It might be the first holiday meal I’ve ever had without a congealed salad, a green bean casserole with those french-fried onion-ring things and guilt. I know it’s the first I’ve ever had by candlelight.
Nobody said, “Turn on the lights; I can’t see a thing,” like my former father-in-law used to insist whenever we’d try to use candles instead of the harsh overhead light. Nobody said that because there were no lights to turn on, no electricity – or running water, for that matter.
There was, however, good company, a tablecloth – albeit the wrinkly vinyl kind – a toasty wood-burning stove, red candles and a reasonably convenient outhouse.
Christmas at the Pine Flats Sportsman’s Club is rudimentary but wonderful, with a big jar of pigs’ feet for a centerpiece, appropriate because it is a reddish color and, in dim light, quite pretty. On a Styrofoam plate, I was served the so-called “seafood platter” of sardines and crackers.
Some years at the hunting club, it’s just Edro Williams and Whiskey Gray, the two men who, after their respective divorces from first wives, started the holiday tradition of eating in the dark and swapping stories. They have kept it up for 21 years. In the past, I’d often hear one or both recount how they avoided the hustle and hassle of regular holiday get-togethers and opted for this simpler, Spartan, red-blooded version of a celebration. I always was envious.
This year they eventually were joined by half a dozen hunters straggling in from the cold, by Cowboy and Bobcat, and Rerun and Jam-up (aka Bullet), Dave, Steve and by me.
I felt privileged to have been invited – I had hinted broadly – and went in the spirit of good investigative journalism. I’m probably the first woman to be included, and only due to extraordinary circumstances, so I tried to keep quiet and not make them sorry they broke their own rules.
It wouldn’t have done to be a picky eater. So I sampled everything, including the pigs’ feet, which, for my money, made better decoration than food. But I absolutely loved the hoop cheese and potted meat and souse meat and pickled eggs and sardines packed in mustard, my favorite kind. We washed it all down with, well, never mind what we washed it down with. Tishomingo is a dry county, so whatever we had was harmless enough.
The men talked about a wild hog one of them had killed, about how much it had weighed and where their deer dogs had run and how cold it was outside and how some fellow tried to kill his father by poisoning his food but it didn’t work. Nobody worried about which fork to use or whether the sweater they bought Aunt Sally was the right color. This was about as easy a celebration as you could ever have, unless you were to go the total hermit route – which, however tempting during the holidays, cannot be sustained by the sane for long.
I couldn’t help but think of all the years when I tried to put the spit-shine on holiday meals, when I ironed vintage tablecloths and polished the silver plate and put soft music on the stereo and used the napkins that had that hint of sparkle in them. Every effort was a disaster, and I burned the rolls or the casserole or both, and spilled cranberry sauce juice on the vintage tablecloth.
Whiskey cleaned up – I didn’t have to lift a finger – and sorted the garbage the way you might in Holland: aluminum, glass, other. And I got in my car and drove into the sunset a wiser, calmer woman in dire need of a nap and Tums.
Rheta Grimsley Johnson is a syndicated columnist. She lives in the Iuka vicinity. Contact her at Iuka, MS 38852.
Rheta Grimsley Johnson