Sunday Fatback

As a child, she saw only the difference between the simple food in her home and the fancier fare on her friends’ tables. Years later, she would see more clearly.

“Tell me what you eat, and I will tell you what you are.”

—French gastronome Jean Anthelme Brillat-Savarin
The Physiology of Taste, 1826

Mama hated to cook. She fried chicken until it was shoe leather. Her biscuits came from a can she slammed open on the counter.

It didn’t help that Daddy refused to try new foods. Daddy worked on the water, fishing, shrimping, crabbing, clamming, oystering. If supper wasn’t one of those—fried—he usually insisted on hog meat of some sort. Mama served this with vegetables that she had cooked to mush, seasoned with a particular piece of the hog—the fatback.

Fatback’s name is literal. It is the layer of fat from a hog’s back. It is cured in salt. And is cheap—in those days about nineteen cents a pound. Mama used it to season her vegetables, and she’d typically fry a few strips to put on the table. Usually, when Mama cooked fatback, I cut my piece into little squares divided by the fat, the rind, and the thin stripe of meat that prompted some to call it streak o’ lean. I nibbled the fat first, then gnawed the rind, and saved the streak for last. It tasted good with cornbread.

But three times a year, Mama would rise above her workaday cooking to create one dish so delicate, so much the taste of home, that Daddy and I rejoiced when she made it. At Thanksgiving, Christmas, and one Sunday in February, when oysters were in season, she made oyster dressing.

new site curlicue

The year I was ten, on the first Saturday morning in February, Daddy and I go oystering, avoiding Mama’s angst in the kitchen. While we escape to the marsh, she lifts a large yellow Pyrex bowl from the top cupboard shelf and mixes ingredients for dressing. She adds oysters when Daddy and I shuck our haul for her.

The next day, Mama lets me invite Peggy Rogers to lunch after church. While the oyster dressing bakes, Mama boils beans and potatoes, and fries cornbread. Peggy and I entertain ourselves by feeding stale crackers to my pet sand crab that lives under the outside stairs of our cinderblock house. Beyond the dune, diamond sunlight dances on the frigid ocean.

Mama hollers for us to wash our hands and come to the table. We do, and Daddy says the blessing.

“What’s that?” Peggy asks, as Mama passes her a plate of fatback.

“Some people call it streak o’ lean,” Mama says. “Would you like to try some?”

I glance at Daddy. Focused on lathering butter on his cornbread, he isn’t listening.

“No ma’am,” Peggy answers. “I’ve never heard of that.”

I don’t understand why Peggy doesn’t know what fatback is. Mama smiles and passes the plate on to Daddy. He jabs two pieces, then passes the plate around to me. I don’t take any and set the plate on the table, because Peggy looks at the fatback as if it were some weird meat from another planet. Maybe there’s something wrong with eating fatback that I don’t know.

Mama’s lips are pursed tight, and her eyes are watering.

“Excuse me,” she says, pushing her chair away from the table. She drops her napkin as she rushes out of the dining room.

Daddy looks up then from fixing everything just so on his plate.

“What’s wrong with your mama?” he asks me. I shake my head at him, cutting my eyes toward Peggy. He scowls, not understanding what I mean, and aims a fork loaded with dressing at his mouth.

Mama comes back to the table, settles herself into her chair like everything is fine, puts her napkin back in her lap, and asks Peggy about her mother’s flower garden. Peggy’s mother is president of the Island Garden Club. Peggy picks the oysters from the dressing and moves them aside on her plate but eats the rest. She talks on and on about her mama’s rose garden and how her daddy built a fence to protect it from the sea wind and salt air.

On that Sunday when Peggy Rogers comes to lunch, I learn there is a caste system on our island. Peggy’s father is a doctor on the mainland. His brother is our town’s mayor. I learn not everyone eats fatback.

Dessert is store-bought apple pie, which seems to perk Peggy up. I think maybe it will even make her forget the fatback.

We had planned to spend the afternoon hunting for shells, but the sky grows dark and the wind picks up. Peggy asks Daddy to drive her home.

When we get to her house, she opens the car door and says, “Thank you. I had a nice time.”

“Me, too,” I say. She gets out and closes the door. She doesn’t look back.

When Daddy and I get home, Mama has washed the dishes and put away the food. I fumble for words to express my questions about fatback but can’t find the right ones.

Instead, I ask, “Why aren’t you a member of the Garden Club?”

“We’re not joiners,” Mama says. “Besides, I don’t know why them women waste their time trying to grow flowers in sand.” Mama scorns what shames her and what she doesn’t do well. Many years later, I grow flowers, herbs, and vegetables in that same sand.

It embarrasses me that Mama isn’t a member of the garden club, or the bridge club, or that Daddy isn’t in the Lion’s Club, collecting eyeglasses for the blind. Neither of them serves on church committees or teaches Sunday School. Mama cashiers at the grocery store.

On that Sunday when Peggy Rogers comes to lunch, I learn there is a caste system on our island. Peggy’s father is a doctor on the mainland. His brother is our town’s mayor. I learn not everyone eats fatback.

