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What are the tangible moments in life when God has been so real to you, you can almost hear His heart beating? When has He provided such an unlikely solution to a dilemma, the answer had to be His doing and a result of no other source?
Pulitzer Prize nominee Kay Moore, author of "Way Back in the Country" and "Way Back in the Country Garden", collections of family recipes and the stories behind them, now inspires readers to preserve God-moments in their own lives and to capture recipes of the foods that were served accompanying those life-changing times. Using illustrations from her own experiences, she contends that God shows up in quiet, everydaylife lessons as well as in miracles that may not be of the Damascus Road scale but nonetheless make a permanent imprint on the human heart.
As with her other "Way Back" books, Kay’s newest is packed with recipes for tantalizing foods, all of which are accompanied by small vignettes describing the context in which they were served and which illustrate the bond of food, family, and faith.
Paperback: 272 pages
Publisher: Hannibal Books (April 29, 2013)
AND NOW...THE FIRST CHAPTER:
Food and Faith:
Early June mornings, while the dew still shimmered on the summer grass, I wordlessly followed my mother out back to her prized spot by the hedge.
In my shirtwaist of starched organdy with its prodigious bow I stood expectantly while she took her shears and lopped off the most showy bloom from a bush in her gardenia rows.
Fragrance from the creamy white petals invaded my nostrils as she pulled a silver safety pin from her apron pocket and fastened the flower to my dress.
Down the street, bells from the tile-roofed steeple called neighboring children to line up for Vacation Bible School. Mother wanted to be sure I wore (and smelled) my church-going best even though the morning would find me wrist-deep in finger paints.
At noon, after my class of kindergarteners had memorized our Scripture verses and heard flannelgraph Bible stories and pledged allegiance to the Christian flag, I walked the short block back home to my house.
By that point my gardenia was limp and brown-tipped; its scent was diluted by my sweatdrops from the playground.
But none of that mattered, because my mother was waiting with her welcoming lunch of tuna-salad sandwiches and chocolate-chip cookies formed into bars.
When I think about the days in which the concept of God’s love first was introduced in my life, I can’t help associating those happenings with the gardenia blossoms and tuna fish and bars of chewy chocolate.
Those summer-sweet days at Bible School helped teach me Who God was, how He created the world, how He moved in history, and how He was a personal Father Who knew and loved me.
Interlaced with all those memories, something yummy to eat always was around the corner. Food and faith—they were an everpresent duo in my life—just as I know they are in the lives of others, as well.
* * * * * * * *
This book, simply put, tells stories of ways I’ve experienced God—and the food that accompanied some of those God-moments.
Some think Christian testimonies must be linked to a pat, memorized format of Scriptures or must cover a set of key points that spring from a proper acronym.
In God’s Word, however, Bible figures simply share their testimonies by relating what God has done for them. The blind man Jesus heals proclaims through the simple statement, “I was blind but now I see!” (John 9:25). The forgiven woman at the well merely narrates, “He told me everything I ever did” (John 4:39). Before Agrippa, the apostle Paul quietly recalls the Damascus Road (Acts 26).
Old Testament writers repeatedly recount God’s hand in history (for example, Ps. 18). All are simple stories, earnestly told, of golden God-moments in each of their lives.
Way Back in the Gardenia Rows represents a collection of my faith stories—certainly not every one of them, since they happen every day and every hour. Oceans of ink could not possibly describe them all.
Part of them recount my “faith genealogy”—religious influences from past generations that trickled down to merge into the river of faith that flows into my heart. They show how God was at work in my life for generations before I ever was born.
Others delineate times in which God’s hand was so apparent that I could only stop and acknowledge, as Moses did, that I stood on holy ground. Some occur during a tsunami of tragedy and challenge; others happen on spiritual mountaintops; still others take place during unremarkable, quiet moments with nothing afoot except the stirring of the Spirit.
These are family stories; God works in families in every generation. From the first biblical grouping of Adam and Eve and their offspring He picks the family as the milieu in which He accomplishes His work. He places Jesus into a family. This is what He does with me as well.
