Cathy Fields, The Skull & Bones, and Big Stone Gap Corn Pudding.
(First published 11/14. About a dish I’ve made every Thanksgiving since I met the cook who created it. It’s been a great year, one of beginnings, and overcoming fear, and increasing awareness of those moments when just maybe I’m not as screwed up as I think I am. For which I am grateful. Happy Thanksgiving.)
Every holiday season I end up making multiple lasagna pans full of corn pudding. It’s a Virginia staple one so important to my heritage to find it missing is akin to finding the star missing on a Christmas tree. The New York Times agrees with me. But I don’t make Nana’s corn pudding. I used to. Until I met someone who changed my mind. About corn pudding and a lot of other things.
I’ve made a life of traveling from job to job, rotating through various vocations including teacher, baker, daycare worker, waitress, bartender, CPR program coordinator, receptionist slash secretary, and events planner. I’ve worked in development, architecture, environmental remediation, and microbiology where I input data on AIDS patients. At that same hospital I temped in hospice, emergency, and every unit in between. I never planned it this way, but all those experiences have fleshed out my writing. I’ve met a ton of people. So many after a while I started to group them by type. The ambitious ladder climber, the one counting the days until retirement, the young innocent who’s only doing this job until something better comes along. Five years later they’re still there, still insisting it’s temporary.
A few defy type. A few I still remember fondly because they were sparks. Flashes of light blasting through my days of repetitive task drudgery. They made me laugh, taught me things, showed me infinite possibility in defining who it is you want to be. They defied every stereotype and showed me no matter what the circumstance, you can still stand out. You can still ruffle feathers. Cathy Fields was one such spark.
I met Cathy 25 years ago while temping at the Medical College of Virginia’s Otolaryngology department which is just a fancy way of saying Ear, Nose, and Throat. Cathy was the personal secretary (they called them secretaries back then) to the department head, a rigid, intimidating MD so proud of his Greek heritage a giant bust of Hippocrates oversaw every office activity. I was Cathy’s assistant, hired to help sort through residency applications. I proved my worth and after residency season they asked me to stay on as that lovely oxymoron the “permanent-temp” which basically meant I made the same crappy wage with no benefits and the agency continued to charge the department an arm and a leg for me to file papers, type envelopes, and answer phones.
The work was tedious but Cathy’s manner made it seem like the best game ever. I adored her. Tall and rail-thin, the ever-present spark in her eye and smirk on her face belied her age. She was soon to retire and mentioned it often to anyone within earshot. She was brash, opinionated, joked often, and cursed much. Her voice had no filter. To a naive introvert like myself she was awe-inspiring. Where I could barely look my boss in the eye, she told him off regularly, saying what she damn well pleased. All the while looking over the glasses perched on the end of her nose and smoking like a chimney. In a hospital. It was the 90’s. Years of smoking had made Cathy’s voice deep, raspy, rough, and loud. It carried. Especially when she laughed which was every five minutes.
Our days were spent doing what secretaries do, which most of the time meant chastising residents and putting out fires. Reminding the boss of meetings and filling out forms in triplicate whenever we needed more paperclips. We chatted since we shared an office. Our conversations carried over into lunch, usually spent at the Skull and Bones across the street with her daughter, also named Cathy. Cathy was a younger, equally-spry version of her mother and lunching together I often felt like I’d cheated time somehow. Like I was looking into a weird “present” and “future” funhouse mirror. And I couldn’t stop thinking about this Kids in the Hall sketch.
The Skull and Bones was a hospital institution at 12th and Marshall Streets where doctors, med students, nurses, and employees met to talk over olive and cream cheese sandwiches, chips, soda, and great coffee. Surly waitresses in uniform who’d probably worked there 50 years served you and you’d better be damn ready with your order. Because they just didn’t have time for your shenanigans. I mention olive and cream cheese because that was my go-to old school lunch of choice. For $1.75.
The food was served up fast. This was a hospital diner after all. The faster you were served, the quicker you could get back to work. Or in our case the more time we had to gab, smoke, and gripe. But it wasn’t all griping. Over many months I learned about the life of The Cathy’s. Including how Cathy Senior’s mother was living with her because she suffered from Alzheimer’s. She spent her days accusing Cathy Senior of sleeping around (I believe the word “hussy” was used more than once) and hiding the kitchen stove burners. Senior Cathy found two in her purse once. We talked a lot about Big Stone Gap where Cathy Senior was from, mostly to mention how much better the food was in Big Stone Gap than it was at the Skull & Bones, but also because the book had come out and she was tickled to death her little corner of the Earth was being given a larger stage on which to perform.
The first year our Thanksgiving potluck rolled around I offered to bring my Nana’s corn pudding, a sweet custard-like dish with lots of eggs, cream, and nutmeg. Cathy looked at me like I had three heads. No way dear. That’s my dish. I relented, silently resigned to the fact I’d eat her inferior pudding now, but enjoy Nana’s when I went to visit Front Royal in a few weeks. Then I had my first bite of Big Stone Gap Corn Pudding. And my entire world went golden. Just like in the movies.
Sweet corn flavor melds into the nutty grainyness of a corn muffin which is then cut by the sharp tang of sour cream and cheese. Lots and lots of sharp cheddar cheese. After my first bite I knew two things: I needed the recipe like yesterday, and I could crush an entire lasagna pan in one sitting. When Cathy brought me the recipe, my favorite kind a “Mix and Dump”, I KNEW I’d never make Nana’s again. Easy as hell AND stuff your face good? Yes and yes.
Decades later my mind turns toward Cathy every November. I wonder where she ended up, if her retirement was spent full of laughter and family. If she got help with her mother. If her daughter had children and those children enjoy their grandmother’s corn pudding. As I dump the ingredients into the bowl every November I say a silent apology to my Nana, that instead of making her sweet custardy creation, I’m making a corny, cheesy version made famous by a dear friend who showed me the kind of person I could be if I really wanted to. It was possible to be rid of my Disease to Please. It was okay if everyone didn’t like me. I could be anyone I damn well wanted. It’s okay to be loud.
After finishing that last sentence I got a wild hair (as my Momma used to say) and went to the Interwebs. Sadly, Cathy passed away in 2007. But her daughter is on Facebook. Cathy Junior’s cover photo includes the words, “Never forget to tell anyone how much they mean to you while they’re still alive.” True that. I wish I’d done it. But since I can’t I’ll continue to gorge myself on corn pudding. To laugh. And to be fucking loud. Thanks Cathy.
Cathy Fields’s Big Stone Gap Corn Pudding
Servings = 6-8
Time = 45-60 minutes
Difficulty = Easy
1 can creamed corn
1 can whole corn with juice
1 box Jiffy corn muffin mix
2 large eggs, beaten
8 ounces sour cream – room temperature
1 stick of butter – room temperature
1-2 cups grated sharp cheddar cheese
Sugar, salt, and pepper to taste
Mix everything well. Stir half the grated cheese into the mixture, setting aside the other half. Bake in a 9×12 pan (or so, any pan you cook lasagna in will do) at 325-350 degrees for about 30 minutes, until a knife inserted in the center comes out clean. Sprinkle the other half of the grated cheese on top when you pull it out of the oven.
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