The photo on the left, circa 1919, shows college women in Texas doing what college women have always done: hanging out together, having fun.  Minus the nutcrackers and nightcaps, the image conjures fond memories of my own university experience, six decades later.

Readers are often surprised that Leola, the protagonist of my novel, ‘TIL ALL THESE THINGS BE DONE, has any hope of attending college.  After all, it’s the early 20th century, she’s an impoverished orphan from a rural Texas town and, more significantly, a woman living in a deeply misogynistic society.

Women students at the historically-black Tuskegee Institute, c. 1909.

But a hundred years ago, earning a post-secondary degree was no longer the farfetched aspiration for women that it once had been.  My own grandmother—the model for Leola—overcame similar obstacles to achieve this goal, something that would not have been possible only a couple decades earlier.

By 1920, thanks in part to improvements in K-12 education and the nascent women’s equality movement, white female students made up half of the college population.  University attendance by African-American and other women of color also increased during this period, though institutionalized segregation limited the number of schools from which they could choose.

Ironically for both my grandmother and her fictional counterpart (SPOILER-ish ALERT!), being forced to live in an orphanage far from home had an unexpected side benefit, allowing them to attend a better school system in a larger town, with more opportunities to participate in extra-curricular clubs, take higher-level courses, and earn scholarships. As in so many families, my grandmother’s educational achievement inspired subsequent generations of women to pursue higher education. By 1982, two years before I graduated college, more American women than men earned their bachelor degrees, marking a watershed moment in educational equity.

Women at Atlanta University (now Clark Atlanta U.), late 1800s. Not only was CAU the first Black college in the south, it was also the first HBCU to provide a dormitory for female students.

Today the college landscape is far different than it looked even forty years ago.  Race, ethnicity, and gender aren’t the barriers to higher education they once there, though the effects of historic racism, sexism, and economic inequality still exclude plenty of people from the so-called ‘college track.’ Ironically, the soaring cost of university tuition has caused many young people to question the value of a degree—and the one-size-fits-all prescription for success that my own generation took for granted.

Students at the College of Charleston, early 20th century.

At 19, my daughter, Sara, is one such person. Instead of dutifully tromping the now tried-and-true path from high school to college, she’s been testing the waters of life, gaining real-world experience, thinking about her future not just in terms of career or financial success but overall personal fulfillment.

It’s not easy and, sometimes, I feel anxious about it. Like moms everywhere, I want my daughter to lead an independent, meaningful life.  But maybe that’s the whole point.  As the first woman in her family to attend college, my grandmother forged ahead without a roadmap or templates, determined to live life on her own terms as much as possible. It was her way of disrupting a system that had been designed to keep women like her own mother subordinate, compliant, un-free. The fact her great-granddaughter has so many choices would seem a victory, indeed.  Go, Sara, go, I picture my grandmother cheering.  Take these wings and fly.

My grandmother, Eula, with the foster parents who helped her attend North Texas State College.

 

 

     On Christmas Eve, Leola and Auntie shopped at Laird’s, buying plump oranges and hair ribbons for both girls…Leola also spied a pair of enamel collar buttons that would suit Joe perfectly—except they cost fifty cents and she only had a nickel left of spending money.

     “Go on, child.” Auntie pressed the additional coins into Leola’s palm. “There’s nothin’ would bring me more pleasure than imagining that handsome young man spiffing up for a visit to Waxahachie and these baubles as the finishing touch.”

                                                   From ‘TIL ALL THESE THINGS BE DONE

 

The famous Jefferson General Store in Jefferson, Texas.

Several important scenes from my novel take place at Laird’s Dry Goods Store in fictional Bronway, Texas.  I found inspiration for this setting in several places, including on a research jaunt to East Texas in 2019, where I visited the quaint town of Jefferson and its famed general store.  Today the venue is a tourist mecca crammed with  pickled vegetables, unique souvenirs, home goods, and every type of candy under the sun but, a century ago, it would’ve offered mostly practical items: saddles, canned goods, sewing supplies, tools. Oh, and candy too, just maybe not 100 varieties.

The interior of Barr’s General Store in Texas, early 20th century.

In 1919, when my story begins, these businesses were also important public meeting spaces where people could trade news and gossip–and where human dramas, large and small, played out on a daily basis. The excerpt above depicts a quieter moment, one marking a brief reprieve for my protagonist, Leola, and her beloved great-aunt. In spite of their many recent setbacks, the two women are determined to make the most of the holiday, creating memories that will sustain them in the unpredictable days ahead. Which is something that feels particularly poignant to me at the moment.