Although our paltry lives may seem inconsequential, they actually are no different from those of the Old Testament patriarchs or the New Testament martyrs. All of us, as our pastor once instructed us, are involved in an epic that surpasses the great epic films such as Braveheart or Last of the Mohicans or Gladiator. We are involved in an epic tale that is the redemption of humankind. Every single day “we get to play a part in that huge story,” he told us.1
This is simply my version of my particular bit-part in that epic. One generation will commend your works to another; they will tell of your mighty acts, says Psalm 145:4. I want to make sure that the next generations are reminded of His mighty acts in my life and theirs, too.
As with my previous two cookbooks, which featured the antics of The Three Red-Haired Miller Girls (my mother and two aunts) and the generations that surrounded them, these family stories are linked to recipes—a food that was served at the dinner after a baptism, cookies that were prepared as we celebrated the miracle of our daughter’s graduation. I consider these foods to be integral to that particular memory from my faith journey. The story of that event wouldn’t be complete without remembering what we ate, who originated the recipes, and other lore that surrounded the cooking and consuming.
Many of these cooks have left this earth and today are dining in the banquet hall of the King. Telling about their special dishes almost seems to bring these dear ones back to life again.
* * * * * * * *
These happen to be my stories, but they are undistinguished. Every reader can spin similar yarns—only the names and circumstances differ from those of mine. Again, as with my two previous recipe books, I repeat the urging: tell your own tales, preserve your own happenings. Commend God’s works in your life to the generation that follows yours. While you’re at it, throw in a good recipe or two. Lock all this in for those that live after you.
Make sure they know that throughout your life, humble and ordinary as it may seem in the scope of human history, you—as I—have been standing on holy ground.
Today’s tuna-salad versions are so soigné with upscale additions, our forebears wouldn’t recognize this basic staple that was on the table at least three or four times a week (served on white bread with crusts removed) when I was a pup. All these years later I still think my mother’s cloth-coat variety is best.
Mable’s Tuna-Fish Sandwich Spread
1 (5-ounce) can tuna, packed in water
1 hard-boiled egg, diced
1 medium apple, chopped
2 ribs celery, chopped
1/2 cup mayonnaise
In a medium bowl flake tuna that has been drained. Stir in egg, apple, and celery. Fold in mayonnaise. Spread on bread slices.
“Keep your eyes straight ahead, and whatever you do, don’t look out at the audience.”
No set of instructions could have been more of a siren song to a 5 1/2-year-old—even one about to follow Christ in baptism as she stood in slightly chilly waters on a spring morning.
After all, I had to know whether my daddy was out there among the onlookers. Daddy typically worshiped at his own church—Austin Street Church of Christ—on Sundays, while Mother and I filled the pews at First Baptist, Garland.
But on this red-letter day Daddy made a special exception and joined the Baptists in worship. All the more reason why I simply must careen my head ever so slightly toward the crowd to see whether I could nab a glimpse of him.
Then, just as the service was about to start, I heard him clear his throat. Nobody made this trademark, gutteral throat-
clearing sound like my Daddy. Suddenly I had the answer I needed. He’s here! I could assure myself.
I righted myself on the platform with its few bricks added so my shrimpy little head could be seen above the baptistery rail. Bro. Cockrell then baptized me as a symbol of my pledge to live for Jesus from that time on.
How did it happen that one so young—barely a first-grader—was making the most important decision of her life?
Long before my birth, did certain foundation stones that would help me one day decide I wanted to become a Christian get cemented in place?
Granted, God has no grandchildren. We do not inherit salvation just because we had righteous forebears. Every person must make his or her own decision about trusting Christ as Savior.
Yet the milieu in which I was reared most certainly created a fertile ground for being open to the gospel. Who had plowed that ground before me?
* * * * * * * *
To answer that question, I started by looking at the faith-lives of some of the Christians on my family tree. For example, if anyone ever found God’s grace dumped smack-dab in the center of her lap, it would be my maternal great-grandmother, Frances Mitchell Harris.
