"They're wrapping it up from spoon to pen" blared the headlines in bold, block print. In 1971, the local KY Post and Times Star decided to profile my grandmother in a full page spread for their popular Food section. The article was written by Fern Storer, food editor for the Post from 1951 to 1976, and in it they dished the real meaning of soul food, family and stuff like that. My grandmother talked about her unique approach to cooking and shared some of her recipes for lemon cake, lemon pie and everything from chitlin's to pig feet. However, it was clear to everyone from the very beginning that there was another star working behind the scenes vying to be recognized - and she brought her daughters with her!
Back in those days, black folk didn't make the headlines in Covington, Kentucky unless they raped, robbed or killed somebody. But the Fox's were always set apart from the rank and file! Still, the whole neighborhood was buzzing about this article and I guess, for them, it was just one more layer of intrigue and glamour that once surrounded my mother's family. I was a child at the time and didn't really care about such things. But what I remember about the whole affair was my father's family holding it up to ridicule and a certain sense of sadness from my mother at being left out of the loop once again. What I remember most is my aunt Norma's great dissatisfaction with the way Fern Storer wrote the article. No doubt she tried to tell Ms. Storer how to do her job but she wasn't having it!
I recently found a fraying, tattered copy of the article in a drawer at my mother's house, and for the continuing series on domesticity (that I can't seem to shake) on this blog, I thought I might reproduce and remix it here for you. It's also appropriate that I add a little commentary here and there on the back story - the one they didn't write in the papers! 40 years later, we're still talking about it amongst ourselves.
A rich heritage of good recipes is in the making for the 10 grandchildren of Mrs. Homer Fox of Covington. But it isn't easy. Grandma would rather cook than write down exactly what she does. "There are things about cooking you can't write" Lillian Fox laughs. Her gentle manner of speaking always hints at good nature and kindness. She shares her recipes gladly and generously, but sometime forgets to include all the details ... just takes it for granted "anyone would know."
*Good nature and kindness were Mama Lil's signature ingredients. However, I find it ironic that she was never able to pass those particular character traits down to those who were closest to her (and in obvious need of them the most). She was friendly and all about sharing but I see that even Fern Storer didn't get all the details that she needed from her recipes. In retrospect, I wonder whose fault that really was? In direct opposition to my grandmother's generosity and instruction, I can think of a few individuals who took great delight at being obstinate not only by not sharing details but by omitting ingredients (to her recipes) as well.
Her daughter, Mrs. Norma Phipps, also of Covington, first told me of her, "My mother is not only the greatest cook, she is the greatest woman I've ever known." Then she told me of her mother's recipes which the family is assembling in at least one main collection to be duplicated for all the grandchildren.
She's an inventive cook on her own - a constant recipe clipper from newspapers, magazines, package sides and enclosed folders - all those sources I've been urging all our readers to use. But what the family wants is Grandma's version of these recipes - she always changes and improves them with her own skill.
*Lil Fox was a master at the art of food reinvention, as were many of the cooks from her generation. My cousins, Tara and Tanya, would argue it to the ground, but many of our most treasured family recipes are not originals in the sense that Mama Lil created them. They are, in fact, remixes that have their nucleus in the pages of old Ebony magazines from the 1950's, when the legendary African American chef, Frida DeKnight ruled the pages of the food section. Mama Lil was talented in the sense that she elevated what we now call comfort food to fine cuisine.
Remembering the many readers who (have) written searching for a dish "exactly like mother used to make" and who failed to have her write down what she did - perhaps Mrs. Fox's example will be a reminder. She has started copying in her own beautiful handwriting, recipes she has made up herself, in a generous note book with notations of changes and improvements she made.
Mrs. Fox and her husband live at the eastern end of Covington's 11th street in a well-kept gray painted two-story brick house with attractive blue shutters framing the three long front windows. Mrs. Phipps joined us because "Mother will never think to tell you all about herself." To my surprise, her two daughters, 15-year old Tara (a Notre Dame Academy sophomore) and 14-year old Tanya (LaSalette Academy) were there also - just to listen in.
*Really now?! Is that why they were there? I think this was originally supposed to be an all-girl gathering of daughters and granddaughters. However, this was not orchestrated by Ms. Storer or the newspapers. This surprise gathering was the brainchild of my aunt Norma - only there were a lot more surprises in store. Norma told my mother (Margaret) the exact date and time to be there to be photographed and contribute any information that she thought pertinent to the article. However, when my mother and sister (who was married and a young mother then) arrived at the appointed time, Ms. Storer and Jack Klumpe, the photographer, were packed up and long gone. My mother took it in stride. She was used to such shenanigans!
Mrs. Phipps said "My parents bought this place back in the 1940's. People asked why they'd buy such a broken-down house. They didn't know my dad can fix anything." That he has done with expertness and good taste. Now retired after 47 years at Newport Steel Mills, he still fixes things. "He also sits in the kitchen and watches me cook, but he doesn't give me a hand" laughs Mrs. Fox. "He is a willing taster, though."
*My grandfather was a brilliant man! Like many exceptional black men of his generation, he never really got his due. He (and his brothers) were among the first black men to be hired for Newport Steel, and the Fox men gave their expertise and talent to a company that used their inventiveness for years to come with no recompense. But those blue collar, often back-breaking jobs were considered good and steady employment back then - and the pay was good. Not only did my grandfather buy a "broken down house" from the turn of the century, but he remodeled it to be one of the most admirable houses on the block. They filled it with well-appointed furniture and a tasteful decor, with fine fabrics and crystal on the inside and rosebushes on the outside - all right across from the local housing projects. The taste and style that went into that house has influenced me to this very day. My grandfather also bought at least three other properties on the same block (and throughout Covington) and rented them.
