Things Sweet to Taste

Much to my regret, I never truly knew the woman who helped raise me

Courtesy of the author
Courtesy of the author


Every spring, when the first stalks appear in the market, I buy rhubarb to make a pie. I follow a simple recipe, folding eggs, sugar, lemon juice, and diced fruit into a shallow crust. Bake for 40 minutes. Lately I’ve taken to growing rhubarb in my back yard so that as winter morphs into spring and summer into fall, I can harvest the plant myself, recalling, as I slice through the thick stalks, a woman I loved.

She is bent over in my grandfather’s garden, barely visible behind its white fence. With a paring knife in one hand, Carrie works quickly, severing the crimson stems near their base, gathering a bride’s bouquet of rhubarb in her arms. As she heads back to the house, she pauses at the compost bin, slides the knife once more into the blushing flesh, and severs the giant, mildly toxic leaves from the more desirable stalks. Then she makes her way across the lawn to the kitchen. It is early morning, still cool on this June day, but by the time she serves dinner several hours later, at noon, it will be hot and muggy, and she’ll need to wipe her forehead with the back of her hand before she enters the dining room, where I sit, 10 years old, waiting for dessert.

Beyond the open windows, the brown, listless Rappahannock River flows against a hazy sky. Water beads on our glasses. To move is to sweat. We wait at the table, polished to a gloss and topped with cloth placemats and napkins, porcelain plates, and sterling silver forks and knives inscribed with a gothic P, for Pettigrew, my grandfather’s surname. We’ve eaten roast chicken, butter beans, and the potato rolls I watched rise in a pan this morning beside the stove.

The gray door to the kitchen swings open, and Carrie appears, her hands full of blue plates. She sets one down in front of my grandmother, a second in front of my grandfather, then strides regally around the table, pauses, and lowers a third onto my placemat. Each plate holds a small triangle of crust filled with bright yellow custard flecked with bits of ruby fruit. I pick up my fork and spear a mouthful.

When I tuck into Carrie’s rhubarb pie now, 40 years later, I notice its sudden tartness masquerading as sweet. In parts of the United Kingdom, the first rhubarb of the year is harvested by candlelight in dark sheds. The practice supposedly produces a sweeter, more tender stalk, but isn’t it also a nod to the occult nature of the plant, whose sour leaves harbor poison? There’s a sorcery to this fruit, which blooms early in the spring and late in fall, preferring frost to sun, needing winter’s whisper to flourish. This fruit that is really a vegetable, an impostor, a straddler of worlds.

In my baby book, a photograph taken in 1956 shows me at seven months in Carrie’s arms, on what must have been the first of my family’s annual summer visits to Virginia. With my square face, I could be a boy if not for my striped dress, its hem resting on Carrie’s arm. A stout woman in her 30s, she wears a short-sleeved cotton dress, buttoned high, and a white apron trimmed in eyelet lace. Something—kitchen grease?—has spattered its front. She stares at the camera without smiling. Because the flash has caught her glasses, you can’t see her eyes, just two small explosions of light.

Both my grandmother and Carrie loved to tell the story of how, when Carrie was a teenager growing up on the far side of the Rappahannock, she saw a house being built on the opposite shore. As Carrie watched the skeletal structure become a two-story colonial with a long back yard sloping down to the river, and later saw lights glowing inside the house, she wondered who would live there. The answer, of course, was my grandparents—Carrie always grinned at this revelation—and eventually Carrie herself, as their housekeeper and cook.

This was just after the Second World War. My grandparents, having decided to retire near friends in Essex County, Virginia, bought adjoining lots for a house and vegetable garden, as well as farmland across the road for cattle and pigs. They filled their new home with Oriental rugs, mahogany furniture, and watercolor landscapes. On the floor beneath the dining room table, near my grandmother’s seat, my grandfather installed a small buzzer that, when pressed, summoned Carrie from the kitchen.


“You may clear the plates now and bring dessert, Carrie.”

“Yes, ma’am.”

Carrie lived over the garage, halfway up the back staircase in a narrow room with rose-patterned wallpaper, a linoleum floor, a dresser, and a single bed. The room had an attached bath, a TV set, and an air conditioner wedged into a window overlooking the driveway. I don’t remember ever being invited inside. What I knew of its secrets came from glimpses filched on my way up and down the stairs to the kitchen. I found it dizzying to behold this small and forbidden space, to think of Carrie as someone who in her free time watched television, fussed with her hair, smoked (I’d seen her with a cigarette on the back porch), talked on the phone, harbored plans that did not include us.

A squeeze of lemon, two tablespoons of flour, and a dash of salt. Fruit, sugar, eggs. Farther south, the cops are turning dogs and hoses on people in the streets, and the Reverend Martin Luther King Jr. is organizing marches, but here in Virginia, Carrie is making rhubarb pie. She mixes shortening, more flour, and water together in a blue bowl, then turns out the dough on a board and coaxes it into a disk. She works at a low table beside an open window where a fan rattles, fluttering the edges of her apron.

