Feasting at the Parson’s Table

By Don Bingham

One such family, the Roy W. Ward family, continues to have a profound influence through their love for good food and great fellowship, obtained through the ministry of The Ward Family Singers. The eight children of Roy and Mamie Lillian Richardson Ward (1902-1972) were accomplished musicians, writers, entertainers, politicians, entrepreneurs, professional photographers and marketers, traveling nurses, professional soloists in many genres, and most of all — great cooks! 

Front row, from left: Marketa Evans, Loweta Turney, John Ward, Bobby Ward, Joe Ward, Bill Ward and Judy Roach. Back Row: Betty Ward, Billy Jack Roach, Jo Ward, Dena Ward and Suzy Ward.

Bill Ward remembers, “When I begin to access my memory bank, I truly marvel at what all my Mom did in the course of a day in fixing three meals and caring for a preacher husband who always looked like he emerged from Berdorf Goodman’s, and she still fed 10 mouths, including her live-in father, Revered G.L. Richardson.”

Over many decades, the family recipe favorites have survived the test of time and were compiled in “The Ward Family Cookbook” in 1995 (no longer in print). Judy Ward Roach recalls the days of the aroma of their mom’s skillet cake as it made a regular appearance, always served with fresh strawberries. Suzy Ward, late wife of Bill Ward, would make amazing butter rolls, old-fashioned rolls made in a cast iron skillet, baked in the oven, then completed cooking on top of the stove. The final step in the butter rolls’ completion was to finish cooking by pouring boiling water over the browned rolls, allowing the water to form the thick, rich sauce on top of the stove. Joe and Dena Ward, John and Betty Ward, and several other couples were members of a Supper Club, and recipes from those days made their appearance in potlucks through all these years to the present day. Marketa Evans and Loweta Turney were great storytellers; Marketa’s sour cream waffles were available most Saturday mornings for friends to stop by for enjoyment.

Meals and fellowship were regulars at “the Ward family farm” and many were honored to be invited to join Joe and Dena Ward for amazing home-cooked meals. The influence goes deeper than a brief article could ever express as a wider community thinks of faith in the 501. This family added a rich heritage that continues on with its color, vibrancy, and sense of blessed fellowship through their musical recordings and amazing recipes. The recipes included in this article are from “The Ward Family Cookbook.”

Bill Ward has written two books about Conway: “Conway As It Was … As It Is” and “Beyond the River … Stories of Life Near the Arkansas.”  They are available ad billwardphotography.com.

Aunt Maggie’s Rolls

2 sticks butter, melted and cooled

2 1/2 cups warm water

3 cups flour

3/4 cups sugar

2 packages dry yeast

2 eggs

1 tablespoon salt

Preheat oven to 375 degrees. Dissolve yeast in warm water. Add sugar, salt, butter and eggs. Add flour one cup at a time. Beat well after each flour addition. Turn into a greased bowl; cover and let rise in the refrigerator for at least an hour. Punch down rolls and pinch pieces of dough for desired size and gently roll between palms of hands to form a round ball. Place on a greased or parchment covered cookie sheet and bake. Based upon the size of rolls, makes approximately 24 rolls.

Ham Bone and Cornmeal Dumplings

1 large, left-over ham bone

2 cups cornmeal

2 eggs

3 chopped green onions

pepper and salt to taste

Cover the ham bone with water and boil until all the meat drops off the bone. Remove fat and bone from broth. Meat should remain in liquid broth. Mix the cornmeal, eggs, chopped green onions, salt and pepper to taste, and add enough broth to make dumplings stick together. Drop small dumplings into the boiling broth. Cook, covered for about 20 minutes. Adjust amounts of broth, ham, and dumplings according to the number to be fed. This recipe would feed approximately four servings.

Blackberry Cobbler

4 cups blackberries

1 3/4 cups sugar

1/4 cup water

1/8 teaspoon salt

1/2 stick butter

CRUST

1 1/2 cups flour
3/4 cup shortening
6 Tablespoons cold water
1 teaspoon salt

To make the filling, wash berries. Combine first 5 ingredients in a saucepan, simmer until sugar dissolves. Drop small pieces of dough into the simmering mixture and cook until the dumplings are done and juice is slightly thickened. Pour into a baking dish and top with crust. Dot with additional butter and sprinkle with sugar. Bake at 375 degrees until the crust is golden brown.

To make the crust, cut shortening into flour. Add salt and water and mix with a fork until dough follows the fork around the bowl. Roll out into a 1/8-inch sheet and cut into strips for dumplings, saving one sheet large enough to cover the pan used for cobbler.