I let my imagination wander back to 1873 and tried to envision 20-year-old Frances as she and her family of eight jostled along in their ox-wagon on the rutted roads between their home near Jackson, MS, and their new location in northeast Texas.
Did Frances hear, No going back. No going back, every time a loose side board on their wagon made a clomp-clomp-clack, clomp-clomp-clack sound? As the prairie road snaked by her, Frances doubtless knew she might never return to her birthplace in the Deep South. Frances was the oldest offspring of her parents, Littleton and Annie Eliza Mitchell. What would Texas be like for the Mitchells in this new state to the west? she may have pondered.
In Frances’ mind, just about any place would have been good for putting the past behind her. Like many others, her family had lost everything in the Civil War. Littleton’s plantation near Jackson was burned out in the “late conflict”, as many called it. A friend of “Lit” already had relocated to Kaufman County, TX, and had a large farm there. He asked Lit to join him in Texas and help work the blackland prairie in that area.
Frances also had another reason for needing a new locale. She had ended a brief marriage to her young husband, James Miller. They had married in Mississippi a few days before Frances’ 15th birthday but parted only about a year later when things didn’t work out. James had been 21.
Twin babies lay buried under the soil back home in the Magnolia State.1 A wedded life that began with high hopes had gone afoul. Perhaps Texas would bring happier times.
* * * * * * * *
Another Texas newcomer—Joseph Francis Harris, who farmed land nearby—already made his home in Kaufman County, where the Mitchells soon would build their log cabin with its dirt floor. Though only 23 Joe Harris already had his share of rip-snorting life experiences.
Hailing from Washington County, IL, Joe at age 18 enlisted in the War Between the States, where he fought opposite Frances Mitchell’s South. Although he is not thought to have seen much combat, Joe was injured in a fall from a bucking horse while he was on Army duty in May 1865.2 After his discharge he was badly hurt while he worked on a dredge boat on the Mississippi River. Once in Texas he became a stagecoach driver; while doing this he almost froze to death in a snow-and-sleet storm.
But by the time the Mitchell family arrived in Kaufman County in 1872 or 1873, Joe had settled into farming. Sometime soon after the Mitchells landed in Texas, Joe and Frances met and fell in love. Frances never had obtained a divorce from James Miller, although they had been separated for several years. But a few days after that divorce was granted, a JP married Frances and Joe. The newlyweds lived on a farm about 12 miles from Terrell, TX.3
Before 11 months of marriage went by, a baby boy was born to the couple. Indeed, if Frances were grieving an empty cradle from an earlier time, the arrival of Charles Cornelius Harris on December 31, 1873, helped fill the hole in her heart. Before young Charlie reached age 2, a second boy, Eddie, joined the family; another brother, Thomas, was born before Charlie was 3. Twins Jesse and Albert would appear on the scene before Charlie celebrated his 5th birthday.
God truly had granted Frances a second chance from the life she left behind in Mississippi. At the end of the clomp-clomp-clack, no-going-back of the ox-wagon, God had made sure the man who would become her life’s companion and by whom she would have 14 children was already in place, waiting for her.
* * * * * * * *
How Frances Harris’ faith shaped her life in those days is not precisely defined in the record left behind her. Her obituary states that she had been a member of the Baptist church all her life. I feel fortunate to possess her family Bible and know she must have opened it for guidance, especially during times of heartache that were to lie ahead for her and Joe.
Their second and third boys, Eddie and Thomas, each died in young childhood. Their first daughter, Mollie May, did not live to see her 2nd birthday. A later son, John Delbert, died as a teen. Jesse, one of the twins born to Joe and Frances, ultimately left his wife and their five young children and didn’t return to the family. How I wish we knew the verses Frances claimed as anchors during those hours of trial.
But Frances had to realize that God was the source of all her blessings and was the One who turned her life around from those dark days in Mississippi. A total of 57 grandchildren, including my mother, Mable Miller, and her sisters Frances and Bonnie, emerged from the 49-year union of Frances and Joe. Among Frances’ offspring are many committed Christians. My maternal grandmother, Mattie (ninth child of Joe and Frances), no doubt was put on that pathway by a godly mother.
