The Mountain Laurel
The Journal of Mountain Life

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from the
Heart of the Blue Ridge

The Greaser

By E. M. Thomas © 1987

Issue: October, 1987

He came along just before dark. Grandma was busily clanking the iron skillet across the top of the cook stove, setting the diced potatoes on a cooler griddle so they'd brown all crispy–crunchy. The old hound barked his signal that a stranger was here.

We'd already been to the pasture to round up Spot and her calf. Grandma had wrapped the baby in her voluminous apron and pulled a shawl across her shoulders. Taking my hand in her callused one, she hoisted me along the path, through the sugar bush and over the great patches of shale where I loved to play. Sure enough, Spot was waiting for the gate to be let down. She and Tiny stepped through and plodded up the pock–marked path toward the lean–to barn. Even though we walked directly behind, she knew where we were every step of the way. She swung her head first to one side and then to the other, those big bulbous eyes missing nothing. Grandma got down the three–legged stool and milked her. The calf was barricaded in a corner with a few boards. Later, it would receive some of yesterday's skimmed milk, but now, our supper.

There'd been no hog meat since spring. The fall's sow had barely lasted the winter and there was nothing left now but the cracklin's and the hunk of fat that Grandma had saved to grease her pans. She called it her "greaser," and it had long ago turned black from days of service. Each morning when Grandma made our buckwheat cakes, she heated the huge pancake griddle until a drop of water would hop, skip, and jump over its surface. Then she would tenderly rub the greaser over the griddle with a long–handled fork.

Next came the batter, and how it would sizzle and sputter. Then it got dry and crusty looking around the edges, and broke out all over with a rash of tiny bubbles. It was time to flop them over. As the tantalizing odor came up, the glands in my throat would constrict until I was nearly paralyzed. A stack of five or six would complete my breakfast. I never cared if they were served with bacon grease, maple syrup, or honey; they always tasted first–rate to me.

At lunchtime, my Grandma would call me out of the fields to sit at the table piled with fluffy scramble eggs, cowslips of dandelion greens, baked beans, and thick, crusty, slices of freshly baked bread. Once again the greaser had done its duty around each of the pans. I often wondered if that was why everything was so delicately browned, so amply crusted. Buttermilk and doughnuts completed our pleasure. My appetite was always a compliment to the delicious food turned out by Grandma's deft hand. Poor soul knew how to make–do, and use left–overs to the best advantage.

Life was anything but easy on the rocky mountainside. The land was cleared, but so closely did we live with our wild brethren that livestock could not be trusted outdoors after dark. It was sometimes unsafe even by daylight.

The foxes and hawks would run off our poultry, and with the coming of dusk, Spot would low uneasily at the pasture gate, eyeing the shadowy woods where the wolves soon would be howling. All wood and water must be carried in before nightfall, and, indeed, I recall the night when Grandma had to burn feathers in the fireplace to keep a catamount from coming down the chimney. Well, Grandfather should soon be coming down out of the lumber woods to begin the planting.

The old hound bellared again, and Grandma cast off her apron and stepped to the door just as the stranger called a loud "Hello." Grandma allowed as how he was just in time for supper, in the best country tradition. Strangers were always entitled to hospitality. He followed Grandma inside with the dog sniffing at his boots and at the old mackinaw which he cast into the wood box.

I showed him the shelf by the back door where the wash dish, soap, and towel were placed, and soon he was splashing and rubbing the water over his stubbly chin and the back of his neck. He came up snuffling and shaking water out of his eyes. Carefully he dried, and then sat at the place Grandma designated.

She dished up the potatoes and offered some of her own cottage cheese, salted string beans, and cold chicken from the Sabbath meal. She had decided to sacrifice one of the precious flock to celebrate the Lord's day, and, fortunately, there was a bit left, so we needn't be embarrassed before company. After he'd had his pipe and Grandma's redd–up, he retired to the lean–to and we to our beds. Daylight and all its attendant chores would be on us soon enough.

In the morning, Grandma had barely got the chickory coffee going and the mush bubbling on the stove when our guest appeared at the door with an arm–load of wood for the box. He washed up while Grandma brought the hot muffins from the warming oven. She laid the greaser on the table beside the muffins to cool. We all sat down to ask the Lord's blessings. After we'd finished and got the man on his way, Grandma cleared the things away and prepared to set her bread for baking, later on. She turned to grease the pans and – where was the greaser? Then Grandma remembered: She'd set it down to cool and, that poor, hungry man, must've mistook it for breakfast. He'd managed to quietly choke it down and walk away happy!