Posted by: morrowsl | September 30, 2015

Newman’s Camp revisited

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I was raised in a family where food was cooked full on and from scratch.  Daddy learned to cook in the Army and he taught my mother how when they married.  I don’t ever remember them sharing the kitchen so much as taking turns to cook meals.  Some of the dishes he taught her to make became hers alone so that any chance of having to choose whose was best was settled before it ever got ’round to me to decide.
Like fried potatoes.  With onions.  My mother would cut “Irish” potatoes into rounds, not too fat, not too thin.  Then the rounds were cut into slices and dropped into a pan of cold salty water.  I loved eating them straight from the bowl, just like that, cold and salty and crisp.  None of them more than a couple of inches long.
While she sliced, a big slab of Crisco would be melting in a blazing hot iron skillet.  Then, instead of draining the water from the bowl, she’d reach in for a handful of dripping wet potatoes and toss them into the smoking oil, causing water droplets to pop and shoot up in the air and steamy smoke to fill the kitchen.  The hot oil would almost instantly caramelize the starch in the potatoes making a golden brown crust on the bottom.  As soon as that happened, she’d flip the entire thing, almost like a pancake now, and cook the other side to crisp.  In between, the potatoes would be soft and squishy.  The onions never seemed to survive intact, but left a wonderful aroma and just enough seasoning to make normally bland potatoes taste like the richest food on earth.

n_a(8) n_a(10)Fried potatoes with onions are summer food in my mind.  Camp food.  They were a staple for most dinners and quite a few breakfasts cooked over the Coleman cook stove when we camped or in the kitchens of cabins and boathouses perched on hillsides or tied to the bank of a river or lake.  There is something about the air near water that adds its own flavor to food, especially fried starchy foods that seem to soak up all the elements of the atmosphere as they cook.
I can never smell potatoes and onions and not be thrown backwards, well into my youth, when food was just the reason you had to wait an hour before swimming or needed to wash your hands, which would only get dirty all over again as soon as you snagged that first greasy potato slice and popped it into your mouth.

n_a(7)n_a(6)Those early years, when my hair was sun-bleached almost white and my skin baked a golden brown.  When shoes were meant for Sunday School and clean underwear was optional.  When sleeping piled up three and four to a bed just meant you wouldn’t need covers and you’d all have a cold or the measles at the same time.  When my best friends were half blood relations that looked similar to me, but with their mother’s round face or father’s dark eyes.  Years that flew by so fast, I never realized I was losing them until they were gone, taking all the joy of unfettered adventures through woods and fields and waterways with them.

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We grew up at Newman’s Camp.  All of the little toe-headed kids born into the huge family created when my Ragland grandparents said “I do” and did.  How we all managed to squeeze into that tiny two-bedroom house for Christmas Eve is still a mystery to me.  But, in summer, we spilled out across the hillsides of Newman’s and made that small acreage our own.

It seems there were only four or five cabins in all, but I do recall one with a full-size kitchen being #7, so maybe there really were more.  They were scattered across the hillside opposite that where my grandparents lived, so that you either had to go ’round the long circular dirt road or cut through a valley of grapevines and cedar trees to get to the other hill.  At the top of the circular road sat Mr. and Mrs. Newman’s house, just beyond the entrance to the property which was marked with a huge round Coca-Cola sign and a gate with a cattle guard.  And down the sloping hill at the bottom of the circle was the Brazos River, deep and dark and brooding, shoreline scattered with huge piles of driftwood and dotted further down with boathouses and fishing platforms.

The sun would come up directly over the river, winking through the scattered “hot weather clouds” that looked to be holding water but would most times not even provide decent shade.  Our days were filled with adventures created in our active little brains.  Running up and down the dirt road, climbing cedar trees and dodging cows.  Pestering my grandparents with requests for a drink of water or time in front of the little black and white television.  Or sitting in a boat tipping dangerously to one side while Grandpa lifted giant catfish out of the water and released them from the hold of the huge hooks on his trotline.  Even now, I can close my eyes and smell that outboard motor, feel the chop of the water as the little boat stops so quickly it throws a wake forward against itself, hear the water birds calling from the dead trees along the shoreline.

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If we were lucky, we could spend a few hours on the fishing barge with Daddy, sitting stone still and silent, waiting for that tap on the line that meant the fish were finally biting.  The hours of boredom broken and forgotten in the battle to land a fish barely long enough to fill a frying pan.

When the fishing was good it meant we’d eat fresh-caught crappie for dinner.  Back then, Daddy hadn’t started filleting them yet.  He’d remove the scales, heads and innards, but leave the tails.  Mom would roll then in a coating of seasoned cornmeal and fry them.  And we’d sit, fish and fried potatoes and maybe pork-n-beans on our plates, and feast like royalty.

n_a(18)I only just managed to give my own kids a bit of that brand of childhood.  Who knows the memories they hold or what smells bring them to mind.  My grandkids are even farther removed from such joys, at least any I might be able to provide for them.  Somehow, spending time in a community campground with a pile of strangers is nothing of the real camping I recall from my own youth.  It is too pedestrian.  Too tame.

I’ve saved back an old iron skillet.  And I still know how to turn an Irish potato and onions into a savory pleasure.  And maybe, just maybe, we’re one step closer to a Newman’s Camp of our own.  There won’t be any grapevines or cows or a river.  But I bet we’ll make do.

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Responses

  1. Evocative and lush writing!! Brings many memories to mind for me, and lots of the memories are Mema and Papa’s house memories for sure. Thanks for writing this!


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