That was it. I wasn’t expecting it a couple of Saturday nights ago, but one bite of Poppa Millard’s “Ole Hawg Pen” at a restaurant in Fulton was a trip my tastebuds had been waiting on for probably seven years. When you’re growing up, supper time is always good, but it’s not what’s motivating you through your day like it does when you’re grown.
When you accidentally order a dish that tastes just like one of those meals when you were growing up, it nourishes your soul just like comfort food is supposed to do.
As a kid, you had your favorite dishes you hoped your mama or grandma would make but still had to endure plenty of nights dowsing slices of pot roast with ketchup and plenty more nights smirking while taking small bites of casseroles you weren’t crazy about to get there.
Not every night was a charcoal grill night, and homemade enchiladas were an annual event in my family saved for closer to the Super Bowl. There were plenty of suppers and residual leftovers even the 11-year-old me was excited to put on my plate, but there were far more others that got lost in the shuffle.
Realizing that in the first bite of pork loins a couple of Saturdays ago took me back to a meal I haven’t thought about in years.
Thinking back about being more excited for a hotdog and chips or a fast food drive-thru night seems now like it should’ve been a sign of disrespect compared to whatever was coming out of my mom’s oven.
These days, eating out on a Saturday night is pretty much a capstone to the week, considering the cooking genes stopped with the previous generation in the direct family line to me. Sure, I can vividly remember learning a first-hand lesson on oven barbecued chicken and, sure, I can hobble along some years attempting my mom’s mixed vegetable casserole or my grandma’s apple cake for Thanksgiving. Regardless, they’re not the same and will never be the same since both of them are gone.
While exploring new restaurants from here to wherever, it’s great to have those magical moments when that first bite takes you back to a different time and place in life.
Between drizzle and a cold December Friday a couple years back, everything seemed to line up just right taking that first bite of fried cornbread just like grandma made at a now favorite meat and three restaurant in Muscle Shoals. It had been years since I’d eaten anything that close to it so even though it was 2018, in my mind, it was the 1980s all over again.
On plenty of chilly winter lunchtimes, gravy, minute steak, rice and loaf bread helped set off a mood I didn’t fully grasp way back when. I do remember grandma repeating to her friends how I told her she was a good cooker when I was young. I don’t remember realizing then the true power of comfort food.
There may be a thousand ways to make mac and cheese, but there’s probably only one way you got it homemade growing up. Once a restaurant inadvertently nails a meatloaf recipe like a long-lost family member made, why would you order anything else from there?
Meals are just like any other life experience we’ve had in our younger years.
I can say now we didn’t know how good we had it spending Wednesday afternoons playing nine holes with a cart for $5 at Fulton Country Club in college because we didn’t realize how good we had it. As good as a crockpot Boston butt may seem when I cook it for a week, sometime years from now, I’ll probably think back about how good times were when I was eating it since that’s not sinking in now.
Thinking back long before fending for myself though, there was never a check or a need to give a tip in a family member’s kitchen. Refills were free, too, but the downside was you got whatever dish you got.
Even though my tastebuds weren’t ready for sides like asparagus or Brussels sprouts then, age has made them grow to appreciate vegetables like that now.
The more years that stack up between now and a plate full of jarred preserves spread on top of homemade biscuits or a New Year’s Eve nibbling on little smokies and chicken bites in assorted dips, the more you wish there was a stock of those leftovers in the deep freezer.
You can spend $12 at a restaurant that duplicates some of those nostalgic tastes, but the experience of thinking back to the real thing is priceless. You didn’t know it then, but those daily dining experiences were worth way more than you gave them credit for and the more seasoned you get in the kitchen yourself, the more somebody younger than you will say about your cooking.
Recipes and memories last for as long as they’re passed down and as inexpensive as they are in the making, they’re going to be priceless some day in the future.