MYRTLE • Sammie Merritt was not yet 15 years old when she married, but she was a fast-learner in the kitchen.

“I was still a baby, but a lot more mature than some 30-year-olds are now,” said Merritt, 86. “When we married we lived with his mother and daddy for a while. By the time we got our own place, I could cook. For kids brought up the hard way, it comes natural. Of course, I’ve made my share of messes over the years.”

Merritt, the sixth of 10 children, grew up without electricity or running water in the family’s home in Myrtle, which Merritt calls “God’s country.”

“I didn’t spend much time in the kitchen. I was in the field, picking cotton or hoeing cotton,” she said. “Mama didn’t let anything go to waste. She was a go-getter. I guess she had to be. My daddy left us and she had 10 kids to raise.”

Merritt and her husband, Chester, who died in 2009, were married for 60 years. They had two children, four grandchildren and 13 great-grands. She worked at Irwin B. Schwabe shirt factory in New Albany for 35 years, then went into furniture for three years. She was at New Albany Middle School as a custodian for seven years before she left work to take care of Chester.

“At one time, we raised dairy cows,” she said. “My husband could go out in the pasture, didn’t matter where they were, and call ‘girls, girls, girls’ and they’d come a’running and a’bucking. They thought we lived for them.”

Today, Merritt still lives on 50 acres of family land in God’s country. In the spring and summer, you’ll find her on a tractor or bushhog or behind a tiller, cultivator or planter.

“When I’m on that tractor, you can bet your bottom dollar I’m as happy as I can be,” she said. “Every year I say this is the last year for a garden and every year I plant a garden.”

This year, she has two gardens and between them she has planted corn, peas, butterbeans, string beans, potatoes, okra, squash, cucumbers and tomatoes, among other things. She also has fruit trees and berry bushes.

She cans green beans, tomatoes and tomato juice, okra and pears; freezes corn, peas, butterbeans, okra, squash and blackberries; makes jam and jellies from strawberries, peaches, apples and blackberries, and preserves from pears and figs.

On Sundays, she’ll put that bounty to use for a big dinner at her home with her children and their spouses.

“I’ve been doing that ever since my kids got married,” Merritt said. “I don’t guess I’ve missed a Sunday cooking. Once every couple of months I’ll try a new recipe and the kids will look at me like, ‘What’s that?’ They just like plain old food.”

BLACKBERRY COBBLER

1 1/2 quarts blackberries

1 1/2 cups sugar, or more

3 tablespoons cold butter

2 cups self-rising flour

Water

Place blackberries and sugar in a saucepan and bring to a boil. Let boil no longer than 10 minutes. Taste and add more sugar if needed. Set aside.

Cut cold butter into flour until mixture resembles corn meal. Add enough water to make a soft dough. Form dough into a ball and divide it in half. Roll each half out as thinly as possible to fit your baking dish.

Place one pastry crust in the bottom of baking dish. Pour berry mixture over. Top with second pastry crust. Bake at 350 degrees for at least 1 hour, or until brown and bubbly.

TWICE-BAKED SWEET POTATOES

Baked sweet potatoes

Butter

Brown sugar

Peel baked sweet potatoes and slice lengthwise in 1/4-inch-thick slices. Place potato slices on a greased cast iron griddle. Spread a little butter on each potato slice and sprinkle brown sugar on top. Bake at 350 degrees until they start to brown.

STRAWBERRY CAKE

CAKE

4 eggs

1 small box strawberry gelatin

1/2 cup water

1 box white cake mix

1 cup vegetable oil

FROSTING

1 box confectioners’ sugar

1 stick butter

8 ounces strawberries, chopped

For the cake, in a bowl beat eggs until fluffy. Combine gelatin and water and add to bowl along with cake mix. Fold in oil. Pour batter into 3 greased and floured cake pans. Bake at 350 degrees until layers are done and a toothpick inserted in the center comes out clean.

For the frosting, beat the confectioners’ sugar, butter and strawberries until blended. Spread frosting between layers and on top and sides of cake.

Note: If desired, you can combine some strawberry juice and a little confectioners’ sugar and put it between the layers to make the cake extra moist.

ALL-PURPOSE SEASONING

1/2 teaspoon cayenne pepper

1 teaspoon dried parsley flakes, ground well

1 teaspoon garlic powder

1 teaspoon chili powder

2 teaspoons paprika

1 tablespoon ground celery seed

2 tablespoons onion powder

1 cup salt

Mix all ingredients well and put in a jar or a container with a tight-fitting lid. Use to season meats and vegetables.

JOHNNY CAKES

2 cups corn meal mix

1 egg

Vegetable oil

1/2 cup milk

Combine corn meal mix, egg, 2 tablespoons vegetable oil and milk and mix well. Batter should be a little thicker than cornbread batter. Heat about 1/4-inch of vegetable oil in a skillet. When hot, drop spoonfuls of batter into hot oil and cook Johnny Cakes until the edges start turning brown. Flip and cook until brown on the other side.

DO YOU KNOW A GOOD COOK? Send your nominations to Ginna Parsons, Cook of the Week, P.O. Box 909, Tupelo, MS 38802. Or you can call Ginna at (662) 678-1581 or email them to ginna.parsons@journalinc.com.

ginna.parsons@journalinc.com

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