Out back the river glitters in the early morning sun. Crabs, eels, and jellyfish lurk in the water’s depths, and along its banks are arrowheads, bits of clay pipe, and colonial coins—snatches of the history of this place. We’re not far from Washington’s birthplace at Wakefield, Robert E. Lee’s at Stratford Hall. Had Carrie come of age in the 19th rather than the 20th century, she likely would have been enslaved to one of the families whose estates lined these shores. I’ve seen the arrangement at nearby Stratford, in Westmoreland County: manicured grounds, a majestic plantation house, kitchen garden, and off in the distance, rows of slave cabins.

My grandmother grew up outside Brunswick, Georgia, on land that was once similarly apportioned: slave quarters and a slave cemetery stood under a grove of live oaks a quarter-mile from the spacious house that for more than 40 years headquartered my great-great-great-grandfather’s cotton plantation, the source of his family’s wealth and prestige until war left them destitute. My grandmother, born in 1898 and raised to detest the invaders who had impoverished her kinsmen, could not forgive. “Virginia is as far north as I’ll ever go,” she insisted, pressing her tiny foot into the carpet as if to mark a line.

“O how I hate the Yankees. I am done with them,” her great-uncle wrote as he watched his family’s small empire begin to disintegrate in 1862. “I hope when peace is made a law will be passed to kill every one who ever dares to put his foot on our soil.”

A century later, my grandmother wrote to my uncle, her only son: “It still makes me mad at those Yankees stripping the Southern families.”

In a second photograph taken during my first seven months, my grandmother and Carrie are standing together in the doorway that separates the kitchen from the dining room. My grandmother, unaccustomedly aproned, holds me while Carrie proffers some sort of indistinct sphere. An apple?

During the years that followed, when my brother and sister and I spent part of every summer with our grandparents in Virginia, I watched my grandmother traverse the divide between kitchen and dining room several times a day, especially in the morning. I would often come downstairs for breakfast to find her sitting at the metal table in the kitchen, making a list of the day’s meals with Carrie. A fan thrummed behind them.

“We’ll have meatloaf at noon, and for supper, crab salad. You may leave it in the icebox. The children will eat that.”

“Yes, ma’am.”

My grandmother sighed, rose, and walked back into the air-conditioned living room where she and my grandfather spent their days.

A curious balancing act existed in that house, a split between the oven-heated kitchen and the damp, manufactured chill of the family quarters. For a time I moved freely back and forth from one to the other. I preferred the mess of the kitchen: the steam from pots stewing on the stove, the pea pods and carrot scrapings on the back porch, and Carrie and her sister, who sometimes visited, sitting at the table, laughing. The back end of the house had a revelry that was absent from the front rooms, where my grandmother held court, organizing lessons and activities to edify us, and my grandfather sat in an armchair, sedately turning the pages of the newspaper. The kitchen was noisy, Carrie exuberant. Child, she’d crow when she saw me. I’d pick at whatever she was preparing, and although she’d shoo me away, I sensed she didn’t mind my being underfoot, not really. I liked to stand next to her at the sink as she tossed a basket of crabs under the faucet and turned on the hot water.

“I love to watch ’em squirm,” she sang, and shot me a jubilant look.

As the crabs clattered to escape, Carrie nudged them back underwater with a fork until they stretched their claws in agony and at last fell limp. She dropped them into a pot of boiling water on the stove, where they turned a phosphorescent orange. Later she sat alone on the back porch, dismantling their warm bodies and tossing their flesh into a bowl for our suppers.

Somehow I knew that after I turned 16, I would shift from being simply “Leslie” to “Miss Leslie,” and I would be confined to the other side of the kitchen door. Until then, though, Carrie and I belonged to each other. She clasped her hands around mine as she taught me how to churn butter and make cottage cheese, how to shell beans and shuck corn. I watched her put up peaches and tomatoes, placing jar after jar of jewel-colored fruits and vegetables on the basement shelves my grandfather had built. She used no cookbook, only her memory. Carrie was repeating the motions her mother and grandmother had taught her, I imagine, standing by a window in a one-story house with a tin roof and screen door, slapping dough into a metal pan, perhaps dreaming of a future when she would cook for her own family.

At some point in my childhood, Carrie married a man named Louis and moved into his house in a remote part of town. She continued to use the room above the garage in my grandparents’ house as her own, however, and she kept a separate set of dishes and glassware in the kitchen cupboards for her meals, as she’d done before her marriage—presumably at my grandmother’s insistence. Carrie’s life outside of ours was, to my mind, mostly a silhouette, a photographic negative. My mother would return from the grocery store with rumors about Louis: he didn’t treat Carrie well, couldn’t hold a job, drank. He was a shadowy figure, silent and skinny beside Carrie’s heft. They had no children. Weekdays before I woke, Carrie arrived to set out our breakfasts (pancakes every Wednesday) and prepare the noon meal. She left sometime in the afternoon, and in the evening we would find our suppers waiting for us on china plates in the refrigerator.

In the privacy of their living room, my grandmother and grandfather talked in low voices about “the colored people,” with the understanding that we were different—as we clearly were, in ways that meant everything: property, education, and opportunity. My grandparents assumed that my brother, sister, cousins, and I would go to college (my grandfather had seeded funds for each of us) and that we would one day inherit the crystal and mahogany that surrounded us in their home, as indeed we have. They assumed that Carrie harbored no ambition other than to cook and clean and press our disordered lives into order.

