When I began this blog, I promised I’d tell you the least you need to know about writing, publishing, teaching, and other stuff. Well, today’s entry gives you some of that “other stuff,” a bit of the culture from my native southeastern Illinois, where right now it’s the heart of chowder season. Not chowder as in corn chowder, and not chowder as in clam chowder. The chowder from southeastern Illinois is a thick and hearty vegetable soup, but more than that it’s an event that provides a homecoming for many folks who return to the small rural communities of their youth. A reunion, a party, a coming-together, a fellowship. It’s personal.
When I was born, my parents had a farm on the Lawrence County side of the Richland/Lawrence County Road, not far from Berryville, Illinois. My grandmother lived there, in a small frame house, catty-cornered from the Berryville General Store, which at one time she and my grandfather leased. Just a hop, skip, and a jump down the road that ran by my grandmother’s house, was the Berryville School (grades 1-8), where my mother at one time taught. Across the road from the school was a grove of trees and a shelter house. I seem to recall that the grove belonged to my grandmother’s neighbor, Billy Higgins, but I’m not positive about that.
At any rate, it was here in the grove where each Saturday before Labor Day, the chowder was held. The night before, the women of the community gathered at the shelter house to prepare the vegetables. I remember the women sitting beneath the bare light bulbs that hung from the shelter’s ceiling as they cut up potatoes, onions, tomatoes, and whatever else from their gardens would go into the chowder. The men would come before dawn to build the wood fires beneath the iron cauldrons and to stir the mix of water, wild game, seasonings, and vegetables, until it was ready to serve. They used long wooden paddles to keep the chowder from scorching. Each community had its own recipe and most of them kept that recipe a secret.
Then the people would come, their cars and trucks pulled off onto the shoulders on both sides of the road. Folks would walk up that road, some of them toting gallon Mason jars so they could buy chowder to take home with them. Others just bought a bowl and maybe a hamburger or a fish sandwich and a piece of pie or a slice of cake. They sat at long tables in the shady grove, elbow to elbow with their neighbors, or with prodigals come home, and they ate, and laughed, and told stories, and remembered. Soon the entertainment began: a local country band performing from a hay wagon, a man who could play a cross-cut saw, a farmer who could do magic tricks. Whatever talents there were to be put on display. There might even be a raffle as night started to fall, all the items donated by local businesses. You could win a new grease gun and a case of cartridges, or a free haircut, or a gun cleaning kit, or any number of practical and useful things. I remember once there was even a queen contest. I remember the girls in their one-piece bathing suits for that part of the competition.
The chowder was the event I looked forward to all summer. I was an only child, and it was grand to have this one day and evening when I could play with other kids in that grove of trees, when I could eat ice cream served from round paper cartons and drink pop out of ice cold bottles pulled from metal cases filled with water, when I could see my father relaxed and jovial and eager to shoot the b.s. with the other farmers, when my mother visited happily with men and women who had been her students or with people who had been her girlhood friends and then moved away, when we were all a family there in Berryville, where such chowders had been held since 1946, and will be held again this coming Saturday. Sixty-five years of chowders in this little community that consisted in my childhood of that general store, two churches, that school that would soon close due to consolidation and become a community center instead, and a handful of houses. Sixty-five years of coming home, or, if you still lived there, reminding yourself why you did.