Sunday, March 29, 2015


Chambliss Strong was a woman who knew her strengths; she was a widow-woman with four little chirrun, and she made their living in the Fifties by doing three  things she did really well:  Ironing, Ice Cream and Chitlins, but never at the same time---all things had their season.

 She cooked for folks, right there in her own kitchen.     In Summer, she took orders for makin’s of boiled custard for ice cream, and she “took milk and cream” from the Reids, whose several cows, in conjunction with the hens, furnished all of Mrs. Reid’s butter-and-egg money for clothing her family and providing little extras like tablets and pencils and toys for the little ones, and a now-and-then trip to the picture show in the next-town-over.

Chambliss ordered many gallons of milk-with-cream and many dozens of eggs for each Thursday during the warm months.   She bought the milk raw, because she was gonna cook it anyway; and homogenized---unh-unh.   She wanted that big float of fresh cream on top, unskimmed and so rich you could stand a spoon in it.

The milk cost thirty-five cents a gallon, the eggs, two cents apiece, and the sugar, eight cents a pound---two cups being  a pound.    If the folks wanted add-ins like fresh peaches or strawberries or bananas, they could mash ‘em up and stir them in to their own taste, right there at home, before they started up the freezer.  

Chambliss spent all day Friday and Saturday at the stove, paddle-stirring the big pots of custard, one by one, as the mixture heated, began to rise a little thread of steam, then was scrupulously bottom-scrape-stirred for a few moments, to prevent sticking or burning.   She’d lift the paddle, cast a practiced eye on the liquid adhering, and then draw a clean finger through the silky coat.   If the line stayed parted like the Red Sea, the custard was ready; if it ran back together like covering the pursuers---it took a minute or two more.

A stack of twenty-five-pound bags of Domino were a bright golden light in her store-room, and when it was time for the chirrun to walk around to Mr. Jake’s with the little wagon for more, she rotated the on-the-floor supply to put the oldest on top.   So there in the house, she had all her ingredients, ready and waiting, when she got up on Friday morning.

Why, sometimes, she bought more vanilla from the Watkins man than The Busy Bee Caffay, world-famous for their pies, and Sturgeon’s Touch of Elegance Bakery, put together.  

She’d start on Friday mornings, before the kids woke, and have two or more pots done before they came in for their breakfast.     Each gallon took eight egg yolks, three cups of sugar, with a third-of-a-cup of flour and a dash of salt mixed into the dry sugar, then two quarts of milk, and a quart of cream, skimmed off all the jugs first, and left to itself in quarts in the ice tubs. 

  Chambliss had the motions and the order of things down to a personal science---mix flour and sugar while heating the milk gently in the big pot; beat eggs into the f/s mixture and stir in a little of the milk.   Quick-stir the little mixture into the now-scalded milk, then onto the fire for the paddle-cooking and finger-tracking.   The cream and good glug of fragrant vanilla went in last, after the whole thing came off the fire.

 She strained the custard, cooled it a bit, then funnel-poured it into the cleaned milk jugs, and set each jug into the  waiting tub of icy water out in the shade, where the fresh cold gallons of milk had stood. Folks knew the time of their turn, and would pick up the jugs all day---they were all the same vanilla custard---bringing back their clean jugs from the last order. 
The scrupulous scrubbing and scalding of pots and the sanitizing of the returned jugs had their place in the order of the day, as well---Chambliss didn't trust anybody's dish-washing or sanitizing but her own---who KNEW if they’d just given that jug a peremptory rinse to get the skimmin’s out.
Once one of the Jenkins boys, careless and slouchy and eager to be off with his friends, delivered home one of Chambliss' fresh gallons of milk in his hurry, and at church the next morning, you could still see the red mark on his ear from his Mama's pinch as she sent him scurrying back for the right jug.

Chambliss charged a dollar-and-a-half a gallon for that ice cream, only going up to a dollar-seventy-five when Mrs. Reid had to increase the costs of milk and eggs, and folks lined up for a niche in the Ice Cream Customer list---some of the ladies prized their places in her clientele as closely as their Standing Appointments at the Chat and Curl, and guarded both accordingly.    Even invitations to parties sometimes included the words, “Chambliss’s Ice Cream,” and even if not printed on, the mention was sure to guarantee a good attendance.


Her business from April to the first touch of Fall kept her own children in tablets and pencils and school clothes, and her cakes and three-days-available to cook for showers and teas and Missionary Society gatherings and such provided them a modest living, almost without her having to leave home.  

Every time she’d take a warm jug of the creamy mixture out to the tub, Chambliss would wring out a clean washrag in the icy water and wash her face and the back of her neck.    And some days, after the ten-or-twelve hours of boiling heat in that confined kitchen, and after the children were all asleep, she’d go out into the seclusion of her dark back yard and stand in one of the tubs, pouring pitcher after pitcher over her head and down her tired body, before she went inside for her bath.   She always Cloroxed the tub thoroughly  afterwards---her fastidious nature and sense of fair play wouldn’t allow for anything else.

With the coming of Fall, the drawing-in caused all those old hand-cranks and churn models to be cleaned up and retired to sheds and garages.   She still did ironing every week, and then came Chitlin’ Time, but that’s another story.

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