Sean of the South: Feeders

Words and Illustrations by Sean Dietrich
 I am in the kitchen with Pauline. And, dear Lord, can she cook.

Her son Don invited me here. He tells me his mother’s downhome fare is good enough to coax even the most depraved human being into behaving like a Pentecostal.

This is Pauline’s old house. She raised a family here. She doesn’t live here anymore; she’s too old. She’s living in the retirement home now.

This house sits vacant most of the time. Old photos line the walls. Bed sheets cover the furniture. The last time they used this place was for a family reunion last year.

I arrive at eight in the morning. The smell of bacon hits me like a freight train. Crackling eggs. Rising biscuits. Simmering grits. Holy Chet Atkins—I’m home.

Pauline is wearing 1962—red polka-dot apron, pearls. She’s all business. The woman is a feeder. If you don’t know what that is, have a seat at her table.

Her food is breathtaking. Her grits contain so much butter, I need to say three Hail Marys and two Our Fathers when I’m finished.

After breakfast, she takes a breather. We wash dishes.

“Now,” she announces, “let the real cooking begin.”

Class is in session.

I’m here as an observer, watching a feeder teach her son to make pound cake. It’s a private moment. I feel privileged to see it.

Don is beside her, paying attention. She uses no written recipes. She goes by feel.

“You see, ” Don says, “I always wanted to learn Mama’s pound cake. It’s the best there is—ask anyone. I just wanna carry on her legacy.”

You’ve never met Pauline, but you already know her legacy. She represents every kitchen queen there ever was.

She is frilly aprons, Thursday-night Civic League, pear salad with cherries and shredded cheese on top, and an accent that makes your heart soar.

She cooks by handfuls, gut feelings, intuition, and she can cure broken hearts with bacon grease.

Pauline learned to cook when she was ten. As a girl, she fed six brothers. As a married woman, three sons and a husband. Her whole life has been behind a stove.

“It’s what I am,” she says. “I feed folks.”

Her hands don’t work like they used to, and she gets winded after talking too much. She’s elderly, but she is not just an old woman. She is old America.

Her husband was a pipe welder—the backbone of this country. Pauline was his lumbar muscles.

Every day, another elderly woman like her crosses The River and the world loses another recipe index.

Refrigerated tube-biscuits are taking over the universe. Shoot me.

After a full day of baking, Don is testing his pound cake. His mother samples bites as if she were a county-fair judge.

It’s impossible not to smile in this kitchen.

The old woman chews slow. “You did it,” she says. “I’m so proud of you, Donnie.”

Don becomes “Donnie” again. I see it on his face. Even though he’s old enough to file for AARP, Mama’s pride reduces back into a little boy.

She kisses him. The day is over. They send me home with two cakes . They shut the lights off to a vacant house.

I’m eating cake while writing. My lap is littered with crumbs.

I’m no expert, but this cake has a familiar taste. I can’t pinpoint the flavor. It’s sweet.

Then I know what it is.

This cake was made with the same ingredient all feeders use. The only ingredient that matters in this life.

Hug your mother today, if you still have one.