I called the house and Mrs. Ruffin answered the phone. I explained who I was and what I wanted, and she seemed to know everything about me. She said she'd been reading the Times for fifty years, front to back, everything including the obits and the want ads, and after a moment or two offered the opinion that the paper was in much better hands now. Longer stories. Fewer mistakes. More news. She spoke slowly, clearly, with precise diction I had not heard since I left Syracuse.
When I finally had an opening, I thanked her and said I'd like to meet and talk about her remarkable family. She was flattered and insisted that I come over for lunch.
Thus began an unusual friendship that opened my eyes to many things, not the least of which was Southern cuisine.
* * *
My mother died when I was thirteen. She was anorexic, there were only four pallbearers. She weighed less than a hundred pounds and looked like a ghost. Anorexia was only one of her many problems.
Because she did not eat, she did not cook. I cannot remember a single hot meal she prepared for me. Breakfast was a bowl of Cheerios, lunch a cold sandwich, dinner some frozen mess I usually ate in front of the television, alone. I was an only child and my father was never at home, which was a relief because his presence caused friction between them. He preferred to eat, she did not. They feuded over everything.
I never went hungry; the pantry was always full of peanut butter and cereal and such. I occasionally ate with a friend and I always marveled at how real families cooked and spent so much time at the table. Food was simply not important around our house.
As a teenager I existed on frozen dinners. At Syracuse it was beer and pizza. For the first twenty-three years of my life, I ate only when I was hungry. This was wrong, I soon learned in Clanton. In the South, eating has little to do with hunger.
* * *
The Ruffin home was in a nicer section of Lowtown, in a row of neatly preserved and painted shotgun houses. The street addresses were on the mailboxes, and when I rolled to a stop I was smiling at the white picket fence and flowers - peonies and irises - that lined the sidewalk. It was early April, I had the top down on my Spitfire, and as I turned off the ignition I smelled something delicious. Pork chops!
Calia Ruffin met me at the low swing-gate that opened into her immaculate front lawn. She was a stout woman, thick in the shoulders and trunk, with a handshake that was firm and felt like a man's. She had gray hair and was showing the effects of raising so many children, but when she smiled, which was constantly, she lit up the world with two rows of brilliant, perfect teeth. I had never seen such teeth.
"I'm so glad you came," she said, halfway up the brick walkway. I was so glad too. It was about noon. Typically, I had yet to eat a bite, and the aromas wafting from the porch were making me dizzy.
"A lovely house," I said, gazing at the front of it. It was clapboard, painted a sparkling white, and gave the impression that someone was usually hanging around with a brush and bucket. A green tin-roofed porch ran across the entire front.
"Why thank you. We've owned it for thirty years."
I knew that most of the dwellings in Lowtown were owned by white slumlords across the tracks. To own a home was an unusual accomplishment for blacks in 1970.
"Who's your gardener?" I asked as I stopped to smell a yellow rose. There were flowers everywhere - edging the walkway, along the porch, down both sides of their property line. "That would be me," she said with a laugh, teeth gleaming in the sunlight.
Up three steps and onto the porch, and there it was - the spread! A small table next to the railing was prepared for two people - white cotton cloth, white napkins, flowers in a small vase, a large pitcher of iced tea, and at least four covered dishes.
"Who's coming?" I asked.
"Oh, just the two of us. Esau might drop by later."
"There's enough food for an army." I inhaled as deeply as possible and my stomach ached in anticipation.
"Let's eat now," she said, "before it gets cold."
I restrained myself, walked casually to the table and pulled back a chair for her. She was delighted that I was such a gentleman. I sat across from her and was ready to yank off the lids and dive headfirst into whatever I found when she took both my hands and lowered her head. She began to pray.
It would be a lengthy prayer. She thanked the Lord for everything good, including me, "her new friend." She prayed for those who were sick and those who might become so. She prayed for rain and sun and health and humility and patience, and though I began to worry about the food getting cold I was mesmerized by her voice. Her cadence was slow, with thought given to each word. Her diction was perfect, every consonant treated equally, every comma and period honored. I had to peek to make sure I wasn't dreaming. I had never heard such speech from a Southern black, or a Southern white for that matter.
I peeked again. She was talking to her Lord, and her face was perfectly content. For a few seconds, I actually forgot about the food. She squeezed my hands as she petitioned the Almighty with eloquence that came only from years of practice. She quoted Scripture, the King James Version for sure, and it was a bit odd to hear her use words like "thou" and "thine" and "whither" and "goest." But she knew precisely what she was doing. In the clutches of this very holy woman, I had never felt closer to God.
I couldn't imagine such a lengthy devotional over a table crowded with eight children. Something told me, though, that when Calia Ruffin prayed everybody got still.
Finally, she ended with a flourish, a long burst in which she managed to appeal for the forgiveness of her sins, which I presumed were few and far between, and for my own, which, well, if she only knew.
She released me and began removing lids from bowls. The first contained a pile of pork chops smothered in a sauce that included, among many ingredients, onions and peppers. More steam hit my face and I wanted to eat with my fingers. In the second there was a mound of yellow corn, sprinkled with green peppers, still hot from the stove. There was boiled okra, which, she explained as she prepared to serve, she preferred over the fried variety because she worried about too much grease in her diet. She was taught to batter and fry everything, from tomatoes to pickles, and she had come to realize that this was not altogether healthy. There were butter beans, likewise unbattered and unfried, but rather cooked with ham hocks and bacon. There was a platter of small red tomatoes covered with pepper and olive oil. She was one of the very few cooks in town who used olive oil, she said as she continued her narrative. I was hanging on every word as my large plate was being tended to.
A son in Milwaukee shipped her good olive oil because such was unheard of in Clanton.
She apologized because the tomatoes were store bought; hers were still on the vine and wouldn't be ready until summertime. The corn, okra, and butter beans had been canned from her garden last August. In fact, the only real "fresh" vegetables were the collard greens, or "spring greens" as she called them.
A large black skillet was hidden in the center of the table, and when she pulled the napkin off it there were at least four pounds of hot corn bread. She removed a huge wedge, placed it in the center of my plate, and said, "There. That will get you started." I had never had so much food placed in front of me. The feast began.
I tried to eat slowly, but it was impossible. I had arrived with an empty stomach, and somewhere in the midst of the competing aromas and the beauty of the table and the rather long-winded blessing and the careful description of each dish, I had become thoroughly famished. I packed it in, and she seemed content to do the talking.