You don’t need a time machine to revisit the past. What you need is the right meal. Last night I had a big bowl full of “wilted lettuce” that took me right back to 1983.
As soon as the first forkful hit my mouth, I was a kid again having Sunday lunch in Ethel, Arkansas – a tiny, dirt-road town in Southern Arkansas where my Grandma and Grandpa lived and spent their 70s doting on grandkids and their garden.
Wilted lettuce salad isn’t a name that gets your mouth watering, I admit. It sounds like something you throw out of the crisper drawer after it’s hung around too long. But my Grandma and her sister, Aunt Eunice, made wilted lettuce a country culinary art form. As soon as we arrived at their house for Sunday lunch and spotted a bowl of it on their kitchen table, I’d squeal as if Christmas had come in June.
Here’s the three-step process you’ll need if you want to create Southern wilted lettuce. I know you’re skeptical, but once you eat it, you’ll believe it. Step 1: Cut fresh lettuce from the garden. Step 2: Chop it up and toss it in a bowl with green onions, radishes, tomatoes, a hard-boiled egg, and a bit of sugar and vinegar. Step 3: (And here’s where it gets truly Southern and delicious) Douse it with bacon grease and crumble the bacon into the salad bowl like a meaty garnish.
When you drizzle hot bacon grease over garden-fresh lettuce, something magical happens. The lettuce soaks it up, as if it somehow knows that it’s been missing out on a fabulous party up until this moment. All that leafy green goodness helps you forget about the grease that might be clogging your arteries a little more with every bite. This dish is the perfect combination of good and evil, Heaven and Hell, sensible diet and sinful indulgence – all mixed up in one big bowl.
Lettuce and bacon grease are the Romeo and Juliet of the food world – star-crossed ingredients that shouldn’t go together but, when they touch, they’re no denying the chemistry.
As I sat there scraping every shred of lettuce out of the bowl, I kept expecting to see my great Aunt Eunice shuffle into the room holding one of her Word Search books. She passed away several years ago at the age of 105, but that meal made her seem so present again, as if we’d hear her voice any moment or see her head out the screen door toward the chicken coop to collect the eggs.
That’s one of the great things about food – how certain combinations, smells and textures can bring us home again. It can flood our minds with memories we didn’t even know were still in there, just waiting for the right moment to resurface.
After the salad bowl was empty, I chased the last bite with a glass of sweet tea, knowing full well I’ll have to walk several miles to make up for the free-for-all at the dinner table. So be it. Some meals are just worth it.
And even though I’m not skilled in the kitchen the way my Grandma and Aunt Eunice were and the way my mother still is, this lovely trip down wilted lettuce lane has made me realize I should learn to cook a signature dish that my kids truly love. So that decades from now, even long after I’m gone, they’ll sit down to a plate of food that makes them feel like I’m right around the corner and might pop in any second to ruffle their hair, give them a hug and remind them to take those dirty dishes to the sink.
Gwen Rockwood is a mom to three great kids, wife to one cool guy, a newspaper columnist and co-owner of nwaMotherlode.com. To read previously published installments of The Rockwood Files, click here. To check out Gwen’s new book, “Reporting Live from the Laundry Pile: The Rockwood Files Collection,” click HERE.
Photo credit: Lisa Mac Photography