A loving family surrounded Grandma Harris with affection and care until her life ended at 92. As I wrote in my first cookbook, Way Back in the Country, Grandma’s photographs in later years always showed her with a contented smile, even though a broken hip left her wheelchair-confined during many of those latter years.
I’m convinced that Frances Harris was a woman with peace in her heart because she knew that God was the Source of all she had received in this life and would provide for her in the next.
Frances Mitchell Harris—the first plank in the platform of faith that would shape my years.
* * * * * * * *
The second plank—the Miller clan on the paternal side—also demonstrated faith in times of severe hardship—faith that would trickle down to my mother and ultimately to me. (This Miller family was no relation to Grandma Harris’ first husband, James.)
My great-great-grandmother, Rebecca Compton Miller, remained devoted to God even after her husband, Peter White Miller Sr., was butchered4 up and died from complications of his war injuries. He had served in the Confederate Army from Tennessee.
Rebecca, like many other Civil War widows, no doubt experienced cruelties in the years just after the war. Likely her land and other property eventually were seized. At the time, she was 46. Her children included a 2-year-old son.
Ultimately she moved from Tennessee to Delta County, TX, to join several of her kin. One of them was son Alfred Compton Miller, eventually grandfather to the Miller Girls.
Family historian Garland Button conjectures that a life of Christian dignity even in the face of suffering and separation characterized stalwart Rebecca. “The life of Rebecca Compton Miller must have undoubtedly been deeply rooted in the Christian faith,” Button writes. He says this was reflected in the lives of the 15 Miller children, all of whom lived to adulthood.
“This family is one that throughout its history has been made up of people dedicated to the Christian ethic in its fullest sense,” Button continued.
Like his father, Alfred C. Miller was not given the gift of years. At age 40 in 1892 he passed from this life and left his wife, Margaret, as a young widow with six children—a seventh one died just three weeks before Alf did.
At this point my mother and her sisters became direct eyewitnesses to the Miller family faith legacy.
Their grandmother, Margaret, as had her mother-in-law, Rebecca, lived with the families of various children after she was widowed. My mother, Mable, remembers Grandma Miller kneeling every night by her bedside while she stayed in the home of the Miller Girls’ parents, Mark and Mattie.
“We would see her praying and would tippy-toe by the door so we wouldn’t disturb her,” my mother recalled.
The bowed countenance of Margaret Miller, a grandmother who had suffered much, impressed Mable, Frances, and Bonnie Miller. In their adult lives all three sisters were Christian women devoted to prayer.
As they grew up, the Miller Girls were always in church—singing their red-haired father’s favorite hymn, “Wonderful Words of Life”, as well as other classics. As I wrote in the chapter, “Roll, Jordan, Roll”, in my first cookbook, Way Back in the Country, the three sisters never had a question about whether the family would attend services on Sunday; the question of where depended on the weather. Their own church was the New Hope Baptist Church, where Papa was ordained a deacon. But if rains had fallen on Saturday night and the roads weren’t dry, the Methodist church in Brushy Mound was closer to them and would do just fine.
All three girls trusted Christ as Savior and were baptized in the pool adjacent to the cotton gin in their community. Way Back in the Country describes frequent two-week tent revivals. At one of them Mable made her profession of faith.
History repeated itself into a third generation when the Miller Girls’ mother, Mattie, was left a widow while in the prime of her life—age 49. Three successive Miller men—Peter Miller; Peter’s son, Alfred, and Alf’s son, Marcus—all died in middle age, leaving wives and families that depended on them.
Once again a grieving Miller woman turned to—and found—help in the Heavenly Father. Mattie easily could have given God a real flaying and demanded to know why her beloved was abruptly taken from her. Instead she leaned on Him in her needy hour. Just as the Miller Girls had observed their grandmother in prayer, I often saw my Nanny with bowed head as she sat in her rocker with her Bible open. I always felt confident that some of those prayers were for me. Almost until she died, she gave enthusiastically to the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association. Her means were few, but out of them she contributed to spread the gospel.