The kids (grandchildren and their friends) eat here constantly" Mrs. Fox told me with obvious pleasure. "They're always welcome to bring the gang." She keeps the big upright freezer (and equally big combination refrigerator-freezer) full. "There's just Dad and me now, but he says I cook as if I'm expecting a multitude" she chuckled.
She usually is. She loves to entertain - not only the kids, but friends about town and visiting notables. "We had a buffet for 41 on Christmas Day. I cooked all night. I don't like to cook food ahead and reheat it. I serve my food fresh made."
*You never knew just who you might see at any given time at Mama Lil's house. My uncle Homer was friends and neighbors with some of the local Reds baseball players like Frank Robinson and Vada Pinson and they could often be caught eating at Mama Lil's table. Tara and Tanya were eventually both quite popular on the dating scene with Cincinnati Bengals stars and local celebrity boxers and radio stars. The holiday season was often a local Who's Who at my grandmothers, and we used the best of everything and dressed to the nines for dinner.
Mrs. Fox got an early start in cooking big. She spent the years from 11 to 16 in the Convent of the Good Shepherd on North Bend Road. "My mother was raised in a convent. I was one of 16 children. She put me in, I guess because she didn't want me to go wrong. I was there until I married at 16. I married a good man- we've had 38 years together." I sensed they have been good ones. Their two children are Mrs. Phipps and Homer Fox Jr., a postman in Wyoming; also Homer Sr.'s daughter, Margaret, by a previous marriage.
*I'm already walking on thin ice! If I'm not careful, I'll be paying the price. Lil Fox's parents were John and Lucille Baker. Lucille had already preceded Mama Lil in the newspapers by being featured as one of the most prolific child-bearers on Covington's East Side. They couldn't properly take care of them all so off to the convent Lil went. She was there until she was 16 - until she married. My grandfather was 30 years old. One does not have an occasion to date or fall in love with grown men in the convent. But I'm going to leave it alone! Let's just say that my grandfather had already been married three times before. Twice to my biological grandmother, a bold, beautiful woman that he could not control, and to another more submissive lady named Charlotte - who just happened to be a "distant" relative to the Baker family. Both my grandmother and Charlotte died in 1932. Homer and Lil were married in 1933.
*You'll remember that I mentioned my father's family at the beginning of this blog post, and they had a field day when this article came out. "Did you read that mess?", "Well, I certainly know better cooks" and "By a previous marriage - why'd they have to say it like that?." They often took great amusement laughing and ripping into what they called the "Fox pretensions." But they could have also been pissed at the fact that my father's mother taught Mama Lil a lot about food and cooking by sharing her own recipes. But Tara and Tanya call us liars whenever that fact is brought up!
Mrs. Fox helped in the kitchen of the convent. "They worked you to death out there" she laughs, admitting that it gave her a head start in large-scale cooking. "We cooked for 300 children - great pots of food. You couldn't fill 'em up." This undoubtedly adds to her pleasure in keeping children "filled up" today.
*Mama Lil had a big heart. Many were the days I went to visit her and found her feeding all the kids in the projects. If a single mother ran short of money and food - at least they knew where to get fed! And after my grandfather passed, many was the tenant who didn't get pestered about being short on the rent.
Favorite dishes of the family? "Dad's is green beans with some of the shelled out kind and ham hocks - I put fresh corn cut from the cob into it too" she added. "Dad calls that real soul food." "What does 'soul food' mean to you?" I asked. "Well, Fern - it's heavy, it's hearty and stays with you. I'm a spicy cook. I have a whole cupboardful of spices and herbs and I USE them. You have to taste and season to bring out the best in good plain cooking. Then you have what I call soul food."
In addition to her skill with spices and herbs, Mrs. Fox added, "I use whiskey, rum and wine in cooking. I don't care for it to drink but it adds so much to many dishes."
A GREAT cookbook could be written by Mrs. Fox, but if it's done it will have to be at the constant urging of her family. She finds it much more tempting to pick up her mixing spoon than her pen. If her book is ever written it will be the most authentic collection of soul food plus other great recipes yet collected, and it will be from a home where there is every evidence of soul - which to many of us means love. Some of her family's favorite recipes follow.
*After my grandmother's death in the early 90's, all of her recipes fell into the hands of my aunt Norma and her daughters, Tara and Tanya. I guess you know by now that book was never written and never will be unless it's over their dead bodies. They've said as much! Since the article, Mama Lil shared and wrote out recipes for those of us who asked but we didn't ask too often because we were still depending on her to be around to make them. Norma has since passed, and Tara and Tanya have long stopped sharing even with the other grandchildren. Because of their selfishness and mean-spiritedness, I take great pleasure in reproducing a few of the ones that appeared in the original newspaper article from 1971.
In addition to "Norma's" Favorite Lemon Pie and the Delicious Lemon Cake - which I can attest to as a wonder - there were soul food staples like Chitlins, Pigs Feet and two different types of corn bread that were included in the article. I found that curious because chitlin's and pigs feet were dishes one didn't find that often in Lil Fox's kitchen. They seem to be somewhat incomplete but I'm including them here in their entirety.