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I hadn’t thought about hominy in years, much less eaten it, until last week when I was wandering in the Mega-Mart.
I stopped in my tracks when I spotted it hanging out on a bottom shelf near the back of the store. I felt like I’d bumped into an old friend, and so I picked up a can to say hello.
I’m not talking about grits, the staple of a Scarlett O’Hara breakfast. That’s anorexic hominy, dehydrated and flattened until it could fit into a size 2 dress. It dances with shrimp in gourmet restaurants and flirts with soufflés.
Canned hominy is fat, a good old boy, big and tough as a knuckle. You won’t find it on the menu at fancy places or in yuppie pantries. When I was girl, though, it got around more. Like Spam, it provided a shortcut in the kitchen before convenience foods came into their own. The Owenton Saveway ran it on special once a month, and Mother would buy ten cans for a dollar.
Because it started out as a kernel of corn, Mother insisted hominy was a vegetable despite its pre-natal bath in a bucket of lye water. Maybe that’s why I liked it when I was a kid. Most of its nutrients had been sloshed away before it reached a can, much less my plate.
In a curious way, hominy played a pivotal role in my coming of age. It held my hand on an October day when I stumbled from childhood into all that would come after.
When Mother returned to her job as a schoolteacher each fall, “feeding the hands” — the men Daddy hired to help him on the farm — became a touchy issue between my parents. Though he supported her teaching, Daddy was embarrassed to take work-hands to Nick’s grocery for a cold baloney sandwich and a Dr Pepper. To appease him, Mother would make a big effort on Saturdays to cook a hot noon meal for the men.
I was about 12 or 13 the fall Saturday that Mr. Rook came to help Daddy harvest our corn. I wish I could remember what he looked like, but time has faded his face into a weathered blur. He was about my height — 5 foot, 7 or 8 inches tall, with a wiry build. In late middle age, he’d wandered into our community without a car and taken up residence in an abandoned farmhouse owned by an absentee landlord, his well-to-do cousin. He hired out by the day to Daddy and others.
Mother had baked a cake the night before, and gotten up early to put a cured pork shoulder – something she called a “picnic ham” – into the oven. Within minutes, she was back in bed, vomiting. She’d been felled by one of her “sick headaches,” a form of migraine characterized by extreme nausea. It was a genetic malady she shared with all her maternal relatives, and I thank God everyday that her DNA didn’t pass it on to me. Every few months, a sick headache would sneak up on Mother soon after rising, and she’d be unable to function for the rest of the day.
Between heaves, Mother mumbled instructions into her pillow. “You’ll have to pull the meal together by yourself. You have the ham and cake — “She stopped to vomit. “That may be enough. If you fix anything else though, keep it simple and make plenty.”
“Make plenty,” was Mother’s golden rule of cooking. But what? In a panic, I surveyed our larder. I thought I could manage to bake canned biscuits to go with the ham. And we had a jug of applesauce. I could open that and pour it into a bowl. But that didn’t seem like enough. My eyes fell on the tins of hominy stacked in the back of the cabinet.
With Mother’s words in my ears, I began prying metal lids and dumping hominy into a stew pot. We had 16 cans, and I opened them all. Then I added a dollop of bacon grease like I’d seen her do, a few dashes of pepper, and simmered my “vegetable” the rest of the morning.
I only had to feed four men: Daddy, our friend and neighbor Jock Wright, his son who was about my age, and Mr. Rook. Surely, I had enough I thought.
The first time the hominy bowl passed around our Formica kitchen table, the Wrights said, “No thank you,” and I understood my “vegetable” was not their favorite. They ate some of everything else, however, and then pushed back from the table with polite compliments on the meal.
But every time Daddy would say, “Can I get you anything else, Mr. Rook,?” he would answer, “I’d take some more of that hominy if you got it.” By the time they returned to the cornfield, Mr. Rook had polished off 16 cans of hominy.
To the end of his life, Jock Wright kidded me about the first meal I cooked for work-hands.
“Got any hominy?” he’d ask. Then he would shake his head and say, “I never seen a man eat as much hominy as Old Man Rook.”
What did I learn that day? Oh, lots of things too complicated to put into words. That I could step up, and should? I do know that the simplest of foods can be delicious — especially if you’re hungry.