Every month, Stuart Persons writes a piece on the music that moves him to cook. This month, however, he didn’t want to, and offered the job to an old friend from Elementary School, whom he still knows in a vague capacity. This month, Linwood Swerdlowe writes about a Leadbelly platter that grooved his palate. Let’s get prandial, July:
I can’t reckon if it’s because it’s too hot outside, or if I’m workin’ myself too hard, lately I’ve had on my mind the songs of the chain gang. Now son, I don’t mean no modern chain gang (I don’t know what they sing, you understand)- I mean one of those real, genuine chain gangs from back in the heyday of bein’ in prison. Back when the line bosses were mean, when they wore sunglasses, and believed that the problem between us in stripes and them up on the line was only a failure to communicate. Summertime is indeed a good time for them hollerin’ songs.
Welp, you can call me a sucker for traditions, but when I want to hear a good shoutin’ tune, I run to the source: Honest Old Leadbelly. Oh, I can’t help but guess that he’ll turn up on our Prandials ‘gin someday, what with his songs about “Green Corn” and cornbread hurtin’ his pride and grey gooses what me and the fam’ly can’t seem to eat. But this Leadbelly, if you don’t know him- an’ I won’t insult you by suggesting you don’t- this old Leadbelly, two-times convicted of killing a man and two-times let out on account of his playing the guitar so good, sang the songs everybody, oh, everybody was singin’ but wasn’t writin’ down. Those are the real folk songs, the ones you catch yourself singing when you’re doing the thing the song is talking about.
And I’ll be called a liar if it isn’t a powerful good song. “Ham and eggs…” the singin’ songster sings, “Pork and beans….I would have had more….but the cook was so mean…” Truthful lines, Old Leadbelly. All reminds of a cousin Russell I used to have down in Melcher’s Gulch- powerful mean fella with a chip on his shoulder the size of a sweet potato. Wasn’t satisfied from the time he woke up in the morning til the time he spat on somebody, that was big Russell. Grandma used to make a big dinner for us in the afternoons, on account of how in those days food wouldn’t stay good for more’n a few hours after someone made it, and all the half gone bad food from breakfast and lunch was heaped up on our plates and down into our needy
stomachs- that is, if not for our ornery cousin Russell. He‘d caitch your hand as you were getting some seconds of six hour old biscuit gravy-“Wheres you goin’ with that spoon, lady-liver?” Me, or my brother Mug, or whoever would get scared and say kinda sheepish, “Nowheres, big Russ, we wasn’t thinkin’ of gettin’ seconds!” “Good!” our mean old cousin would holler, “Cause if’n I even thought for a second that you were going for that cold biscuit gravy, I’d pound you something awful, and prob’ly cuss at you besides!” Big Russell was a powerful mean when it came to cussin’, so we didn’t bother him nor his gravy.
‘Nother time, Mug and I got it in our heads to play a trick on that ornery Big Russell. It was in the dead of summertime, so hot the cats wouldn’t even do all their regular chores. Seemed that Russell had been out smoking and cussin’ in old Judge Character’s fields, and got himself a powerful thirst. When he was so sand-mouthed he was fit to say, “Dang!”, luck shined on him, and he happened upon a bucket of the venerable Judge Character’s prized milk. I don’t guess that it took him more’n two sips to drink the whole bucket! Well, word got out that Big Russ had drunk up all that milk, and Grandma and the cats beat him something awful. Judge Character was powerful mad, too, and sent down an attorney down to Melcher’s Gulch. “What should I do?” moaned a humble Russell, “They’re gonna lock me up’n throw away the key!” “No sech thing,” said my brother, who was by far smart’rn me. “What you oughta do is make Judge and Mrs. Character a nice meal, and they’ll see how terrible sorry y’ar, an’ forgit the whole damnable incident.” “Ah, hell!” spat Big Russ, never missing an opportunity to cuss something awful, “I cain’t cook more’n a dead au pair! All I knows how to make are aigs!” “Then get gramma t’cook’em a nice big ham, all the trimmings, an’ you go over and make the eggs and ack nice to the Characters.” Mug said this to him and smiled. The two of us caught crickets all afternoon and he told me what he had in mind for big Russ.
That evening, at Judge Character’s house, cookin’ up in the kitchen, ham and eggs, a regular Sunday dinner! Russell had really done himself up for the occasion- slicked his hair back and even worn a bandage over his famous wart- He was sayin‘ in his best church voice, “Yer Seniorship, I do declare that I am powerful sorry for drinkin’ up all yer famous milk. I promise to you that it was not because I like milk or any sech drink, but because I was thirsty as hell. I present to you and your poor elderly wife a delicious dinner. Please do not hold begrudges agin’ me, as you are poor old folk who may not live much longer. Amen.” Mug and I laughed in the kitchen as if our feet were being tickled by the devil. Judge Character and his poor old wife ate the eggs and ham and died, of course. Man can’t handle that much poison in his body, not even a venerable man. Poor old Russ, he nearly put Mug and me in stitches on account of his face. I promise you that on my day of dying I will not forget the police officer shouting, “What’s this in your pocket? A bottle of cyanide!” Old Russell went up to the Parchment Farm chain gang for life after that, and just to make sure the lesson did not escape him, Mug and I would go down the work farm, bring plenty of ham, eggs, and biscuits to the field boss, and eat’em laughin’ while we watched old Russ and the other men do work. Boy how our cousin would groan and cuss and then get scolded at for cussin’! The old field boss was a good, clean man. Didn’t cotton to cussin’. He shot a man in the back once, but it was in the back of the leg. “I’d never shoot a man in the back of his back,” he used to say. He also told me where to get sunglasses like his. Those were the days when line bosses were nice fellas, and people used to sing in chain gangs about that food the did’em in.