One of the ancient Christmas traditions in our family, living near the south bank of the North Fork of the Holston River, in Scott County, Virginia, was to gather in at the old family homeplace. Granddaddy Ketron was still living when I was little, so we would all go over there to help him have Christmas. At one time the family gatherings there included his neighbors, brothers and sisters, and all his children, grandchildren, etc. By the time I came along, the celebrations were becoming a little sparser, just our branch of the family, filling the house with laughter, cigarette smoke, and stories.
The kitchen was the hub of activity, and as was often the case in those days, the women of the family, including the little girls, would gather in there and cook, talk, laugh, and generally create dinner. All the while the men of the family were gathered in the living room (which was heated for this occasion, normally it was shut off from the rest of the house and left cold), talking, laughing, grinning, and smoking or chewing. When the time came to eat, we gathered as close to the kitchen as we could get, someone would pray in a low voice, the one time we were all quiet, and then we’d load up our plates.
Often at the table would be a collection of country food: meat, potatoes, vegetables, and dressing. In later years, to relieve Mammaw from the huge task of preparing a meal, the women of the family suggested we only do desserts at these gatherings, so we did that. But always, without fail, there was a big old jar, which I’d say would hold at least two gallons, and it was filled with this creamy, milky liquid we called “Boil-t Custard.” (Pronounced with that “t”). Mammaw liked to make it with fresh milk from “Jersey,” our milk cow. After the cow was sold and the farming chores simplified, she tried it with store-bought milk, but preferred getting fresh raw milk for the special treat.
I don’t know what all else went in it, I’m sure eggs and sugar. It had to be stirred constantly as she made it, and when completed, I remember it often being put in the refrigerator that stood on the back porch. They had purchased it in 1943 with money they received from the state when the road was relocated to the back of the house. It was still running in the 1990s.
The last thing that happened to the custard before it was finished was that Mammaw would make some meringue to be added to the top of the custard. It floated on top of the jar, and it was always good to top off your dose. Pappaw called this “calf slobbers.” If you ever worked cattle, you know why. It looks just like the foamy stuff that gathered in the mouths of young cattle while they were nursing.
To take your custard, you could drink it from a cup, or pour it over a piece of cake. Mammaw would usually have a white cake with white icing and coconut sprinkled on top, or sometimes a white cake and caramel icing. Other times she might have a jam cake or red velvet cake. Any of it was good with boiled custard poured over it.
Eating your cake and boiled custard with calf slobbers in the presence of a decorated cedar tree topped with an aluminum foil-covered five-pointed star with an electric light in the middle is a luxury of the first class sort. Kind of makes you think about how sweet that little baby was.
Merry Christmas from the waters of possum creek.