local cooks and gardeners that are squeezed in between the recipes in A Little Taste of Heaven Since 1857: Morehead City Heritage Cookbook. Take, for instance, the story of Nelle Geer’s recipe for “Cheese Dreams.” Mrs. Geer passed long ago, but here you can discover that for decades her Cheese Dreams were a mainstay at luncheons and teas sponsored by the Lanier Book Club, the Morehead City Garden Club and the First Baptist Church’s Missionary Society. That’s a pretty good pedigree for a cheese cookie.
But the cookbook doesn’t stop there. The cookbook’s authors also declare that Mrs. Geer used the cap from a Gulf insect spray can “to cut out her dreams.” That’s real history.
Then there’s Jane Stancill’s recipe for “Carolina Stew.” According to Ms. Stancill, she inherited the recipe from her aunt, Rosalie Dowdy. Mrs. Dowdy was a local English teacher who, some summers, also ran a tea room. Widowed young, she lived by herself in what Ms. Stancill describes as “a charming cottage…” that was “storybook magical to children—it had dark wooden floors, dark wooden wainscoting, sloped ceilings upstairs, nooks and crannies, antiques, and a fireplace with a reproduction Winslow Homer over the mantel that was the setting for ghost stories when my sister…and I would spend the night with Aunt Rosalie.” Who wouldn’t want to try a recipe created in such a place?
Later in the cookbook, the singer and folklorist, Connie Mason, recalls Henry Jones, a black gardener from Calico Creek. According to Connie, Mr. Jones “was a familiar and beloved vegetable vendor who traversed the streets with his mule and cart singing out ‘Watermelon man, butterbean man, save your bones for Henry Jones, for he don’t eat no meat.’” Children loved him.
In his later years, when Mr. Jones grew frailer, he left his mule at home and sold his produce at a stand in front of the Sanitary Fish Market. In his own way, he became as much of a Morehead City institution as the Sanitary, Ottis’ Fish Market or the Carolina Princess.
Also in the cookbook, Connie has a lovely paean to “the Cake Lady,” a farm woman from Crab Point named Alice Laughton. According to Connie, Mrs. Laughton was a long-time vendor at the Morehead City Curb Market. During WWII, Mrs. Laughton had plenty of fresh eggs, milk and butter on her family’s farm and devoted her ration coupons to buying sugar—and making delicious cakes. At the curb market, legend has it, she once sold 70 in a morning.
Mrs. Laughton’s most popular cake was a Lemon Jelly Cake made from a recipe that she inherited from her English grandmother. Her grandparents had emigrated from Sheffield, England, in 1859. That recipe also appears in this cookbook.
Alice Laughton, the Cake Lady
The cookbook also relates the story behind Mrs. Willis’s Restaurant, a landmark on Bridges Street. Turns out that Ella Willis’s husband ran Willis Saw Mill, one of several lumber mills in the town early in the 20thcentury. According to the cookbook’s story, Mrs. Willis had a big family and was accustomed to cooking for a crowd. Apparently, a few more hungry mouths didn’t seem like a big deal, so she started cooking for the “Saw Mill Boys” and Port Terminal employees.
At first, Mrs. Willis served the sawmill workers and longshoremen out of her kitchen window. Then, in 1956, the family turned its garage into a dining room. The rest is history. Mrs. Willis’s Restaurant has been a local favorite for more than a half century now.
Stories like these really make Morehead City’s culinary heritage and history come alive. Of course, there was a Watermelon Man, a Cake Lady and a crowd of hungry Saw Mill Boys, or folks like them, in our every town and city. What’s so nice about A Little Taste of Heaven Since 1857 is that, in these pages, they are finally remembered.
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Here’s Mrs. Geer’s recipe for Cheese Dreams—
1 lb. extra sharp cheese
1 lb. butter
4 cups, all-purpose plain flour
Blend cheese, butter, and flour as for pie crust. Chill for ease in handling and roll between wax paper that has been lightly floured, using as little flour as possible. Cut into circles about quarter sized or force through a cookie press before chilling. Bake on an ungreased cookie sheet at 400 until edges are slightly brown.
Corrinne Webb Geer
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You can order A Little Taste of Heaven Since 1857: Morehead City Heritage Cookbook from the Core Sound Waterfowl Museum at www.coresound.com. The price is $25.00, plus shipping ($6.00 for the first book and $2.00 per book for each additional book).
A Morehead City ladies’ club
All photos from A Little Taste of Heaven Since 1857: Morehead City Heritage Cookbook.