If I shared any responsibility for the arrangement, I didn’t realize it. I watched the sit-ins and marches of the 1960s with the indifference of a 12-year-old who grew up in Pennsylvania just east of Gettysburg. I remember the night Rev. King was shot and the riots that followed. Although I knew something historic had happened, I failed to grasp the larger significance of these events. I lived in the North, and my summer sojourns in Virginia were largely an exercise in heat and new foods. But my grandmother had grown up in the postwar South. “Whenever I get homesick for Georgia,” she once whispered to me, “I eat grits.” She had a bird’s beaked nose and mouth, and she wore her hair in long ropes looped around her skull. Pictures of her as a child show an ethereal presence in cinched dresses and ribboned hats. About the war that had ravaged her family, she said, “There are some things we don’t talk about.” She repeated this even as she labored to sort the genealogical details of her Brunswick ancestors and packed us into the car for yet another visit to Lee’s birthplace across the river. Years passed before I wondered about her history.

For his part, my grandfather planted himself in a wing chair in the living room and read his way through a stack of tomes about the conflict whose mention caused his wife to wince. I was never sure whose side he took. Born in Missouri, raised in Montana, and stationed in Georgia during the First World War, this white-haired, cigar-smoking former naval officer and engineer showed more interest in tactics than personal stories. He seemed equally detached from the images that wafted across his television during cocktail hour: bus boycotts, demonstrations, beatings, arrests. Befuddled by the new language of civil rights, he joked that the bugs he called chiggers were “chegroes.”

Yet without fanfare, my grandfather paid for four years of college tuition for a young black man whose character and prospects he admired—a deed my mother told me about only after my grandfather’s death. And in the upstairs bedroom my grandmother used as an art studio, she painted canvas after canvas of mournful African-American women, copies of photographs clipped from the newspaper of mothers grieving for their children, friends, or slain civil rights leaders. Sometimes my grandmother would cup the palm of her hand around one of these stricken faces as if to console the person she had painted. Decades after her death, I discovered photo albums filled with snapshots of the African-American men and women who had worked for her family in Georgia. Who were they? How and where had they lived, and what did it mean that they were included in the family scrapbooks alongside pictures of my relatives playing cards in their living room?

It never occurred to me to ask Carrie how she felt about events in Selma, Montgomery, or Memphis. I was too young and too afraid of my grandmother’s wrath—she’d have deemed the questions impertinent—to inquire about her past. Now it’s impossible to find out what country Carrie’s ancestors were from or how they got here. Did they, like the African man my great-great-great-grandfather reportedly purchased in 1858 from the slave ship Wanderer, make the middle passage chained in a space no larger than a coffin, spooned around the next man, caked in excrement and misery? Were there any white men in her lineage? Men such as my ancestor Francis Dunham Scarlett, who fathered at least one slave child? (That child, a boy named Madison, grew up to become a ship’s servant and father of six, one of them a daughter bearing the same name as my mother, Ann Scarlett.) Did the foods Carrie so deftly prepared derive from the days when her forebears had so little to eat that they had to practice the biblical art of turning poisonous plants, lethal sea creatures, and discarded animal parts into meals?

All that’s clear to me today are the textures and smells of my grandparents’ house, the sound of bobwhites in the back yard, the slam of the porch door—all the ingredients of nostalgia—but not the soul who kept it running, the woman whose hands were capable and generous, who was, in her way, omnipotent, despite living in modest quarters over the garage (at least my grandparents air-conditioned that ). The one person who never seemed to mind my interruptions (but did she have a choice?), who took me down to the river and taught me how to bait crabs, and once, as we lugged a basketful of them back to the kitchen, spun the creatures over her head in a display of gaiety I am still not entirely sure I witnessed. Maybe I’ve invented her cheer because I so want her to have been happy, this woman whose existence made ours possible, this cipher in our midst, as coy and wondrous as the pies she held aloft, emerging from the kitchen’s gray door, pounding her weight into the carpet, delivering sweets.

Carrie’s Rhubarb Custard Pie

2 ½ cups unpeeled rhubarb, cut in 1-inch lengths
1 ½ cups sugar
2 tbsp flour
2 eggs, slightly beaten
1 ½ tsp lemon juice
pinch of salt
pastry for 9-inch double pie crust
2 tbsp butter
2 tsp sugar

Mix together fruit, sugar, flour, eggs, lemon juice, and salt. Turn into pastry-lined pie pan. Dot with butter. Lay on top pastry, fold bottom pastry edge over top crust & flute edges to seal in juice. Sprinkle with 2 tsp sugar. Bake at 450 degrees for 10 minutes. Reduce heat to 350 degrees & bake 30 minutes longer.

Permission required for reprinting, reproducing, or other uses.

Leslie Stainton is the author of two nonfiction books whose writing has been published in The New York Times, The Washington Post, and  Michigan Quarterly Review. She is at work on a memoir about her slaveholding ancestors.


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