Foodways, Maternal Kin, North Carolina, Oral History, Virginia

I never ate a bite in my life.

My grandmother, Margaret Colvert Allen: Papa was a hunter.

Me: He hunted?

My aunt: Papa was?

Grandma: Yeah. He hunted.

Me: So, he had hunting dogs.

Grandma: Yes, indeed. He had a place made to put his dogs in and — hound dogs, you know. Hunting dogs.

Me: Did — he hunted deer or smaller things?

Grandma: Naw. He never hunted deer. But he hunted rabbits and squirrels and quail. [Inaudible] and he would catch ‘em [inaudible] but I didn’t ever cook one. [Laughs.] His mother used to cook possum.

Me: Used to cook possum?

Grandma: Oh, possum, honey. They would cook those dern things.

Me: Well, possum stew. I guess I have heard of that.

Grandma: Hmm?

Me: Possum stew. I guess I have heard people talk about that.

Grandma: Naw. They didn’t have no possum stew. They’d bake this thing.

Me: Awwww!

Grandma: And, look, wait a minute. You know they’ve got big mouths. Long mouths. A possum. And he’d put a sweet potato in the possum’s mouth. [I laugh, hard.] I don’t remember cooking one, but my grandmother sure used to cook ’em. And Papa cooked ’em. But I refused to cook ’em. Not me. And you know these people when I came here ate muskrats?

Me: [Laughing.] In Newport News?

Grandma: John’s people ate muskrats. And you know the merchants would have ‘em hung up all on the outside the street, you know, like you used to have chicken cages where you could go and pick ….? Well, they would have these muskrats killed, and they were real bloody, and they would be hanging, and they’d just be killed. I mean, it wasn’t nothing wrong with ‘em if you liked that kind of thing. I cooked it for your daddy, but I declare before God I have never eaten a bite. [I laugh.] Not a bite.

My aunt: When I went to Africa, and we would take our day trips, they would have some kind of animal that they had split open –

Me: Butterflied. [Laughing.]

My aunt: And a rodent. Some kind of rodent. And I ain’t eating that. They had some kind of little rodent. And they had, like, barbecued it or something. And his head was still on.

Grandma: What you mean – little or big?

My aunt: Ma’am?

Grandma: How big would it be? ‘Bout the size of a squirrel or something like that?

My aunt: I don’t think it was a squirrel.

Grandma: Aw. Well, I don’t know what they were then. But, honey, these merchants on Jefferson Avenue used to have those muskrats hanging out there, honey, and you talking ‘bout bloody, and they would have skinned them, you know. And they were hanging like that. Ah. And bloodied. Ooooo. They would be so bloody. I fixed one and cooked it, but seriously, my hand to God, I never ate a bite in my life. I never intended to eat a bite. And my daddy didn’t like ‘em either. So my grandmother used to always bring him something down, she’d come down sometimes Sunday afternoon or Saturday night.

My aunt: Grandma Allen?

Grandma: No, no, no, no, no. My daddy.

Me: Harriet.

Grandma: She would always bring him something. Always bring him something. And this day she was supposed to have brought him some rabbit. Fried rabbit, you know. And I never shall forget. He sat over there by the window. Now, he’d had his dinner. He’d had Mama’s dinner, but when Grandma came and brought something he had to have some of that. He sat over there, and he ate, ate that piece of what he thought was rabbit, and he got down to the bone, and he knew it wasn’t rabbit. Because he didn’t – and he said, “Mama, what is this?” And she was crying laughing at him eating muskrat when he swore he’d never eat a bite. And she, I can see her right now. She was sitting over there, and, child, she was laughing. Laughing ‘til she cried. And Papa said, “You better be glad you’re my mama, ‘cause I certainly would whip you today if you weren’t my mama.” He was so mad.



Interview of Margaret C. Allen by Lisa Y. Henderson; all rights reserved. Photo courtesy of Wikipedia.


Maternal Kin, North Carolina, Oral History

Possums and sweet potatoes.

My grandmother:  His mother used to cook possum. 

Me:  Used to cook possum?

My grandmother:  Oh, possum, honey.  They would cook those dern things.

Me:  Well, possum stew.  I guess I have heard of that.

My grandmother:  Naw.  They didn’t have no possum stew.  They’d bake this thing.

Me:  Awwww!

My grandmother:  And, look, wait a minute.  You know they’ve got big mouths.  Long mouths.  A possum.  And he’d put a sweet potato in the possum’s mouth.  [I laugh, hard.]  I don’t remember cooking one, but my grandmother sure used to cook ‘em.  And Papa cooked ‘em.  But I refused to cook ‘em.  Not me.  And you know these people when I came here ate muskrats?!


It was Harriet Nicholson Hart who fixed such special dishes for her favorite son.

Interview of Margaret C. Allen by Lisa Y. Henderson; all rights reserved.

Maternal Kin, North Carolina, Oral History

She would always bring him something.