My Mom’s Butter Rolls

1 1/2 cups buttermilk

1/2 teaspoon salt

1/2 teaspoon soda

1 heaping tablespoon shortening

21/2 – 3 cups flour

1- 2 sticks butter, very soft and spreadable, but not melted

2 cups granulated sugar (approximately, as a thick layer of sugar is sprinkled over buttered dough)

vanilla to dot top of unbaked rolls

2 cups (approximately) boiling water

Mix buttermilk, salt, soda, shortening and flour to make heavier, biscuit-like dough. Roll out in rectangular shape, 1/8 of an inch thick. Spread butter over dough, being careful not to tear the dough. Sprinkle with granulated sugar. Gently roll up, jelly roll style, and cut with knife or scissors into 1 ½ inch sections. Place cut rolls into a buttered cast iron skillet and place in preheated oven (400 degrees) and dot each roll with vanilla. Bake until golden brown, 15-20 minutes.

Remove rolls and pour boiling water (approximately 2 cups) on top of rolls and continue to simmer on top of the stove until the sauce thickens.

Churned Butter

I visit my mother’s kitchen often, remembering and reliving breakfast in the making. I hear her softly whistling or humming as she goes about her work, at peace in her world. She died in 1972 at the age of sixty-seven.

Her biscuits were the stuff of legend, which enlarged over the years as family members experimented with portions, each cupping their fingers just like she did, attempting to master her result and mostly ending in not quite. I see Mom’s stubby little hands, deftly pampering dough she had produced with practiced amounts of ingredients in her wooden bowl of flour. Laughing and telling stories, she would take a pinch of dough, form a ball, then press it gently with the back of her folded fingers into the pan before placing into a hot oven. If a bit of dough was left over she would make tiny biscuits tucked into the corners, which we would fight over. The whole process was so natural, almost routine.

Taking one of those piping hot biscuits from a piled-high platter and slipping a chunk of Mom’s freshly churned butter inside was the crown of breakfast. Warm sorghum dribbled on top sure didn’t hurt, but that oozing butter with its rich texture made the wait worthwhile. Nothing like it these days.

I think I began to realize the beauty of those biscuits about the time I started noticing the world in general, or at least details of such, when we lived in tiny Damascus, Arkansas, in the foothills of the Arkansas Ozarks. But Mom had been baking them for decades and I certainly had devoured my share. We had moved to the little town a year earlier, and as happens to young boys turning thirteen I was awakening to a different way of seeing, maybe just noticing.

~~~

It was about fifteen years later on a crisp October morning in nineteen sixty-seven when I arrived at Mom and Dad’s farm in rural Bee Branch, in the foothills of the Arkansas Ozarks. Some of us, with kids in tow, visited them nearly every weekend now, as it had been only a few months since my little brother, the youngest of their eight children, had died as a result of an automobile crash. He was only 21, and the shock had been overwhelming.

Mom met us at the door, the morning light emphasizing that smile which seemed to occupy her entire face. It was enduring and genuine, the signature of a personality that welcomed anyone, but was beaming brighter today as her children and grandchildren fluttered about. She lived for her family.

The aroma of baking biscuits and frying bacon filled the house that morning as the two of us, finally together in the kitchen, quietly caught up on our week. As she talked, instead of waving her hands emphasizing a story, she was now using a common table knife, dipping it in warm water and putting finishing touches to the edges of just-turned-out butter from her prized “wheat shock” mold.

This butter was the result of an earlier activity involving a tall crockery churn with a wooden plunger. I remember as a kid getting the churning assignment. You sat in a chair, the churn in front or beside you, and experienced a lasting lesson in patience as the steady up and down motion of the plunger through properly prepared milk would finally yield that popular staple of farm life—fresh butter.

Mom now worked the knife like a sculptor, using delicate strokes and taking pride in every detail until that mound was nothing short of fine art. My life’s profession whispered, and I knew I had to capture the moment on film. I begged her not to serve it up yet as she would take up the biscuits and gather all the family.

I quickly retrieved my camera and tripod and set up a makeshift studio in the back room, placing a green cloth over a small table and finding a miniature churn for a prop. A northeast window provided light to emphasize flecks of butter clinging to the mold as I snapped the shutter and then personally delivered that saucer of gold to our waiting family in the dining room where those biscuits and everything else making country breakfast awaited.

I later titled the photograph Mother’s Butter. But really it’s a picture of love.

Mom whistled and hummed her way through life, always with an attitude of inspiration and discovery—cooking, cleaning, and caring for a large family. Only a few times do I remember her without her apron, usually on Sunday while at church. She treated us all the same, never even asking if we had done our homework, confident we’d do the right thing. Counseling was rare, her demeanor of tolerance and acceptance of others serving as our compass.

I failed to tell her what a beautiful role model she had been, somehow assuming she would live on. And so she does, now a half-century later. I miss her every single day, and sometimes catch myself whistling, though not very well, and I am prone to hum, until someone close by says “What?” as if I was speaking.

Maybe I was. Just trying to be like Mom.

Beckoning Roads—A Memoir

Bill Ward

Don Bingham