We are “less than,” and I know it. I understand that “less than” means we eat what Daddy brings home. Mama is afraid to try new recipes not only because Daddy won’t like them but also because we can’t afford to waste food.

new site curlicue

When I am fifteen, the Dalton family moves into the house across the street. I become friends with Rachel, who is a year older than me. Her mother loves to cook with the same enthusiasm as my mother hates it. Tuesday nights are “experiment” nights at the Dalton home, and Rachel, who should have been my father’s culinary daughter, dreads it. So we trade. Rachel eats at my house, and I eat at hers. I taste my first avocado and learn there are ways to cook fish other than to fry it. Who knew orange slices sauteed in a curry sauce would taste of nectar from the gods?

From Mrs. Dalton, I learn some mothers spend all day making spaghetti sauce in a big pot with lots of spices. Mama’s three spices are salt, pepper, and cinnamon. To make spaghetti sauce, Mama fries hamburger in a cast-iron skillet. Then, without draining off the grease, she adds a can of tomato sauce and a packet of orange-colored flavoring. Sometimes she adds a bell pepper and an onion. She stirs it, and, while the noodles boil, she lets it simmer. The entire process takes less than thirty minutes.

Being “less than” also means we are simple Southerners, with no interesting heritage, culture, traditions, or foods. My parents can’t even speak properly, a fault that makes me ashamed of them when I get to high school on the mainland.

In high school, a friend who is Jewish teaches me to savor my first taste of lox and to love homemade chicken soup. At the home of a classmate whose family moved to the island from New York, I learn real corned beef doesn’t come in a can and doesn’t look, or taste, like I imagine dog food to taste. When the first Chinese restaurant on the mainland opens, I learn about cuisines from various regions of China.

new site curlicue

Daddy and I gig for flounder on hot summer nights. In the dark, we drift along the marsh edge in his flat-bottomed boat, an underwater light lashed to the bow. Mild-tasting and popular all along the Southern coast, flounder are flat fish with both eyes on one side of their heads. In the shallows, they burrow, hiding under a thin layer of mud and silt. It takes a keen eye and a fast-moving arm to spear a flounder, angling a long, three-pronged gig pole over the side of the boat and into the water.

Other nights, Daddy and I walk, searching the marsh edge for flounder. He carries the gig, the lantern, and a fish stringer. On these excursions, Daddy is lucky to get even one fish. To my child’s eyes, we are walking in a gigantic aquarium, and my shuffling feet warn flounder of our approach. What life beneath the water! Seahorses dance among algae fronds attached to dock pilings. Blue crabs scurry with claws extended like swords. Hermit crabs inside elegant tulip shells edge through the mud. Shrimp float by unaware of our presence. Minnows dart.

Mama and Daddy were married for fifty-one years. That means Mama probably cooked over 18,000 dinners, plus lunches and breakfasts, even though she was never an ace in the kitchen.

new site curlicue

Years later, I realized Daddy had no expectation of catching fish on these nights. He was just cherishing our time together in the marsh.

Today, flounder are overfished to the point that some states have set limits on dates and amounts of catches allowed for both recreational and commercial fishing. For example, in 2023, the North Carolina recreational flounder season ran only from September 15 to 29, according to the Division of Marine Fisheries. Whether fishing with a hook and line or a gig, a person was allowed to catch one fish per day, and that fish had to measure at least fifteen inches from snout to tail. This year, North Carolina has forbidden recreational flounder fishing altogether, “to end overfishing and rebuild the stock.”

Daddy would shake his head in sorrow at the need for these regulations.

Mama would shake her head in sorrow because flounder was the only fish she would fry or eat.

Mama and Daddy were married for fifty-one years. That means Mama probably cooked over 18,000 dinners, plus lunches and breakfasts, even though she was never an ace in the kitchen.

After Daddy died, Mama moved into a skilled nursing facility, where she lived for about two years. I would occasionally eat lunch or dinner with her in the dining room. Sometimes, I would cook dinner and bring it to her. One summer Sunday afternoon, I arrived with fried chicken, green beans and new potatoes, butter beans, corn on the cob, fried okra, sliced tomatoes and cucumbers, biscuits (not from a can), and sweet tea. We spread the meal on a table in a sunroom, and she said the blessing. She swallowed a sob at the end of the prayer. When I opened my eyes, I see tears running down her cheeks.

“I’d give anything to be able to stand at my stove and cook supper one more time,” she said.

The quality of the food on the table, I realized, had never amounted to much. What mattered was the love around it.


About the author

Deb Bowen lives and writes on a North Carolina barrier island. She is the co-author of "A Good Friend for Bad Times: Helping Others Through Grief." She has a novel and several other works in progress.

5 thoughts on “Sunday Fatback”

    1. Hi Garnet, thank you so much for your kind words! I so appreciate you reading this piece, and hope you’ll read other stories I’ve been blessed to have published here in Salvation South. Deep gratitude to you for taking the time to comment!

  1. I love hearing stories about traditional food cultures. The story placed me in the kitchen I grew up in with a mother that was a great cook but didn’t love cooking. It makes me laugh when I think of her as she aged and how after cooking for so many years for so many people that her great joy was eating food cooked by other people. It was never about the food, it was about the love of being able to share a meal with family and friends. It inspires me to this day in everything I do, especially cooking for others.

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