My grandmother: My grandmother used to always bring him something down, she’d come down sometimes Sunday afternoon or Saturday night.

My aunt: Grandma Allen?

My grandmother: No, no, no, no, no. My daddy.

Me: Harriet.

My grandmother: She would always bring him something. In the springtime, when there’d be strawberries and rhubarb, she used to make strawberry pie with rhubarb in ’em. And she would make three or four and stack ’em like that. And cut all the way down. And she would always bring that to Papa.

Margaret C. Allen on this family’s stack pie legacy.


Interview of Margaret C. Allen by Lisa Y. Henderson; all rights reserved.

North Carolina, Oral History, Paternal Kin, Photographs

She raised 13.

My father’s mother said:

Every day she needed, had to eat some fish.  ‘Cause she couldn’t eat pork.  Good as she loved ham and stuff, and Papa always raised a pig every year.  She had a bad heart.  And so she wasn’t supposed to eat no pork.  And so that’s what she had, fish.  Fish and beef.  Fish and beef. … Well, she raised chickens.  But she got to put the chicken in a coop.  Even if it was running ‘round out there in a bigger pen.  She put it one of them little coop places where was built up like that, and let it stay a week, cleaning it out.  That’s what she said to do.  I reckon you let ‘em run ‘round in the yard eating dirt, so she was gon clean ‘em out. She would get her about five or six biddies out the bunch, and she just put them in that coop, and by them being out there in the back yard fenced in that part, picking up all the gravel and everything else they want … Put ‘em in that coop, let ‘em stay a week, clean ‘em out.  So, I said to Mama, “Why you got to take ‘em out the yard and put ‘em in a pen?  And then feed ‘em nothing but corn in there?”  She said that cleans ‘em out.  At the time, when she was telling me, I didn’t know what cleaning ‘em out was.  Wonder, “Why she talking ‘bout cleaning ‘em out?”  I wanted to ask her again, but she would scold at you.  She done called herself telling you what to do.  But she didn’t tell you the whole thing.  So I’d just hush.  And then go and try to get it out of somebody else.

She weighed 200 pounds.  She was fat.  But she wore dresses longer than what they’re wearing now.  Just like, that one up there, that skirt she had on, she made that.  And she, it was blue silk.  And then she made a ruffle, that ruffle that was ‘round that skirt, she took and sewed all ‘round it…. Her hair was shoulder-length, but she always rolled it, always turned it up and pinned it back there and had this part that come around.  She didn’t never cut it real short.  And it didn’t, I don’t never remember seeing it when it was real long.  But she was always tucking it in and trying to make a ball back there.


She didn’t have but one child.  But she raised 13.  Papa’s children, and then my mama Bessie and Jack, and me and Mamie.  Her own child was named Hattie Mae, too.

Sarah Daisy Henderson Jacobs Silver was my great-great-grandmother’s sister.


Photo of Sarah Henderson Jacobs Silver in the collection of Lisa Y. Henderson. Interview of Hattie Henderson Ricks by Lisa Y. Henderson; all rights reserved.

Free People of Color, North Carolina, Oral History, Paternal Kin

Lewis & Mag’s children, part 1: sons.

Lewis and Margaret Balkcum Henderson had nine or so children in Sampson County before shifting a few miles north into Wayne County, where they settled with other free-issue families near a tiny crossroads town called Dudley.  Before the Civil War, Margaret bore Lewis T. (1856), James Lucian (1858), Isabella J. (1860), Ann Elizabeth (1862), and Caswell C. (1864), and after, Mary Susan (1868), Carrie (1870), Sarah Daisy (1872), and Loudie (1874).

Of Lewis T., Isabella and Mary Susan, there is not enough known to talk about; they died as children.  But Lucian was my grandmother’s favorite great-uncle; the only one of Lewis and Mag’s children to stay in Dudley and farm.  He and his wife Susie (born a McCullin) had only one child, a daughter Cora Q., who died early and is remembered only by her headstone in the cemetery of the Congregational Church.  (I am endlessly fascinated by the Q.  What could it possibly have stood for?) Lucian so impressed my grandmother that she named her firstborn son after him. He is gone, but my cousins Lucian Jr., the III and the IV, remain.

