In a fit of I-don’t-wanna-cook-dom, I brought home one of those supermarket rotisserie chickens this afternoon. It was, to quote my great grandmother, “cooked to a fair-thee-well.” I suppose they must be overcooked to satisfy regulations, even though the most heat-resistant strain of Salmonella dies at 140°F, according to the U.S. Dept. of Health, Education, and Welfare. Ignoring the research, the USDA mandates that chicken be cooked to 165°, and many restaurants and grocery stores ensure compliance by cooking it to 170°, which also ensures dry white meat.
And for all that, it’s still better than cooking.
My great grandmother, a tiny, incredibly energetic woman named Ella, cooked everything to a fair-thee-well. Chickens (whose necks she would wring herself, before beheading them on the old tree stump out back). Green beans. Corn. Potatoes. Nothing was burned, but everything needed to be anointed with gravy or butter to restore some modicum of flavor. Her Sunday dinners were full of laughter and stories, fresh iced tea with an inch of sugar sitting in the bottom (which we would never stir, lest it become undrinkable), and Grandma Hoyle, hopping up every five minutes to get something new from the kitchen.
I loved my Grandma Hoyle. On her 99th birthday, she told us that her dream was for some young man to pick her up in a little red convertible, and she’d make him speed down the road with her head scarf flying in the breeze. She lived on a tiny country lane in Boyds, Maryland—I believe her street has become part of the historic district, so the lane is still just as tiny as it used to be—a block from the tiny white Presbyterian church she attended so faithfully, and in whose century-old cemetery she is now buried. A bit further down the road is the historic Boyds Negro School, a one-room 22 x 30 foot wooden building that served as the only public school for African Americans in central Montgomery County from 1895 to 1936. It contained some desks, a blackboard, a potbelly stove, and a framed picture of abolitionist Frederick Douglas. Subjects taught in the school included spelling, cooking, reading, singing, and weaving. Grandma Hoyle had proudly served on its board of directors when she was younger. I believe the Underground Railroad ran through Boyds.
Her husband, who founded the local mill, died before I was born (fell off a chicken coop that he was repairing at the age of 86). She had two children, my maternal grandmother, and “Poor Little Russell,” whom she cared for until he died, which was only a couple of years before she did. Russell had severe birth defects, though in that era nothing could be done for him, so what precisely his condition was, I never learned. His limbs and facial muscles were twisted, his body wasted, and he was incapable of articulate speech. We assumed he was also mentally disabled, though it now occurs to me that he may have lived his life with an unimpaired mind trapped in that tomb of a body, and no one would have been the wiser. Grandma Hoyle was his sole nurse, and she was wonderfully patient and tender with him. We would go upstairs to pay our respects each time we’d come for a visit. I never knew if he understood we were in the room, or if he knew and was angry or upset by my discomfort, even though I tried to pretend he was “normal” and exchange pleasantries with him.
Grandma Hoyle’s sister was Vinnie. Her husband, a man named Hicks, founded the town’s general store, and even forty years after his death, Hicks’ General Store was still open for business under that name, despite the presence of a handsome new supermarket less than a mile away. For years my taciturn uncle (or was it their strange adult son, about whom I know next to nothing?) kept raccoons in a large cage, just at the edge of the woods that surrounded their property. After my uncle died, and the son either died or disappeared, I never learned which, Aunt Vinnie came to live with Grandma Hoyle, and the atmosphere at that little home changed dramatically.
Aunt Vinnie was as irascible as one of the raccoons they had caged. She could find fault in anything: the temperature of the tea or its strength; the sound of the television, even when it was tuned to her favorite show; the feel of the lace doilies my grandmother had tatted to be used as antimacassars. She never paid a dollar in rent, never cooked a bite of food, never lifted a finger to help clean up, but spent all her time bedeviling my sweet-hearted and longsuffering Grandma Hoyle. Vinnie was two or three years younger than Ella; we assumed she had been spoiled at a very early age and never grew out of it.
Poor Little Russell died first. Vinnie died a couple of months after that, of the flu, I think. Grandma Hoyle had two very pleasant and untroubled years at the end of her life, which she spent receiving visitors, telling stories, and watching her beloved Lawrence Welk Show. She didn’t cook Sunday dinner any longer, but would enjoy whatever we brought in. But to this day I miss those meals with the chicken and vegetables cooked to a fair-thee-well, and that amazing bundle of energy that was Ella Hoyle.