Christian role-modeling from this second plank of my faith legacy—the Millers. In you our fathers put their trust; they trusted and you delivered them (Ps. 22:4).
* * * * * * * *
Matters of faith in the Wheeler family—the third plank in my platform—are detailed in chapter 2, “The Runaway”. But a visual that I observed when I once visited my grandfather Wheeler’s place of origin—Borden Springs, AL—summed up the story for me.
There, in a graveyard adjacent to the Church of Christ, were Wheeler markers as far as the eye could see. Towering over them was the headstone for the grave of Calvin Marshall Wheeler, my granddad’s grandfather—the progenitor.
Churches of Christ had a heavy concentration in Alabama as the movement grew in the middle of the 19th century. It traces its origins to the Restoration Movement (also called the Stone-Campbell movement) of the late 18th and early 19th centuries, as Barton Stone-Alexander Campbell followers from Kentucky and Tennessee migrated into northern Alabama.
Cathryn Killian, my late cousin on the Wheeler side, told me that the Wheeler family had been aligned with Churches of Christ for many generations, which probably explains why my dad never quite was willing to sprint over and join my Baptist mom in her church membership. My granddad, James Devastus Wheeler (I nicknamed him “Bandad”), became a lay Church of Christ preacher, as the next chapter explains. His spiritual impact on my life was immeasurable.
My grandfather was a boy of 3 when his father, James Washington Wheeler (more on him in the next chapter) pulled up stakes from this idyllic setting in the Blue Ridge foothills and began his Texas migration. Whether my grandfather’s branch ever made return trips to Alabama to see those left behind is a matter of mystery.
But in their new state they decidedly brought their Church of Christ heritage. Once settled into Antioch, TX, in Delta County, they joined the Church of Christ. James Devastus grew up in that setting and at age 13 was baptized at nearby Rattan.6 As an adult, when he and Zella moved to Cooper in 1910, he found no Church of Christ congregation existed and drew together a few disciples to begin a local body.7 My Bandad, in my estimation, was one of the truest Christians that ever walked on the earth.
* * * * * * * *
The spiritual roots of the W.H. Wright family–my dad’s maternal side—are obtuse because of the situation that makes most Wright information cloudy. Chapter 10, “In Search of Mollie V.”, describes the early passing of my grandmother’s mother, Mollie V. Wright, when Mammaw was 6. Mammaw—Zella Mae Wright—then died when I was 10, so I was physically around her less and “caught” less information from her (except one rare jewel of a fact described later) than I did from any of my other living grandparents.
I do know that her family also evacuated from northern Mississippi in the wake of the Civil War aftermath—no doubt for some of the same atrocities that caused the Mitchells and Millers to flee the Deep South.
Regardless of the W.H. Wrights’ faith tradition, soon after Zella married my Bandad, J.D. Wheeler, she joined the Church of Christ and became a part of his family faith practices. She was baptized by C.E. Holt at Rattan, TX.
Here is what my grandfather, her life’s companion of 57 years, wrote on the one-year anniversary of Zella’s passing: “She spent much time in the study of the Bible and was a good Bible student. She spent much time in prayer. Zella was a devoted Christian and a true helper in life, in joy and in sorrow. I believe she is safe in the arms of Jesus.”
Little else needs to be said from this one who knew her best. As with my Nanny, the prayers of my devoted Mammaw, Zella Wright, may just have been some of her greatest spiritual contributions to my life.
* * * * * * * *
What were those prayers by my Nanny and Mammaw? I have no doubt that in part, they pled with God to send a child to their infertile children—Mable and J.D. (Doyce).
And does God answer prayers retroactively? Since prayer transcends time and space, did He know of the urgent petitions my Nanny and my Mammaw one day would utter and start answering them . . . before either of those godly women was even born?
Consider the following story, which concludes my first chapter. The name in this amazing tale—W.F. Kimmell—won’t appear on any of the family trees at the end of the book. But this Civil War narrative about W.F. is as vital to my family faith heritage as are any of these already told.
