The Sisters Queen

Last month my husband's class held a reunuion here in Chapel Hill and we invited some of his classmates to stop in for a gathering one evening at our home. John Haber, a long time New Yorker, brought some Cheese Crispies, a nostalgic reminder of our friend and mentor, Anne Queen who always served them at  her home near the campus during our student years at UNC. His recipe can be found by clicking here and a story I wrote some years ago about Anne and her sisters follows.

We don’t get to visit often, every year or so when the weather is right, and everyone who has been ailing feels better. A four-hour drive from Atlanta brings us to their winding mountain road outside Canton, North Carolina flanked by cow pastures and signs for Pentecostal churches. Their house is a simple ranch style, built in the fifties and overlooking the site of “Mother’s springhouse,” where a cool, flowing mountain stream once kept the butter and milk cold for the family. The sisters Queen, Anne, Bonnie, and Mattie telegraph our arrival from one to the next as we climb the steps to their front door. Our daughter, Katherine, is Anne’s goddaughter, and approaching her eleventh birthday on this visit, she stands taller than Anne as they exchange smiles and hugs.

My husband, Buck, and I knew Anne from our student days in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, where she was the Director of the Campus Y, a consortium of social service committees and politically active student groups housed at the center of the campus. She, acting in her usual forthright and thoughtful way, helped lead a generation of students and faculty through the turbulent years of integration and the divisive time of the Vietnam War. Her cottage at the edge of the campus, full of mountain crafts and simple furnishings, was a gathering point for students, faculty, and visitors to the campus. It was a place to be fed, to share ideas, to meet people from many walks of life, to formulate a plan of action. Some of the first black students in the early days of integration at the University found their way to her welcoming home. Each guest was greeted with, “Now where are you from?”

The food was almost always the same at Anne’s house, especially for her famous brunches: benne biscuits and cheese crispies, bolle wine punch, a chicken fried rice dish, sweet and sour bacon, green beans, and an occasional chess pie. I marveled on my last visit to the cottage, the weekend Anne received an honorary degree from the University, that she had entertained so many people so graciously with so little kitchen space and tiny rooms for seating. I realize now that the cozy crowding helped each of us to feel so at home and welcome.

It was at her home that Buck’s parents and my mother met for the first time. Anne prepared her signature brunch honoring our engagement. I remember the dazzling reflection of a full solar eclipse off the glass of her front door that morning as she opened it for our entry. Good omen.

Anne went back to the mountains when she retired, and it was our visits there that introduced us to her sisters and the roots that had fueled her remarkable commitment to the issues of civil rights and peace. Like her sisters, Anne had been educated in a one-room schoolhouse and went to work in the Champion Paper Mill when she finished high school. She stayed there 11 years until she decided to attend Berea College, a Kentucky mountain school where she could work her way through to pay her expenses. No less remarkable was her decision, four years later, to attend the Yale Divinity School.

But Bonnie and Mattie stayed in Canton, working the mills and the land to support themselves and their widowed mother. Mattie herself retired just 14 years ago after 43 years at Champion. None of the sisters married and now with Anne’s return to the homestead, they all lived together again.

I love to watch Anne, Bonnie, and Mattie preparing a meal together. Each has her expected role, but there is still plenty of room for consultation. If they allow you to assist, it is best to do it their way, being sure to use only a certain pot for rice, another for corn, etc. The food comes mostly from Bonnie’s garden. It is one of our favorite parts of our visit to walk through that garden and discuss the progress, hopes, and disappointments of this year’s crops. The harvest is always frozen or canned to feed the sisters through the winter. The summary of how many pints of sweet corn or runner beans or candy roaster squash is recited from the list on the freezer door. Bonnie plants a little less each year as the vagaries of age and extreme weather make the task more difficult. This year they bought their corn, with Mattie, the only driver in the group, taking them to the Asheville Farmers’ Market to pick it out.

Bonnie readies for the garden tour by donning black rubber boots, a wide-rimmed hat, and a well-worn trench coat that dwarfs her small frame and adds an elf-like quality to her presence. She has selected a special candy roaster squash for us to carry home, and its size, at least  twenty inches long and  ten inches in diameter,  is daunting. We haul the beluga-shaped vegetable into the wheelbarrow. Bonnie then carefully washes and dries it before we move it to the trunk for its ride to Atlanta.

In late summer, Mattie always makes sure that both Max and Katherine visit the blueberry bushes. Together, they gather the fruit into baskets or eat right from the bush. This year they discover the ripened concord grapes. Katherine is thrilled with the juicy taste and surprised at the seeds. My children, as are so many born in the supermarket age, have been reared on the green seedless variety.

Lunch is spread on the kitchen table, and we fill our plates and settle on the porch with iced tea, the sweetest creamed corn we’ve ever tasted, and “Impossible Pumpkin Pie” for dessert. We talked with the sisters about their growing up years and their deep and abiding love for their mother who has since passed away. The talk returns again and again to the food. Fresh tomatoes, Mattie’s savory quiche, and, of course, the famous cheese crispies fuel the discussion. Finally, Bonnie offers to share the recipe for the pie with me and shows me her mother’s “Receipt” book. The pages are delicate and finger worn, the leather binding close to disintegration. I am deeply touched to simply be able to read through the entries. This is a family “bible” with their mother’s history and love inscribed on the pages. It tells of a life of devotion to the mundane, the care of each other, a respect for the gifts of the earth, and the value of simplicity and order. And like so many things reflected in life at the Queen home place, it is evident time was taken to attend to what had been given rather than the seeking of more.

I place the book back on its shelf in the kitchen pantry, but I carry its message with me along with our candy roaster squash and basket of sweet blueberries. Weeks later, I’ll call Anne and tell her how we spread the berries over our “Break the Fast” blintzes at Yom Kippur and how many quarts of squash I put up in my freezer. And I’ll think, as I stand in my kitchen equipped with every imaginable convenience, about making “Impossible Pumpkin Pie” with Mother Queen’s recipe.

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