1947 – Frances, Little Brother, and the big black pot

The 1400 block of Clare Ave. in 1947 was not an “upscale” residential neighborhood of West Palm Beach. It was in Bonnyview, near the back side of the National Guard Armory, around the corner from Alice’s Bar & Grill, and a few doors east of  the Bell Telephone truck park and Murphy Construction Co. On its south side the only thing that separated it from a fetid stagnate canal was the Seaboard Coast Line railroad. Along this stretch of asphalt, and next door to each other, were three identical wood frame two bedroom (plus a screened-in sleeping porch) rental homes. They were all built up on concrete blocks and were inhabited by the Morris, Powell, and Upthegrove families. My family lived in the middle house.

I was a 2nd grader at Central Elementary. The Upthegroves were an elderly couple and I don’t remember anything about them, but I can never forget the Morris clan. If my memory is correct, there were 3 or 4 children but I only remember two….Frances, I believe the oldest, and the youngest that was only ever referred to or addressed as “Little Brother”. I’m sure he had a name but it was never spoken.

The Morrises were the neatest family. They raised chickens in a wired-in coop in back of their house next to the railroad track. The kids went barefoot all the time except for school and, because of them, I got to do the same thing. Frances and Little Brother seem to have an endless supply of wooden toys that, I was told, were made by their father. Mrs. Morris made all of Frances’s dresses from saved flower or butterfly patterned soft cotton feed sacks. She did all of  this and more but what I so vividly remember about Mrs. Morris was what she accomplished with a single huge cast iron pot!

The big cast iron pot always sat in the same spot in the back yard. It was perched up on a few red bricks and usually had hardwood ashes under and around it. The only time the ashes disappeared was when Mrs. Morris scooped them up and put them IN THE POT! That’s right……in the pot. But I’m getting ahead of myself.

blackpot1

Every Monday morning Mrs. Morris would fill the pot with her family’s dirty laundry from the previous week, then cover the load with clean water (I think there was a hose but I’m not sure). To this mixture that had now become “her wash” she would toss in a block or two of homemade lye soap and build a fire under and around the pot with small pieces of oak kindling. She had a long-handled wooden paddle and would periodically come out the backdoor to stir her, now boiling, clothes. After rinsing, the entire ensemble would be hung out to dry on the chicken coop wire fencing and the longest string of closely packed clothes lines you’ve ever seen.

Once every few months Mrs. Morris had another chore that had to be undertaken. This one was also laundry related but may have been necessary for other routine household applications. What ever the case, it also involved the big black cast iron pot.

Was she crazy? Why would anyone dump wood ashes into a pot? ……….I guess for the same reason that same person would proceed to dump weeks of accumulated kitchen grease and lard in on top of the ash before adding a few gallons of water and starting a new fire under the whole nocuous mixture………….she was making her family’s lye soap.

Okay, we’ve seen how the matron of the Morris household utilized her back yard crucible for soap alchemy and laundry, now let’s get to the best part of the story: if on any given Sunday afternoon or Holiday she decided to clean the pot real good, wring the necks of two, maybe three, big fat old hens, chop off heads and feet ……..gut um out then  put the kids to work picking feathers ………… fill the pot with just enough water to cover the birds, add some sliced onions, carrots, and celery, bring to a slow boil ……….. an hour and a half, plenty of salt and pepper……thicken broth in pot with a quart or so of roux ………….. retreat to the kitchen with the cooling cooked hens ……………….pull and set aside all the, now tender, white and dark meat, ……….. round up some flour, baking powder, salt, milk, and some of that leftover lard to cut in ………. rolling out the dough on the flour sprinkled big kitchen table, cutting them into little squares…………. running back outside to drop them into the, now rapidly boiling, cast iron pot of golden nectar one at a time…………15 minutes or so more, then move the pot off the flame and dump the chicken meat back in.

Every friend, neighbor, and near-by relative had already been invited and if I have to tell you what Mrs. Morris was cooking up, you’re too dumb, too skinny, or too Yankee to need to know.

dumpling pic

2018 – Eli never met Mrs. Morris 

During the summer of 1990 my wife Dee and I vacationed in Foscoe, NC. We rented a cottage where Nick and Marcy Coppola had a summer home. I was born in the mountains of North Carolina and still have relatives around every turn of the road. Yes, I know…..it’s so beautiful, and it’s so cool, and it’s so peaceful and quiet, and it’s so laid back and it’s………I’m sorry………it’s so boring! I once was told that if you spend too much time in the NC mountains, your brain will turn into a walnut!

That’s an exaggeration but I did end up trying to find ways to occupy my time. We all did! Before the summer was over, Nick, Nick’s brother George, Mo Mustaine, and myself had all, as a joint endeavor, begun to explore the culinary galaxy. Nick and George experimented with new and exotic Italian tomato gravies and the best pastas to go with them. Mo convinced his wife Linda that a retired electrician really could start a new career as a Master baker and I set out to replicate the renderings of a long ago big black piece of cast iron.

I learned little from what the others cooked up……..some dishes were delicious and all of our creations were palatable except Mo’s pumpkin pie (don’t ever try to actually make one from fresh Halloween type pumpkins – use canned). I did, however, accomplish one monumental achievement that summer. Through trial and error I finally came to the realization that a true southern dumpling is really nothing but cuts from the thinly rolled dough of a southern biscuit boiled in liquid rather than being baked in an oven. This discovery has enabled me to pass on to my grandson, Eli, the encouragement and capability to not only impress all of the young ladies he will amorously pursue over the next few years with a perceived folksy down home wholesomeness; but to, more importantly, be encouraged in years to come to bore all of his family and friends, as well as present and future high school and college classmates to tears by e-mailing collections of rambling endless lines of misspelled run-on sentences like the one you have just read.

Jim Powell

cuttin dumplinsElias Powell and “Pop” (Greenville, SC – 10/7/18)

just a note:

Zelda Frances Morris graduated as a member of the National Honor Society from PBHS in the class of 1957. I found Frances, now Frances Woodward, living on Old Thomasville Rd. in Cairo, Georgia. She’s with the only husband she’s ever had and two grown sons. Little Brother passed away a number of years ago. She has no internet but I mailed her a hard copy (with pictures) of the above. On the phone Frances was crying when she told me she remembers all of what transpired on Clare Ave. those many years ago and, incidentally, she still has the big black pot.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s