The past year has been one of the most challenging of my life, marked by the publication of my first novel (woo hoo!!) but also the unrelenting health crises of people I care about. On top of that, I turned 60, my youngest child flew the nest, and, hard on the heels of  pandemic and political upheaval, I–like so many others–have found myself reckoning as never before with where I’ve been and what my future might hold.

This vintage collar button/cufflink reminds me of the ones Leola gives Joe at Christmas.

Our 2022 Christmas tree says it all.

I’ve always been a sucker for the winter holidays.  I love giving gifts, decorating, listening to jingly music, eating good food.  This year however it’s been all I could manage to buy a small Charlie Brown-style tree and throw some lights on it.  Yet I’ve also felt joy in the warm hug of a friend, an offer of help from a neighbor, personal messages from readers who have found special
meaning in my novel.

Christmas for Malvina and Leola marks a literal milestone in their lives, and the uncertainty they face seems daunting.  But as for all of us, the present is their present,  the only thing they can count on for sure, a miracle in spite of its hardship.  And the compassion they bring to others and themselves is the brightest bauble of all.   I hope your holiday season brings many such gifts, whatever your circumstance.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Leola did a mental inventory of their food supplies—a small side of ham, whatever eggs the chickens might lay, p’rhaps ten jars of vegetables, some cornmeal. Seemed they would go hungry if they weren’t careful—a thought that made her stomach clench like she was starving already.

From ‘TIL ALL THESE THINGS BE DONE

 

‘Tis the season to rub our bellies and moan that we’ve eaten too much.  But in the American south of a hundred years ago–the setting for my novel–being stuffed to the gills was a woefully rare sensation.

A family of immigrant Czechoslovakian cotton-pickers in east Texas.

The southern United States was an agrarian economy for much of its history, a lopsided hierarchy in which the tiny percentage of haves (landowners, crop merchants) depended on a steady supply of have-nots for cheap, unskilled labor: first enslaved peoples then, after the Civil War, their descendants, intentionally kept from other forms of employment by draconian Jim Crow laws. When Blacks began fleeing the south for slightly more amenable conditions elsewhere, immigrants, displaced Mexican and native peoples, and poor White children filled in the gaps. (Though even the most undervalued White workers earned higher wages than their Black counterparts.)

Ironic, that most of the people who tilled these rich soils rarely benefited from its bounty, instead eking slender sustenance from what few resources they did possess—a patch of dooryard garden, an overworked mule, inexpensive preservation techniques.  And it was women, the age-old arbiters of nutrition, who turned those hard-won provisions into survival.

Below, some of the building blocks of that barely-getting-by cuisine, foods my protagonist, Leola, savors as people do when they’re not sure where their next meal is coming from.

For many Texans, real cornbread is always baked in a square pan, never a round one. My own family used a cast-iron mold like this one, passed down through generations.

Cornbread. Corn was a cheap source of essential carbohydrates. To enhance the flavor of cornmeal batters, cooks added pork rinds or cracklings (the fatty skin of the pig) and especially in Texas, Mexican-inspired seasonings like jalapenos and green or red peppers.

Antique corn sheller from late 1800s-early 1900s.

Once out of the oven, sorghum syrup (or ribbon-cane syrup on Sundays, if you were lucky) gave corn cakes and breads a tangy sweetness, while home-churned butter added additional richness. Or a person could just crumble a hunk of cornbread straight into a rich creamy glass of cold buttermilk and call it a day.  Many Texans argue that no real southerner would use expensive sugar in their cornbread batter, though South Carolinians might disagree.  Having known folks on both sides of this argument, I wouldn’t dare play referee.

 

 

Anything, and I Mean Everything, From a Pig

Lard was an essential ingredient in cooking. In this early 1900s illustration, women render lard during a hog-killing.

If you were vegetarian in 1919 Texas, it was probably late winter and you’d run out of meat, with the next hog-killing weeks away. Certainly, surviving without protein—that essential source of energy and brain function—was less a choice than a death sentence.

As this ad from a Waxahachie (TX) newspaper attests, hog-killing was only done when the weather was cool; otherwise the meat would spoil.

Pigs were cheaper to raise than other meats and yielded a huge return on investment, since nearly every bit of their bodies could be harvested for human consumption or use in food preparation: belly and hocks, lard, shoulders, ‘side meat’, brains, feet, even the ears (pickled)!  The aforementioned cracklings, made from the thickest part of the pig’s skin, were not only delicious in cornbread but also eaten like potato chips–and were, supposedly, just as addicting. Homemade lard was supposedly much more flavorful than the kind sold in bakery aisles today, and was often used straight out of the vat as a spread for biscuits and corncakes.

