A Plenty

“Abundance” wasn’t one of our words, and neither of my parents would have taken the trouble to twist their stubborn Kentucky tongues around “cornucopia.” “Surplus” implied something extra or even waste, and our life had little to do with either of those. But there was always “a plenty.”

I remember big metal dishpans packed to the brim and dripping honey fresh from the long row of hives behind the cornfield. Golden honey from clover blossoms in the field above the hog lot. We reaped the honey and strained and stored it in jars, each with its chunk of comb. What simple, elegant desserts we had: a hot biscuit or a wedge of cornbread, split, spread with butter, and drizzled with honey.

In the heat of a summer evening, my daddy, drunk as a lord, would lift the covers of the bee hives and take out the frames filled with comb. He moved slowly, fogging with his smoker. He swore they never stung him, unless he mashed one accidentally. But they stung him alright; he just made sure he was numb.

However drunk, he was not numb to the guilt. “The little honeybees,” he would call them, in a voice he reserved for babies, “have a right to be mad. They work hard for their honey.” Choked with sympathy for their brief, industrious lives, he would insist, “ I never take it all, you know. I always leave ‘em a plenty.”

Late into the evening, long after the crime was committed, my mother, the unwilling accomplice, stood and worked in the kitchen. Her thick chestnut hair, curling from the heat and perspiration, pulled from its pins, and fell against her tired face and across her sharp brown eyes. Up to her elbows in sticky honey, she could not even push her hair away. There were jars to be scalded and dried with a clean towel, for even a

drop of water could cause spoilage. By the time all the bounty was strained and stored, every surface in the kitchen was gummed with honey. The jars must be wiped, the pans, utensils, and table washed. Then she would mop the floor.

Daddy didn’t get drunk at hog-killing time, at least not until the butchering was over. But he generally kept a pint of whiskey in one of the drums where he stored the hog feed, and I expect he had at least one long pull on the bottle before he pulled the trigger.

Being a girl, I saw little of the work that took place outside. On a crisp fall day, too cold for flies, it began early, with a huddle of neighborhood men at the hog lot and the single sharp crack of a pistol shot. By late evening, the freezer was stacked with wrapped and labeled packages; the kitchen, the living room, and the whole downstairs, smelled of raw meat and blood. There were “lites” (lungs) in one pan in the cold room; another held the hog’s head. There was fat to be fried down into cracklings and lard. For breakfast the next several days, we had fried fresh ham and gravy with eggs over-easy and Mama’s biscuits.

We were surrounded by Nature’s largesse. It changed with every season. It beckoned just beyond the bean patch, calling to us—the ancient song of a goddess we knew we had once served completely, when we were hunter gatherers, before we saved seed and tilled soil, kept chickens and tended pigs.

In spring there was “poke salet,” spears of wild “spar grass” tender and buttered, and the piquant tang of young dandelion greens. Wild raspberries ripened in summer’s heat, fat and juicy and purple-black, tempting us into the briar hell to pluck them.

When the ironweed bloomed purple in the fields, I knew it was time for school to start. For Daddy, it was hunting season. He put away his hoe and took up his rifle. The treasure he pulled from the deep pockets of his hunting coat might be a fat rabbit, a plump quail (what he called a “paterdge”) or a cock pheasant. Though that taste escapes me now, the visual feast of pheasant plumage is with me still. Whatever the catch, Mama prepared it.

Daddy never came home with less than four squirrels, so each of his four little girls could have her own squirrel’s head, in a pool of sop. We cracked the soft-cooked skulls with a tap from our spoons and scooped out the delicate ivory pâté, a tidbit to be savored once, perhaps twice a year, like a rare hors d’oeuvre.

My parents believed in hunger, just as they believed in death, injustice and bad luck. They had seen it. They had felt it. So they worked against it with what they had and with what they could find. Each winter, that season called the “Hunger Moon,” found us with a freezer full of pork and chicken, the larder crowded with vegetables canned in Mason jars, the cold room mounded with potatoes, cushaws and apples. And for the sweet tooth of a little girl there were honey, raspberry dumplings or home-made chocolate fudge with black walnuts I had helped to gather and crack.

In any season, if anyone—friend, relative or stranger—happened by at mealtime, an extra place was made. “Set down and eat with us,” Daddy would say. When they demurred politely that Mama had not cooked for company, he would chuckle and insist, “Now, there’s a plenty.”


Joan Bowman