501 Life Magazine | Mountain memories
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Mountain memories

Story and photos
by Janna Virden

Each May, like so many other close-knit communities across the South, the people who live on Petit Jean Mountain come together for Decoration and Homecoming Day at the Petit Jean Mountain Cemetery.  

Bettye Henderson, who helps organize the potluck and annual meeting of the Petit Jean Mountain Cemetery Association, remembers attending the annual Decoration and Homecoming as a child. “My grandmother always held tight to my hand to keep me from stumbling on a stone,” she said.   

Many of the graves from the 1860s and 1870s have stones without names. However, the people of the mountain know. They have kept their history and memories alive.  

The first to be buried were two little girls in 1854. The third was Henderson’s great- great-grandfather, Amos Johnson.

Around 100 people come for the fourth Sunday in May from all parts of the country.  Henderson said it is usually an older crowd. “So often when you’re young, you aren’t as interested, but as you grow older you develop a feeling and an understanding.”

Traditionally, people gather in the morning to clean and decorate the graves of those who have gone before and then join together for a potluck meal. Henderson said in the past the meal was served on the grounds of the cemetery, but now is served at the Lutheran Camp dining hall. She said everyone seems to know just what dish to bring. Because of the excellent choice of food being served, she decided one year to gather recipes and make a Petit Jean Mountain Homecoming Cookbook.

Small cemeteries like the one on Petit Jean Mountain are a reflection of the history of the place and people who settled the area and their families who continue to renew their spiritual connection with their ancestors, as well as build memories with friends and family each year one weekend in May.

Here are just a few of the Petit Jean Homecoming Cookbook recipes:

Yellow Squash Pickles
by Vestal Bratcher

1 gallon sliced squash
1/4 cup salt
5 cups sugar
5 cups vinegar
2 teaspoons turmeric
8 onions, sliced
2 large bell peppers, chopped

Cover squash with water and let soak for 3 hours. Bring squash to a boil. Drain squash and add to the remaining ingredients. Bring it to a boil again. Can in jars.

Hush Puppies
by Leonard “Red” Simmons

1 cup flour
1 cup cornmeal
Pinch of salt
Pinch of baking soda
1 egg
1 medium onion, minced

Mix flour, cornmeal, salt and soda. Add egg and buttermilk until it is the right consistency to hold its shape when rolled into a ball. Mix in onion. Shape into balls about 1 to 2 inches across. Drop into hot oil in which fish has been cooked. Deep fry until they are brown and crispy. Drain on paper and serve hot.

Deep-fried Catfish
by Leonard “Red” Simmons

Use either the whole fish or pieces of fish. Heat fat to 370 degrees. Beat 2 eggs lightly and dip the fish into the beaten egg mixture. Roll in cornmeal. Fry for 3 to 5 minutes.  Drain and season. Serve with hush puppies.

Freezer Slaw
by Maxine Bolin

1 large head of cabbage
1 tablespoon salt

To cabbage, add salt and let set one hour. Squeeze out water and add:

2 chopped green peppers
4 celery sticks, chopped
4 small carrots, chopped
1 tablespoon celery seed
1 tablespoon mustard seed

Boil 2 cups sugar with 1 cup vinegar for 1 minute. Let mixture cool and add to the cabbage and freeze. Remove from freezer, thaw and serve. Note: This is a good way to use up some extra cabbage from gardens.

Four Seasons’ Dandelion
and Egg Salad
by Ettie M. Gilley

1 1/2 lbs. dandelion leaves (organic)
3 tablespoons French dressing
2 hard-cooked eggs

Use very young leaves. Wash leaves and tear into 1 1/2-inch pieces. Toss with French dressing. Sieve whites and yolks of eggs separately and sprinkle both on top of the salad. Serve with croutons. To make dressing, combine 2 tablespoons vinegar or lemon juice, 6 tablespoons vegetable or olive oil and salt and freshly ground pepper to taste. Beat mixture.

Coconut Cream Pie
by Ruby Montgomery

1/2 cup sugar
4 tablespoons flour
1/4 teaspoon salt
3 eggs
2 cups milk
1 cup shredded coconut
1 teaspoon vanilla
1 teaspoon butter

Combine sugar, flour and salt. Add to well-beaten eggs and milk in a saucepan. Cook until thickened, stirring constantly. Add vanilla, coconut and butter. Cool. Pour into a baked pie shell.

You can add 4 or 5 drops of lemon juice. Top with meringue and brown in hot oven.