Way back when I was 9 years old, I lived with my two younger brothers and my mother in a very small, rural town in Middle Tennessee. Out there in the country, there was hardly any traffic. It wasn't uncommon to see mules pulling wagons filled with tote sacks of corn along the only two-lane road that ran through the little place.
Black men, wearing bib overalls and wide-brimmed straw hats or sun-cooling cloths wrapped around their heads, would be yeahing and hawing at a pair of big-eared mules. They'd snap the long reins over the mules' haunches and tell them, "Git on, Girl. C'mon there, Red," to keep them moving toward the Grange Hall in town.
It was a very poor farming community. Seemed like everyone lived off the land. Hard-working simple-minded people. Survivors. They always had little jobs and big jobs to do. Feed the pigs. Plow the fields. Pick the corn. Build a barn. Whatever needed to be done to keep it all going. They were determined to keep food, clothing and a roof over their family's head.
There was one school in that valley, first through the 12th grades all under one roof. My mother taught there: English, ninth through 12th grades. As part of her deal with the school, we were provided a two-bedroom, one-bath trailer in which to live.
Mom's pay was humble. Like nowadays, they didn't pay teachers much. My mother never seemed to be able to make ends meet. Many times, our cupboards were bare. We ate a lot of pork and beans, peanut butter and mayonnaise sandwiches and Spam.
Sometimes, I'd head for the Vaughns' house. Mrs. Vaughn always had something to eat. She and her husband, Mr. Raymond Vaughn, were both custodians at the school. They had six children, ranging in ages from a year to 13. Two boys and four girls.
Even though he was older than I, Ray Jr., the 13-year-old, was my friend. Everybody called him Catfish. It had to do with his fishing prowess.
Catfish taught me how to fish for sun perch, country style. Tie a piece of fishing line to a short stick, attach the hook and pull over a couple of rocks or dig under cow patties and find some worms. I preferred looking under rocks. Hook the worm and drop it in the water. Pretty simple. I became quite the fisherman. All I did was fish.
I always took my catch to Mrs. Vaughn. It didn't matter what time it was. She'd skin and cook them, right then on her potbelly stove in the kitchen. She fried them in boiling hot lard with flour. The best you ever had. In return for Mrs. Vaughn cooking the fish, I shared my catch with the family.
Their house, just across a little creek from the school, was wrapped in that tar shingle material. Black and gold. It had a tin roof and a front porch, with newspapers piled up and motor parts everywhere. No grass grew at the Vaughns' house.
The front yard was all dirt. There was an acorn tree that looked like it couldn't decide whether to go on or just up and die. A Rambler grill sat out toward the mailbox, along with several barrels of junk. Throughout the yard, there were a couple of car doors, a few bicycle frames and wheels, various stacks of concrete blocks and, of all things, an old lawnmower.
There was a salvaged swing set that had been deemed too unsafe to be on the school playground stuffed in their very small backyard. If you swung too far backwards, you'd bounce off the gymnasium wall next door.
The school gym was an independent, white building that sat on cinder blocks a couple of hundred feet away from the school. They hadn't yet gotten around to building the foundation. No rush.
Many times, to keep the court balanced, the fans at the game were asked to even up the number of people on both sides of the building.
The rest of the Vaughns' backyard looked like a primitively built outdoor kitchen. There were two metal sinks attached to a garden hose, a stacked brick pit grill and a dilapidated banquet table wrapped in thin tin and nailed to the table's underside. There were two green hand-painted picnic tables close to the back porch and a few feet from Mr. Vaughn's pickup. It looked like he had put it together from three different trucks. It wasn't much to look at, but it worked.
Most anytime I walked into the Vaughns' house, there was something cooking. At the very least, I could count on Mrs. Vaughn having some biscuits and molasses available. I ate all kinds of things with the Vaughns. Squirrel, possum, coon, rabbit and every kind of fish known to man.
One day, I walked into the house and found all eight of them sitting in a semicircle around their only TV. They had it turned way down. The whole family was sitting there, sort of staring at the screen, hands folded and not speaking. It was a little eerie. I sat on the floor. I kept quiet. Something was going on. We all just sat there.
Within just a few minutes, the phone rang. Mr. Vaughn answered it with, "Hello, who is this?" That's the way he answered the phone. He sat straight up from his recliner and began putting on his boots, holding the phone between his cheek and shoulder. Mr. Vaughn said, "I appreciate it. We'll be there in just a bit." His face lit up with a big smile. He looked over at Mrs. Vaughn and said, "We got a pig!"
Mrs. Vaughn jumped up off the couch and yelled out, "It's a present from God. Praise Jesus. Ask, and ye shall receive." With that, she ran into the kitchen and hurried the girls out to the backyard. Mrs. Vaughn brought out several large butcher knives and a hatchet from the house. They began running water into a washtub and building a fire in the brick pit.
Mr. Vaughn got behind the wheel. Catfish, his younger brother, Luke, and I jumped into the back of the truck and drove off up the road. A few minutes later, we were loading a huge pig that had been hit by a car into the back of the truck.
The dearly departed pig was laid on the tin table, and all the girls and Mrs. Vaughn went to work on skinning and cutting it up into big slabs. It was a little gory to watch. Within a half-hour, pig parts were being cooked on the outdoor grill. The smell was heaven.
All the while, Mrs. Vaughn and her girls were cooking the pig, she looked to the sky and praised the Lord. With a huge smile on her face, she kept saying, "Thank you, Sweet Jesus. Thank you, Lord."
It started to sprinkle a little. By the time we were seated and had begun the pork feast, the rain was coming down stronger. Nobody cared. Everyone was laughing and enjoying the fruits of their prayers.
It turned out that I had walked into the Vaughns' family prayer session. They had all gathered in the living room in front of the TV and were praying to the Almighty for food.
In my travels, I've been served meals at some of the most famous restaurants in the world. Elegant ambiences. Waiters with polished accents. No prices on the menus. La tee dah.
A few years back, my wife, Jana, and I were served an impeccably prepared pork loin steak at a fabulous restaurant in France. It all came back to me. How I used to eat "roadkill" with the Vaughn family. Their beaming faces. The joy around the table. Mrs.Vaughn hollering out her thanks to God.
The French know how to cook. That's for sure. But not any better than Mrs. Vaughn. Besides, food just tastes better when you know it's a present from God.
Bill Stamps spent four decades in the entertainment business before moving from Los Angeles to Cleveland, Tenn. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org or through Facebook.