The mystery in Mamaw’s kitchen

By Harvey H. (“Hardy”) Jackson

A journey down memory lane.

Over the river and through the woods, sorta.

Actually, it was a trip along an Interstate Highway that is perpetually under construction (don’t tell me that government can’t create jobs), in and out of suburbs with glittering malls, through a countryside still marked by the path of a tornado, into the Black Belt with its dying little towns – Safford, Catherine, Lamison, Alberta – then out and into the piney woods to where my Mama, Mamaw waited.

With my Daddy, Pop.

Once we arrived, be it Thanksgiving or Christmas or just visiting, Daddy and I would retreat … while Mamaw and my lovely wife took over the kitchen. Those two agreed on most everything and high on the list of the most everything they agreed on was that in Mamaw’s kitchen, Daddy and I were useless.

Mamaw’s kitchen was a tribute to the lingering power that the Great Depression held over those who lived through it. She was reluctant to throw anything away – “we might need it one day.”

Daddy was the same. I will never forget the look of anguish on his face when my wife and I cleaned out the storage shed that housed what he had accumulated over the years. “My treasures, my treasures” he muttered as we loaded into the truck the cans half full of dried out paint, the balls of collected twine and the jars he was sure he would one day fill with something-or-other

Mamaw’s kitchen was like that, full of all sorts of stuff, arranged and stored according to her own mental calculus and system.

The crowning glory of it all was the refrigerator.

Mamaw had two – refrigerators.

(Like most things at her house, there was a history behind getting the second one, something about needing more freezer space, and this was the solution, which she justified by the fact that the newer one had an automatic icemaker that you use without opening the door.)

It followed that when I went looking for something I either had to know into which refrigerator she put it, or I needed to ask. However, asking usually brought the response “I’ll get it for you,” and though it is probably easier for her to get it rather than trying to tell me where it is, the idea of a Mamaw getting up and making her way into the kitchen to get what I am looking for violates so many principles of “son-hood” that my dignity would never recover.

So I went looking as if I knew where it is and she, not wishing to make me appear more clueless than I am, lets me do it.

Thus began the game of “guess what is in the butter tub.”

(A variation of this is “guess what is in the whipped cream container” though that one is never as exciting as the other.)

You see, high on the list of the things Mamaw did not throw away were plastic containers. When a plastic container was emptied of its original contents she washed it out and saved it for the day when she would have just enough of something left over to fit into it.

Now there is nothing wrong with this – “waste not, want not” is her motto – until I go looking for butter, for the tub with “butter” written on it may contain anything but butter.

So off I go, opening containers marked butter but not containing any. Meanwhile Mamaw listened with ears unimpaired by age as I opened and closed container after container until I reach the magic number at which her patience wore thin and she called out:

“What are you looking for?”


And in a voice edged with exasperation she replied, “It is in the ‘I can’t believe it’s not butter’ container in the other refrigerator back behind the jelly,” which of course is where it was. (I decide not to point out the irony of butter being in a container identified as not being butter while the butter containers contain everything but butter – as we say down in South Alabama, some swamps just don’t need draining.)

So the butter was found.

Also found are leftovers sufficient to feed a small developing nation, leftovers I could proudly point out when and if anyone asked “what’s for supper?”

But I won’t.

That knowledge would only remind Mamaw of my search and how useless I was in her kitchen.

Wouldn’t want to do that.

Harvey H. (“Hardy”) Jackson is Professor Emeritus of History at Jacksonville State University. He can be reached at hjackson@cableone.net.