My grandmother said:

Uncle Lucian, now he look more like an Indian to me than anybody.  Didn’t have too much hair, but what he had was straight and was that brownish color like it was fair.  We’d come down there and stay with them.  Get off the train and run all the way down there to their house.  That wont nothing.  And they had two beds in that front room.  One on one side and one on the other’n, and they slept on that one side, and me and Mamie slept in the other’n.  In the same room.  ‘Cause it wasn’t no door to it, and the fireplace was in the front room.  I don’t think they ever had a lamp or no light.  We’d go to bed with the chickens and get up with the chickens.  ‘Cause time it’s day, Uncle Lucian was up.  A’nt Susie couldn’t cook.  Because she couldn’t be over the stove, she’d fall out if she was over the stove.  She never left the house that I know of.  ‘Cause she had this thing, that, her head shook all the time.  I said to Mama Sarah, I said, “That thing’s gon shake her head off.”  I told Mama, “She’s gon shake her head off.”  She said, “It was a palsy, that’s how come.”  So Uncle Lucian always got up and cooked breakfast.  And, Lord, I used to love to go down there.  We would get up early mornings, and Uncle Lucian would cook breakfast and, honey, that old ham where he cooked you could smell a mile!  Honey, you could smell that ham before you even got there.  It was on the highway, and we didn’t go all the way ‘round the bend and come up the road.  We’d come down over the fence and come down the cornrow and come up to the house.  And he’d make rice, and it would be that ham gravy.  And the biscuits, they looked like they’s hamburg muffins, the biscuits was so big.  And you talking ‘bout good.   Ooo, you’d be ‘bout to have a fit, it smelled so good. Cooking ham and rice, and had to have ham gravy, just pour water in there from frying.  Great big old milk biscuits.  You eat one of them — you couldn’t even eat a whole one, ’cause they was so big.  And cooked on a little old bitty tin stove, a four-cap stove — the burner wont no more than bigger than that — where you had to put two, three pieces of wood in the stove, and the pipe run right straight up in the house.  Yeah, I thought that was some good days and some good food.  Look like to me, I thought it was the best.  We had good food at home, but seem like down there, it just taste better.  We didn’t have no ham everyday like they had down there, and by him having and curing it, the way they cured ham, his was different from what we had.  Like with that pepper and salt and stuff and seasoning outdoors.  And every one they’d kill, he’d get the hog and cook ‘em and hang ‘em in his packhouse. 

But every great-uncle was not as favored as Lucian.  There was also Caswell, from whom my father gained his middle name, but about whom my grandmother was ambivalent.  Caswell was in New York City by 1890, where he was a white man on his job with the Customs House, but moved among colored folks at home in the Tenderloin and later in Harlem and the Bronx:

Uncle Caswell come to Wilson visiting Mama Sarah.  He didn’t never bring his wife down there ‘cause he was passing for white, and she was kind of brown-complexioned.  But he’d leave our house, and he would go and get a paper every morning down there to Cherry Hotel.  Walk down there for the exercise and get that paper.  He’d go in the hotel there and ask for a paper and talk to the people, and they all said, “Who is this white man?”  And then he’d come all the way back a different way, then walk back down Green Street and come on home, so they wouldn’t know he was crossing the tracks.   And so he wanted Mamie, he didn’t want me, he wanted Mamie to come stay with him and his wife.  And he was gon send her to school and take care of her.  He’d buy all her clothes and everything.  But me, he ain’t said nothing ‘bout me.  But Mama said, “Naw, you can’t. I don’t want her to go to New York.  ‘Cause she don’t know nothing ‘bout New York, and, too, that would leave Hattie down here by herself.”  She said, “They’s gon stay, she gon stay with me ‘cause I promised Bessie that I’d take care of them as long as I lived.  I promised Bessie I’d keep ‘em together.  But if you want to give her something, or help me out with her, buy ‘em clothes or something like that, you can.”  So I didn’t like that. He ain’t said nothing ‘bout me.  But then they said I liked to read, and so he saved the papers where he was taking, and he would send ‘em in the mail to me.  But he sent Mamie candy.  And I told him I wont no goat!  Uncle Caswell didn’t like me.  And I started to tell him he was down there trying to be cute, playing, wanting folks to think he was white.  Passing for white.  Well, he could pass for white.  Least that’s what he was doing up in New York.  ‘Cause he was working at the roundhouse, had a good job.


Interview of Hattie H. Ricks by Lisa Y. Henderson; all rights reserved.

North Carolina, Oral History, Paternal Kin

Scuffalongs and muscadines.

Great big old black ones.  Lord, he might as well have told me to go out there and eat all I wanted.  I eat all the way down the corn row down to that lady’s house, Mary Budd, and come up through the corn field and come back to the road and went over there stood up there and eat all I want and throwed the hulls over in the pasture.  The hog pasture, or whatever that thing was out there where pigs was.  They thought I was gon give ‘em something to eat, I reckon.  And I throwed the things over there, and I reckon that’s where Uncle Lucian discovered that we was eating ‘em.  And he said, “Y’all stay away from out there!  Somebody’s been out there —!”  “Wont me!”  [She laughs.]  Them things seem like was the best things I ever had.  And the arbor there on the yard where was all up in the trees, it’d be grapes.  And I’d go there and eat them, but they was little.  It was what they call scuffalongs.  White grapes.  And I’d eat them, too, but I wanted some of them old big ones.  Them old big black ones.


I recorded interviews with my father’s mother in 1994, 1996 and 1998. Her scuppernong story was one of my favorites.

Interview of Hattie H. Ricks by Lisa Y. Henderson; all rights reserved.