J.W. started each morning at the old maple dining table with a self rolled Prince Albert cigarette and a cup of coffee. He’d sip the coffee as if he expected something different on any given morning. If he approved, which he did most of the time, he would pour his first cup of coffee into a saucer and sip the brew from it. Bill Cooper reminds all of us why breakfast is many an outdoorsman's favorite meal of the day . . .
Grandpa Cooper began surviving alone in the mountains of eastern Tennessee at the tender age of ten. Always a small framed person, John Walter found it necessary to carry concealed a century before the term had been coined. A pistol in his belt and a knife in his boot became his life insurance. Living in barns and working for food made him a tough character, who learned early how to survive in an inhospitable world.
Breakfast with J.W. fascinated me as a child. I spent hours sitting in the smoky dining room of his old farm house, just across the cotton field from our home. Grandma Cooper rattled the old wood burning cook stove with cast iron skillets and a heavy coffee pot that had seen decades of use as she religiously went about making breakfast each day without fanfare.
Breakfast always began with strong, black coffee. I wondered how Grandma always got it right without measuring. She simply reached into a coffee tin, grabbed a handful of grounds, sniffed the earthy aroma and scattered them around in the hot water in the old coffee pot. Next she cracked a big, yellow-yoked, farm-fresh egg and dropped into the water as well to congeal the coffee grounds. It was Grandma’s way of filtering coffee grounds out of the coffee.
J.W. started each morning at the old maple dining table with a self rolled Prince Albert cigarette and a cup of coffee. He’d sip the coffee as if he expected something different on any given morning. If he approved, which he did most of the time, he would pour his first cup of coffee into a saucer and sip the brew from it. I always wondered why, but never asked.
While J.W. enjoyed his first few cups of coffee, Grandma would continue her daily vigil at the old wood cook stove. The collection of smells that emanated from the kitchen woke even the sleepiest of heads that might be spending the night.
Huge, fluffy biscuits were my favorite. I longed for them to be removed from the oven. Grandma immediately slathered the bread with mounds of fresh butter, which I had often churned the previous day. Sorghum black strap molasses accompanied the hot biscuits almost every morning. We labored over sugar cane and hot fires to painstakingly make the sweet molasses which was used for a sweetener in coffee and cookie recipes as well as on delectable hot homemade biscuits.
Slabs of brown, sugar cured smokehouse ham, filled the house with sweet, smoky aromas that swelled olfactory lobes to near bursting levels. Mouths watered as Grandma carried bowls of fried potatoes and milk gravy to the table, along with platters of ham and fried eggs.
Each morning Grandma completed her last breakfast chores as if performing some important religious rite. She measured ingredients exactly as she prepared a small bowl of red-eye gravy for J.W. Ham drippings and coffee were two of the main ingredients of the sassafras tea colored gravy. Greasy and watery, the red-eye appeared at J.W.’s plate setting each morning. I wondered, often, how he could tolerate the red-eye, but never asked.
Grandpa Cooper lived to be the ultimate child teaser and story teller. His tales of hardships, gunfights and sleeping in barns as a child seemed a bit far fetched, yet I firmly believed his stories of wampus cats and back panthers that supposedly roamed the darkest cypress swamps of the Missouri bootheel.
Grandpa exhibited numerous hard earned talents. Among them were mule skinning, logging and making cypress boats which we used to ply the backwaters and swamps of the Mississippi River delta. We hunted, fished and trapped from the long narrow boats.
It was from such a boat that my father, Billie D. Cooper, and grandpa poled into a dark swamp early one December morning, before my dad went to school. He attended seventh grade at a one room school. During their relatively short trip into the swamp, they killed 147 ducks. The ducks were promptly turned over to grandma. She plucked all 147 birds and canned the meat for winter usage. The feathers appropriately became feather pillow and mattresses.
Grandma and Grandpa Cooper have been gone almost 60 years. However, each time I begin a gravel bar breakfast, complete with wood smoke and strong coffee, I recall the fond memories of Grandpa going to the smoke house to cut a slab of meat from a ham hanging from the rafters and Grandma with her cotton print apron as she opened the door of the old wood cook stove to check the biscuits, and declare: “Oh, my would you look at those heavenly biscuits!”
Try as I might I can never get the same aromas from my gravel bar kitchen that Grandma created in the old farm house over several decades.
Grandma loved cooking on her old wood cook stove and providing luscious, hot meals for her family. I’d give my right arm for one more of Grandma Cooper’s fresh fried fruit pies, and possibly both arms for a chocolate one.
Perhaps I echo her sentiments as I stir the coals of the campfire and begin another gravel bar breakfast, that'll be consumed by my camping buddies, with the same exuberance that I consumed grandma’s cooking. If only they knew.