Thursday, July 22, 2010

A Tribute to Jennie Ruth

*This piece was written by my partner Chris Stewart's father, Tom, telling us about the person for whom we named our deviled eggs -- his mother, Jennie Ruth.

Jennie Ruth Haley was born on August 1, 1914 in Crystal Springs, Mississippi. Crystal Springs is about half way between Jackson, Mississippi and New Orleans, basically in the heart of the Mississippi Delta. She was born on a farm, the seventh child of Oliver and Belle Haley. Her father died when she was three years old, and subsequently her oldest brother Wade moved to Birmingham, Alabama to find work. Shortly thereafter, he moved the rest of the family to Birmingham.

All of the brothers and sisters worked at whatever jobs they could find and pooled the money so the family could stay together. During the depression they opened a small restaurant and served “southern food” – what natives call “meat and three” type food. Jennie Ruth had three brothers and three sisters. All of the sisters learned to cook from their mother Belle who ran the kitchen in the restaurant. The brothers worked as servers, dishwashers, etc. All of the sisters became excellent cooks, and their love of food lasted throughout their lives.

Jennie Ruth married Calvin Stewart in 1937, and after the war they had two children – my brother Jim and me. Calvin was born in LaFayette, Alabama on a farm. His family moved to Birmingham in the 1920s. Calvin believed that one of the immutable laws of nature is that if you own any piece of land you must grow something on it. No back yard was complete without a garden. From the time they were married until Calvin died in 1985, he never owned a home without a vegetable garden in the back yard. After he retired he convinced a friend to let him “farm” a vacant lot owned by the friend and close to his home, so that he had 2 gardens.

In these gardens he grew every vegetable he could grow in Birmingham. Corn, butterbeans, green beans, okra, cucumbers, tomatoes, turnip greens were the staples. Bell peppers, banana peppers, and occasionally watermelons also appeared. He loved to work in the dirt; he loved to see things grow; he loved to give the excess away; and most of all he loved to eat the results of his hard work.

And Jennie Ruth loved to cook the fruits and vegetables which came out of Calvin’s garden. Her meals were legendary in the family. A typical Sunday dinner would consist of fried chicken with roast beef and a ham. On a very special day country fried steak would join the menu. Rice and gravy, creamed corn, green beans, squash, field peas, butter beans, sliced tomatoes, onions, bell peppers, those famous “Jennie Ruth’s deviled eggs” and always corn bread would complete the menu. Dessert would be either peach, blackberry or apple cobbler. There would be pound cake in the home 90% of the time, year in and year out. And there were usually homemade cookies of one type or another.

Summer trips to the local farmers market would result in bushels of green beans, corn and butter beans. These would be shelled immediately, no matter how late you had to stay up to finish, and then canned for the winter. Thanksgiving and Christmas were simply orgies of food. All of the sisters would cook their best dishes and the family would eat themselves comatose.

My brother and I took this cornucopia of food for granted. We never knew until we were adults that for some people macaroni and cheese comes from a box and green beans come from a can. We grew to appreciate our mother’s ways in the kitchen when we began to see what other people called “good food” was in reality food that Jennie Ruth would never serve to a stranger.

All of the Stewarts have fond memories of Jennie Ruth for lots of reasons. But the central memory is of the wonderful food which she lovingly prepared and served to her family. She enjoyed nothing more in life than seeing her family enjoy themselves eating the fresh, locally grown food that she prepared from scratch.

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