The Best-Ever Mid-Term Election Breakfast During Divisive Times: Sausage & Fried Apple Biscuits and the Wisdom of Mary Cross

October 30, 2018
By Holly Jennings

 

From Turner Ham House in Fulk’s Run, Virginia, slowly cured ham, sliced luminescent-ly thin, salt and sugar preserved, deeply flavorful.

 

A gift for my family, by love and the color of blood, not skin.

 

Other gifts: a half-gallon of must-shake raw apple cider from Smith’s Fruit Market in Augusta, West Virginia, comfortingly tart; fresh-made biscuits from Bonnie Blue Bakery in Winchester, Virginia. Winchester, proclaimed apple capital of the world, is located in the Northern Shenandoah Valley at 39.1670° N, -78.1670° W, making it practically the most north-western spot in Jim Crow South.

 

To Bond Street, home of 95-year-old Mary Virginia Cook Cross, and her husband, Robert.

 

Mary is a black woman who made a life-long career of cleaning the houses of white families in Winchester, including ours. She cleaned our house in the early seventies when I was a girl of eight or nine. But house cleaning, though meticulously done, was not Mary’s true passion, and it’s not why I visit her today; it was, and is, children, and her love of them.

 

Mary married Robert Cross late in life, following a near-sixty-year-long courtship, having devoted several years of her adult life to caring for her aging parents. As a result, she didn’t have children of her own, but cared for the children in those same households where she worked.

 

Mary enlarged my life with her warmth. It was good to be around her, always something to look forward to. Mary made you feel special, accepted, valued. Her ways—kind, nonjudgmental, forbearing—allowed me to ask, shyly, if the color of her blood was the same as mine, and later to ask if I could attend church with her, at her church; ours was a white Presbyterian church, hers a black Baptist church.

 

During a recent visit with Mary, I recalled my memory of that Sunday service.

 

“Right. Mmmm hhhmmm. I took a lot of kids I worked with to my church.”

 

After a nanosecond flush of jealousy, and after the confused neurons in my brain fell back into place, the reality set in: Mary made countless children feel special and so at ease with her, that they too made the very same request, to go to her church, to know more about Mary and her life, her experience. We Winchester children are alumni, unknown to one other, all with the same vivid and warm memory of sitting beside Mary at her church.

 

I brought my voice recorder along for this visit—the ham, cider, and biscuits visit—with the plan to interview both Mary and Robert about their experiences, as African-Americans, growing up in the South in the twenties and thirties and into adulthood and middle age in the forties, fifties, and sixties.

 

During a previous visit in May, I’d interviewed Mary about her life, starting with her childhood, recording her easy-to-listen-to voice. I wanted this interview to be a follow-up to that one, this time asking pointed questions about racism.

 

But this visit, the recorder never came out the bag.

 

Now I’m glad it didn’t. The prompt: “Tell me about Racism, Mary” is like a sticking a video camera in somebody’s face at a wedding, with a headlamp directed on their face to illuminate it in a dim hall and the record button engaged, and saying “Do you have anything you’d like to say about the bride and groom.”

 

Without the recorder running, we casually talked about Winchester, family, and food. Mary finds Winchester not what it used to be. There is a problem with drugs, and a general lack of civility. “People used to treat each other nicer years ago, even blacks and whites,” she said. “I miss my parents, but I wouldn’t wish this world on them, not the way things are today.”

 

We returned to food. We always do. I recently purchased a quarter of a hog, and wanted her advice on preparing all of the cuts and odd bits and pieces. I knew from previous food talks, that Mary has eaten (and enjoyed) every single part of the hog, including things like the tail and feet and chitterlings—and knows how to prepare it all, too. Talk of country ham and biscuits followed. Then she dropped this jewel, “You know what’s really good on biscuits? Sausage and fried apples.”

 

Two days later, after we returned home to Richmond, I tried her suggestion for breakfast, using the method described for frying apples in the book SmokeHouse Ham, Spoon Bread & Scuppernong Wine. Mary was right: Browned sage-y and pepper-y sausage patties and fried tart apple rings—fried in the sausage grease and sprinkled with a little brown sugar to aid caramelization—are meant for each other, and very good stuffed into a hand-held biscuit.

 

The other thing I did after returning home was to sit down and transcribe, word for word, the interview I’d recorded during my springtime visit with Mary. I found she had said plenty about racism in the recounting of the details of her life. It was all there: the good stories of the way things used to be, of how her father would butcher hogs they raised in their backyard, of the immense vegetable garden they had (they always had something green to eat, every day, she emphasized), the fresh bread her mother made (they never had store-bought bread), and the special things her mother would make, like pound cake, but only when she had fresh churned butter; but also, the painful stories of the way things used to be, of going to the segregated Douglas School, of her and other black students picking up the used books each year from the white school, the handover taking place on the steps, outside, because they weren’t allowed inside, of having to go to the backdoor of restaurants in town to ask for a hamburger, and having to eat it on the street or in the alleyway, of being barred from using the town’s beautiful Beaux-Arts style library.

 

“We’ve come a long way, she said. But it’s still not right. It’s still – not – all – right,” she said with a barely audible sigh.

 

“But I guess some time God will change it. He’s trying to, you know. He’s trying. He’ll get tired after while . . .

 

He’s mad at all of us, you know. We should try and get along.

 

We’re supposed to help each other, that’s what we’re supposed to do. We’re supposed to help each other, regardless of color or age, we’re supposed to help wherever we can.”

 

Snippet of Conversation between Mary Cross and me

 

 

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Links to resources mentioned in posting:

 

Turner Ham House

Smith’s Fruit Market

Bonnie Blue Bakery


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