* * * * * * * *
Eager to do his part for his country, Albion, IN, native William Francis Kimmell enlisted in the 8th Regiment, Ohio Volunteer Infantry in April 1861. Enthusiastically he wrote regular and highly detailed letters home to his lady friend, Leah Crispell, back in Albion.8
Initially W.F.’s letters are cheery and buoyant. “I am here a United States soldier enlisted for three years and hoping to do something for my country before I come home again,” he wrote in June 1861.
As days wore on, the realities of the War Between the States set in for this Union frontline infantryman—who fought in some of the bloodiest battles of the American Civil War. Many times the enemy troops that faced the 8th Ohio were led by none other than the brilliant strategist, Confederate Gen. Stonewall Jackson, who knew nothing if not how to annihilate troops. “I helped bury fifteen rebels today,” William’s letter in October 1861 said. “A person never thinks of the dead and wounded during a battle. But it is a horrible sight after it’s all over.”
After the Battle of Blue’s Gap (WV), Kimmell wrote Leah on January 15, 1862, “There was a bullet went through my coat.” After the battle of Winchester, VA, in April 1862, he penned, “I had four bullet ho(l)e in my overcoat, one of them give me a little scratch on the arm.”
At the Battle of Antietam, the bloodiest day of the war, Kimmell wrote of his group, “Four killed and sixteen wounded out of the thirty-two engaged. How I ever escaped unharmed is a mystery to me . . ..”
After the Battle of Gettysburg, Kimmell wrote Leah, “There is but eleven of us left out of the ninety-eight that came into Virginia two years ago. My chances are growing smaller all the time.”
In December 1863 Kimmell described continued carnage: “I am now the last one of the six men left in the company (six men who shared a tent as they first came into Virginia two years beforehand). . .. Why should they all go before me? I was always considered the smallest and the weakest one of the lot.”
But W.F. continued to survive fray after fray and returned safely home to Albion in late July 1864. William and Leah, to whom he mailed the letters considered to be a unique, firsthand glimpse of frontline Civil War military life, married shortly afterward.
* * * * * * * *
A pensive W.F. once posed the question, “Why should they all go before me?” Earlier he had written, “How I ever escaped unharmed is a mystery to me.” W.F. pondered how he was allowed to live when bullets whirred all around him and death claimed comrade after comrade.
To God, however, the answer to W.F.’s questions was anything but a mystery. God saw beyond those bloody fields of battle and down through the generations to those Delta County prayers that one day Mattie and Zella would pray. The two women’s children—Mable and J.D.—were so, so, so meant to be parents but could not produce them genetically. Mattie and Zella surely begged heaven for a child to occupy this deserving home.
I believe God preserved W.F. because He knew that through his bloodline would spring the child God—from before the foundation of the world—already had picked out to fill those empty arms. He knew that in W.F.’s bloodline one day would be an infant who would need an adoptive mom and dad.
On a November day in 1948, a husband and wife from the combined merger of the Millers, the Harrises, the Mitchells, the Wrights, the Wheelers—all the families mentioned previously in this chapter—would show up at Florence Nightingale Maternity Hospital in Dallas and would present themselves to be just the adoptive parents that this child would need.
On the Civil War’s bloodiest days, God took me into account. It was an example of God’s prevenient grace—the grace that works ahead of time for a specific event in the future. “Before I formed you in the womb I knew you,” Jeremiah 1:5 tells us.
I believe He kept W.F. alive so that His perfect will might be enacted.
My mother’s Golden Fried Okra was an after-church staple we could count on. Although I can’t guarantee it was on the table the Sunday after I was raised out of the baptismal waters, I know my mother missed very few Sundays preparing this dish, which has been called the “pâté of the South”.
Golden Fried Okra
20 okra pods, cut into 1/2-inch pieces
2 eggs, beaten
1 cup all-purpose flour
1 cup cornmeal
1 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon paprika
1-inch cooking oil
Stir cut-up okra into beaten eggs; then dredge in mixture of flour, cornmeal, salt, and paprika. In large skillet fry in hot oil until golden brown. Drain on paper towels. Makes 4 servings.