Though modern readers might cringe at the hog-slaughtering scene in my novel, for those involved it was always an occasion to celebrate.As Leola puts it, she didn’t relish the labor but liked the food that came from it—relied upon that food to survive the winter and trade for basic necessities. The four pigs they butchered each year, which Mama raised from tiny piglets, were everything.

Chitlins, or chitterlings, were the small intestine of the pig, often served fried.

 

 

 

Collard Greens

This highly-nutritious, leafy member of the cabbage family has often been associated with the history of African-Americans. Though it was actually native to the Mediterranean, not Africa, greens were one of the few crops enslaved people were ‘allowed’ to raise for personal consumption.

Modern slow cookers are great for tenderizing greens. Click on the photo for a recipe.

 

Over the centuries, Black chefs also developed effective techniques for modifying the plant’s fibrous texture and acrid flavor, namely by stewing it for hours with onions, ham hocks, or chicken fat.  After the Civil War, African-Americans shared their knowledge of cultivating and preparing collards with newly-destitute White people who would’ve starved otherwise, a bitter irony that no amount of seasoning can disguise.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Mayhaw berries.

Some of my best childhood memories of visiting my Texan grandparents involve food: fried chicken as crispy outside as it was tender inside; black-eyed beans stewed with ham hocks or bacon; iced tea so sweet, it made my teeth ache.

But before I began researching this novel, I’d never heard of the mayhaw berry, an East Texas delicacy especially popular in the early 20th century, when the story takes place.  Back then, this succulent crimson fruit was prized as the main ingredient in mayhaw jelly, which some fans describe as tasting like a cross between peach, apple, and apricot.

As with so many things humans crave, part of the berry’s allure probably derived from how hard it was to procure. In their wild state, mayhaw bushes grow in the same marshy, tangled ravines and riverbeds also favored by snakes, scorpions, and poisonous weeds, which is why picking their fruit, according to one expert, ranks right up there with the Indian rites for achieving manhood.”  Nowadays you don’t have to expend quite as much effort to find mayhaws, which are often cultivated in orchards and sold at farmer’s markets or, in their jellied form, by purveyors of trademark Texas food. (Though some people, like Duck Dynasty star, Phil Robertson, prefer to make it at home.)

Mayhaws also show up in several key scenes involving my protagonist, Leola, and her great-aunt, Malvina Hughes. Though I couldn’t find recipes from that era calling specifically for mayhaw berries, I had to imagine someone like Malvina—a spinster of little economic means but endless resourcefulness—would have found good use for them in her famed desserts, especially the berry trifle Leola adores. Malvina’s recipe is one of those dishes everyone tries to emulate but that never comes out quite right, probably because in ‘sharing’ the recipe, she (inadvertently or not) leaves out some key component or step.

And so it is a moment of particular significance when, faced with their impending separation, Malvina gifts this one closely-held secret to Leola. It’s not the mystery Auntie wishes she could solve—the one that would save her great-niece from her current painful circumstance.  But over Leola’s lifetime, it serves as a reminder of her kinswoman’s dauntless spirit–and the sustenance she provided during the darkest of days.

 

Old Maid’s Convention, Wisconsin (early 1900s)

Old Maid’s Conventions were all the rage in America during the early 20th century. These events, usually held as charity fundraisers, invited the public to watch as young women paraded about in spinster attire while a narrator described their marital ineligibility: this one loved picture shows more than men; that one couldn’t cook; another dreamed of adventure instead of domestic bliss.

After disappearing behind a curtain or inside a large carton labeled, “The Makeover Machine”, the girls would reemerge, sporting more fashionable gowns and attitudes, convinced by Dr. Makeover there was no greater achievement in life than landing a good husband.

New York State spinster-actors.

By around 1920, when my novel takes place, these events had begun waning in popularity, thanks in part to the woman’s suffrage movement and greater educational opportunity (for white females, at least).  But the virulent sexism they reflected was still widespread, especially in deep South states like Texas. In writing my novel, it was all too easy to imagine a similar affair happening in the rural town where my protagonist, Leola, lives as a young adult. Though she considers such spectacles ridiculous (and has just broken up with her sweetheart besides), Leola grudgingly participates in one benefiting the Smith County Free Kindergarten Association.  Little can she imagine that the pageant will inspire her to speak a controversial truth, defying the very notions of femininity it promotes.

 

Many towns, like Salisbury, NC, had their own Old Maids Associations, composed of married woman who put on entertainments like the popular play, “The Old Maid’s Convention.” Elsewhere, members would pose as ‘desperate’ single women, inviting the public—especially bachelors—to ‘take their pick,’ only afterwards revealing the prank.

 

♦ Subscribe to my blog for an upcoming post about early photography and how it inspired a major plot point of my novel, ‘Til All These Things Be Done. ♦