Here’s another one of Dearly Beloved’s stories from his college days on the cattle ranch.
Yes, poke salad is real. I had never had it unt il my junior year in college. I was staying at a boarding house in the small town near the cattle farm where I worked. After my morning classes I would go back to the boarding house and have lunch in the dining room with the locals. Mr. and Mrs. S. ran the boarding house and turned the dining room into a family style restaurant at mealtimes. Mrs. S. was an excellent cook and was well known for “down home” meals.
Prior to running the boarding house, Mr. and Mrs. S. ran a small restaurant in town, and Mrs. S. also cooked for the jail where Mr. S. was the jailer, working for the sheriff. Mr. S. was a lazy man. I’m not sure why they went into the boarding house business. Maybe being the jailer was too much like work for Mr. S. In any event, Mrs. S. did all the work at the boarding house, from cleaning the rooms, buying the groceries to cooking and serving the meals. She was as industrious as Mr. S. was lazy.
She was slightly plump, wore a hairnet over her salt and pepper hair that was generally in a bun. She always wore an apron except when she sat in one of the rocking chairs on the wrap around front porch. This happened most nights after she had cooked three meals for 5 to 15 or so at each sitting, cleaned the house and taken care of the other chores. She did this all with a smile, but there was a furrow in her forehead that never left. In the evening, when everything was quiet and her work done, she would take off her apron and almost ceremoniously fold it over her rocking chair’s arm and sit peacefully.
There were five boarding rooms with two or three occupied by regulars and the others by short-timers that would stay for one night up to a month or so. She was careful not to rent to troublemakers, but there were several who had checkered pasts. Mr. S. was quick to declare his friendliness with Sheriff C., who lived around the corner, so there was never any real trouble. Mrs. S. was nice to everyone. Not so much, Mr. S.
Mr. S. was a big man, well over 6-feet. He had broad shoulders, large hands, but looked soft, and he was. He had red hair, a large hooknose and always wore a 10-gallon cowboy hat, except when he was eating. He had no teeth. Well, he had some, but never put them in. Eating was somewhat of a problem, but he accomplished it nonetheless. He was partial to Mrs. S.’s biscuits with honey and chicken and dumplings. He constantly smoked Pall Mall cigarettes through an FDR type cigarette holder. There was nothing else about him that would remind you of FDR, other than he was always sitting. His favorite TV program was “The Rifleman”, which he never missed. He was fond of saying “Wooo!” about things he liked, which he would say about most anything the Rifleman did.
After lunch each day, I would change clothes and go work at the farm. One afternoon I was trying to build a new feed trough for the cattle. I wasn’t having much success. The incessant cackling of a bantam rooster increased my exasperation. Just when I slammed the hammer into my thumb, the rooster ran across the yard. He was about 20 yards away, but seemed like he was in my ear, cackling louder than ever. Now it sounded more like a loud laugh. I turned and in one motion threw the hammer at him. The hammerhead hit him in his head. He was dead immediately.
The rooster was wild and had hung around the barn living off of whatever bugs and seed he could find. Apparently he had not done too good a job of it because he was skinny. Nevertheless, I thought Mrs. S. could put him to good use, so I put him in a burlap bag and headed to the boarding house.
I arrived several hours before I normally did and Mrs. S. was in the kitchen. She was delighted when I showed her the rooster. She had planned for supper to be a redo of lunch. In addition to Mr. S., there were others who would have supper that also had lunch there. She was ingenious at leftovers, but there was only so much even she could do. And she took pride in her meals.
She immediately began work on the rooster and asked me to go outside and pick some poke. I had no idea what she was talking about. She said, “It looks like a cross between dandelions and turnips. It’s wild. You’ll know it when you see it.” Outside I went. I knew it when I saw it, picked a grocery bag full and brought it in.
She said she didn’t need my help any more. She would call me for supper. I went upstairs to study.
Dinner came and she had a nice crowd of about 10 or so. The menu was chicken and dumplings cooked with more butter, pepper and salt than normal. The green side was poke salad.
When I sat down, Mrs. S. put a finger to her lips signaling me to say nothing. The normal chatter included compliments about Mrs. S.’s cooking and this night was no different. Mr. S. let out a “Wooo” when he tasted the chicken and dumplings. She had worked magic cooking that tough skinny old rooster. We had homemade chocolate pie for dessert.
Later that evening, I went out. As I drove away I saw Mrs. S. sitting peacefully by herself on the front porch, her apron folded neatly on her rocker.