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Sustenance

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IF THERE'S ONE thing I'm good at, it's picking meat off the bones of any steak, chop, roast, or joint of beef, pork, or lamb--but best of all a bird--that happens to be sitting on a plate or carving board in front of me. I can't take all the credit for my acquired skill. I inherited being a good picker as an Arnold family trait. In my nuclear group, I wasn't even the best one. That honor goes to my younger brother, Brent, who honed his talent to an art, even though my older brother Blair and I were avidly pursuing, and not unremarkably, our own picking gifts.

Our mother, Bobbye, was not necessarily pleased by this particular motor skill though we tried to follow her picking rules. With Mother's waste-not want-not mindset, it wasn't that she minded us going for every scrap we could bite off, but there were limits to where and how we could do it. We could nibble any meat to its frame in the sanctity of our own home, but in polite society, we had to contain ourselves--except for pork ribs and fried chicken, which in any sophisticated life is a mortal sin not to pick up, since there is no other proper way to eat them.

I would like to inform that proper picking is not done publicly. A good picker should hide or semi-hide in the kitchen so others can't see what he or she is doing. It's not the most attractive position in which to be discovered and can be quite embarrassing. Besides that, if a fellow picker spots you, he or she will no doubt want to join in and you'll miss some tasty morsels. But keep in mind, the camaraderie of another picker can also be quite enjoyable and a help to dissuade any measure of guilt for overindulgent or secretive eating.

Good pickers usually aren't bone thin.

***
ONE IMPORTANT FACT about us Arnolds is that we like to eat. Day to day, we consumed our meals on a round yellow painted table in our breakfast room, which opened into our family room. The walls were paneled in cherry, and hardwood floors had been hand-pegged.

Mother cooked three square meals a day, and in that happy time before everything you put in your mouth had been declared evil and unhealthy by yet another boring study, that meant we ate hearty real food that was pan-fried or simmered for hours with rich ham hocks, a slab of bacon, or its drippings. And as God once pronounced about His creation, it was mighty good.

To all of you health nuts sneering about this: My grandmother, Abbie Arnold, lived to be 103 years old eating a diet such as this three-quarters of her long life and every chance she got after she moved to healthier choices.

A silver metal canister with copper lid sat on our kitchen counter next to the brown range as a sacred repository for our fresh bacon drippings. As did all good Southern cooks, Mother collected all drippings. She needed this most delectable of fats to flavor summer squash or to fry a pan of tender okra. Bacon grease was the oil of the gods in Batesville, Arkansas, as throughout the South.

Some version of eggs, meat, and bread was our usual breakfast fare, but Mother's repertoire was not so limited. She had a shiny silver waffle maker that she heated up for Blair and poured her pale yellow batter into. Once the waffle swelled and browned enough to push up the heavy lid, Mother flipped and plated the toasty grid that Blair happily smothered with maple syrup and butter. Brent's preferred morning meal was downy pancakes, but Mother also presented us with coffee cakes and cinnamon rolls, puffy popovers, bran and blueberry muffins, and French toast sprinkled with powdered sugar or smeared with strawberry preserves. Everything was homemade.

I liked salty foods the best, and one of my favorites was Mother's version of Toad in A Hole. She buttered a piece of bread, cut into it a biscuit-sized hole, and plopped it in a skillet. As it began to slowly brown, she broke an egg into the bread's sputtering empty circle. The round piece she'd cut out was grilled as well and offered up some of the best bites.

We weren't the hash-browns-with-breakfast variety of Southerners and would guffaw at grits. Sometimes she sneaked in bowls of hot Cream of Wheat or oatmeal and then we howled. We weren't big on gruel.

What can I say now except I feel bad and we were spoiled.

***
ON SPECIAL OCCASIONS, Mother fried chicken or pork chops for breakfast and stirred up cream gravy with some of the fat and crunchy droppings that were left in the pan from the floured meat. But the best breakfast of all was the fried quail that my father, Bill, hunted and brought home as winged trophies to feed us. When he walked into the kitchen and saw Mother standing in front of her range with the scrumptious birds sizzling in the skillet, he quickly slid his palms together back and forth with glee. This was Daddy's unintentional code that he was excited or happy about anything but especially something delectable to eat.

My brothers and I were conditioned to do the same things, which was a mannerism that our friends also emulated if they hung around us long enough. The Arnolds looked like a family of preying mantises at the sight of a delicious meal. Fried quail, hot biscuits, and quail gravy was the ultimate.

Mother's pies--coconut cream and chocolate and lemon meringue, pumpkin, pecan, peanut butter, lemon ice box, egg custard, buttermilk, and more--were dreamy. Her pastry always snaked around the pie plate like it had been stenciled and was perfectly short and crisp. The fillings were luscious, and the meringues peaked in silky points like waves on the ocean.

My Grandmother Abbie, whom Mother called "Mom," regularly expressed her elation about all of Mother's appetizing meals. Grandmom had a sweet tooth and especially loved her daughter-in-law's pies. She waited for Mother's pies like Wimpy for his hamburger on the Popeye cartoons. We all did.

Then Strawberry Glazé came along. Imagine a flaky crust covered in softened cream cheese with a layer of the prettiest whole fresh berries on top of it. Mother pureed more berries and cooked them with sugar to make the glaze that was poured in and around and over the whole ones. The pie was chilled, cut, and served with a dollop of whipped cream crowning its crimson top. My father's favorite pie was lemon icebox, and others favored her egg custard, though for me Strawberry Glazé was her masterpiece.

For my birthday breakfast, I was allowed to choose whatever my lustful heart and taste buds desired, and Strawberry Glaze pie was it. The hitch was that Mother steadfastly refused to use anything but homegrown berries, and the middle of April was early for Arkansas. I had to beg and plead for her to lower her standard and use the bland California ones. "Please," I implored, "You are the Pie Queen! Since we can't get any Arkansas berries, just this once use those big tasteless California berries that are shot full of water. No one else even deserves to make Strawberry Glazé but you, and no one but you can make it perfectly!"

We both secretly knew she'd bake me the pie. The question was how much sucking up I would have to do before she showed mercy and said, yes. She enjoyed our little ritual.

***
MY MOTHER DIED four years ago this spring, and my father and brother Brent many years before. Not a day goes by that I don't wish I could call Mother for a recipe as I often did, or that Daddy could carve our turkey, and Blair, Brent, and I could stand around the platter picking the bones while Mother fussed at us.

I wish they hadn't flown away before our picking was done.