Growing up, we didn’t go out to restaurants very often. We didn’t have the money to eat out, so most of our meals were eaten in our little kitchen, sitting around a 1950s-style dinette set.
Thank goodness. Mom was a terrific cook. She loved trying new things. She loved to experiment with spices and different ingredients.
Unfortunately, Dad hated it when Mom experimented with spices and ingredients. Dad was strictly a meat ‘n’ potatoes guy. Nothing fancy. Beef, pork, or chicken were the standard, but if he got lucky in the woods, we might have squirrel or rabbit.
Mom prepared the wild game Dad brought home just like she did a chicken. Whatever Mom made was tasty.
Whatever the meat might be, Mom would always include mashed potatoes and gravy. I swear. She could get a clean skillet out of the cabinet, add some milk and flour and presto… there was gravy.
One of my favorite meals was breakfast.
According to Dad, there was only one way to prepare eggs – over easy. You never wanted to break the yolk until the eggs were on the plate surrounded by fried potatoes and sausage. At this point in the breakfast game, a third of the plate was for eggs, a third for potatoes and a third for sausage patties.
There was still some ceremony to take place before breaking the egg yolk.
Before breakfast was ready for Dad, he would ladle spoonfuls of sausage gravy onto the center of the plate. Then came the final Charlie touch. He would crumble up at least one large biscuit onto the big puddle of sausage gravy. Taking his favorite breakfast-eating fork — yes, he had a favorite fork — Dad would start stirring and blending. That’s when the yolk finally broke.
As Dad stirred up his breakfast concoction, brownish-gray gravy would get streaks of yellow yolk running throughout. Lumps of sausage, biscuit and fried potatoes would combine into a thick, tasty mass. At some point in the process, Dad would smile and say, “Now, that’s a Hillbilly Breakfast.”
You could call my Dad all sorts of names. He was rarely bothered. If you called him a Hillbilly, his chest might puff out a little and a smile would cross his face and he would say, “Well, yes I am, and proud of it.”
Dad was born in Hazard, Kentucky and raised in Breathitt County. Hillbilly blood coursed through his veins and my Dad, Charlie, was proud of every drop of Eastern Kentucky Hillbilly blood he had.
My mother, Adda Belle, was the daughter of generations of southern Indiana cooks. As soon as we walked into Mamaw Bridges’ kitchen, our hunger would be triggered by the aroma of beans cooking in Mamaw’s big old bean pot.
I have no recollection of that pot ever being empty. I think Mamaw just added more beans whenever the bean-level got low.
Dad liked Mamaw’s beans, but not enough to have them every day. So, Mom switched from Indiana cooking to Hillbilly cooking.
She certainly nailed it.
As we grew up, there were never any casseroles on the menu. We didn’t have pizza until Dad was transferred to the evening shift at Delco and Mom decided to give it a try. We were simply a meat and potatoes family.
However, after supper, there was always room for cake or pie. If for some reason we didn’t have cake or pie, Mom also had a knack for cornbread. She had a small cast-iron skillet that was used for cornbread. After dinner (called supper at the Riley Household), fresh cornbread could be made in a heartbeat.
Dad would take a large, clean jelly glass and fill it with crumbled up cornbread. His first choice was always buttermilk, but if we ran out of buttermilk, regular milk would do just fine. After filling his glass with cornbread, it was topped off with milk. If we didn’t have cake or pie, that was one of Dad’s favorite desserts. He would always top that off with just a touch of salt.
I ate my share of crumbled up cornbread and milk. It was always a good way to end a tasty Hillbilly meal.
We didn’t even own a waffle maker. We had pancakes a few times, but a real Riley breakfast was eggs over easy, fried potatoes and meat. Mom could fry potatoes to sheer perfection. They were slightly brown, but the edges were just a little crunchy. Mom always gave credit for her perfect potatoes to her cast-iron skillet.
I always gave complete credit to my Mom. She was perfection in the kitchen. I wish more of Mom’s cooking skills had rubbed off on me.
But I did inherit Dad’s Hillbilly appetite.
The food that came out of those kitchens will always be a cherished part of growing up.
Randy Riley is a former Mayor of Wilmington and former Clinton County Commissioner.