manners, respect for adults, ability to share and to get along with
others, all admirable traits to instill in children, do we all agree?
My parents saw this as paramount to our upbringing, mine and my
brother's, and did a fine job of getting us to the point that we
could be dressed up and taken out in public without their having
to worry we might “make a spectacle”, an oft heard phrase we heard
just before we walked out the door to go out to any social occasion.
Most of the responsibility and, therefore, the worry, fell to my
These lessons were established pretty well somewhere in grade school,
but I came close to breaking training in a big way when I was in
my mid teens. My mother and stepfather had become acquainted with
a group of people living in the nearby rice farming community of
just east of Beaumont,
and they frequently got together on weekends to socialize, play
dominoes, have barbecues, get a band together to play music and
dance and go fishing in the canals. A good many of the folks were
of Louisiana French extraction and were gregarious, friendly and
welcoming. I occasionally went along with them since there were
boys and girls near my age. On one occasion a lady was throwing
a fortieth birthday party for her husband. They owned a small country
store on the main road and their house was set behind this. She
had promised there would be a large array of dishes and my mother
and many of the neighbors contributed some, too. We arrived, did
some “chumming and gumming” and then Mrs. Rose announced that lunch
was ready. Mama and I let the others go first and finally had our
Mrs. Rose had told Mama ahead of time to be prepared to taste her
famous court-bouillon (she pronounced it 'koo-be-yohn') that everyone
always praised to the heights. I had no idea what it was, and years
later I read about a French dish with the same name consisting of
a flavorful clear broth. The giant pan with warmers underneath was
nothing like that. It was a rich, red, thick, tomatoey, Creole style
stew with chunks fish and shrimp generously distributed throughout,
and it smelled and looked delicious. I was never a picky eater save
for 3 things in earlier childhood, liver, canned spinach and fruit
nectars. I was anxious to try the court-bouillon poured over hot
steaming rice, so I moved nearer to Mama. Right about the time I
got a close look at the chunks of fish, I also got a sideways kick
on my right ankle from my normally civilized mother. I was transfixed
with horror, and she hissed in my ear “Don't say anything, Sissy.
Put a bunch of the sauce over your rice and take some shrimp and
a couple of pieces of the fish, but don't say a word. Don't you
dare make a face, either, you hear me?” She needn't have worried.
The only face I could make was one of wide-eyed, slack jawed, Bambi-caught-in-the-headlights
terror. As for speaking, I had been struck dumb. The fish chunks
were, in fact, lots and lots of fish heads, eyes staring back at
me, bobbing and bubbling in their liquid death brew.
The ground didn't open up and swallow me, lightning didn't strike
the long table filled with food as I fervently hoped, no angel showed
up to whisk me to Heaven so I could avoid eating what I was convinced
was going to be fish brains, eyeballs and lips, but my stepfather
Bill showed up from his domino game ready to eat. Mr. Tact looked
at the stew, looked at me, then at my plate and read the situation.
Apparently he hadn't been taught manners growing up in Hope, Arkansas
because he “near 'bout fell out laughing." When he could breathe
again he started telling all and sundry what was going on, and nothing
my mother could say would shut him up. Mrs. Rose was back in the
kitchen getting ready to set out a horse trough of dirty rice, so
I don't think she heard, but everyone else in the room did. I prayed
for them to keep it to themselves so Mrs. Rose's feelings wouldn't
be hurt. When I started to water up, Bill finally took pity on me
and scraped Wynken, Blynken and Nod onto his plate.
Ah, home free. The gods were smiling on me after all, or so I thought.
Mrs. Rose came out of the kitchen to see if we had gotten our plates,
told us to dig in to the dirty rice, and when she saw my clean plate,
she insisted I have more of her signature dish.
© Frances Giles
"True Confessions and Mild Obsessions"
July 8, 2015 Column
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