Thursday, December 13, 2012

Eatin' Goober Peas

Yesterday my UMW circle held our traditional Christmas potluck dinner. I had signed up to make scalloped potatoes, but decided to make a similar dish, made with frozen hashed brown potatoes instead. The recipe is far from heart healthy, being made with butter, sour cream, canned cream soup, and cheese, but the potluck is only once a year.

As I grated up the two and a half cups of cheese, a ditty ran through my head, “cheese, cheese, cheese cheese, eatin’ cheddar cheese”. Those aren’t the real words, I immediately realized. The song is “Goober Peas”, and the lyrics run, “Peas, peas, peas, peas, eatin’ goober peas/ Goodness how delicious, eatin’ goober peas.” I had learned the song as a child in summer day camp, on one of those endless bus rides to the beach or the lighthouse or wherever else we went. I had vaguely realized that the song dated from the U.S. Civil War, and that “goober peas” are peanuts, but standing in my kitchen grating two and a half cups of cheese, it hit me that the men who sang that cheerful little ditty were starving.

As wikipedia puts it,

The lyrics of "Goober Peas" are a fairly accurate description of daily life during the last few years of the Civil War for Southerners. After being cut off from the rail lines and their farm land, they had little to eat aside from boiled peanuts (or "goober peas") which often served as an emergency ration.
There I was, standing in my kitchen trying to fend off extra calories. I had made a few changes in the recipe, using light sour cream instead of regular and a reduced calorie version of cheddar cheese soup (which promised no trans fats) instead of the cream of mushroom soup. Since I was using cheddar cheese soup, I substituted Monterrey Jack cheese for the cheddar, and tried to find a two percent version with no luck. I also substituted green onions for regular, which had no effect on the calorie count but just seemed to go better with potatoes and sour cream. And stuck in my head was a cheerful song sung by men who had no idea where their next meal was coming from, or when they would get to go home, or even if they had homes to go back to. That wasn’t the sort of thing I thought about as a child. War was a game we played, when we acted out the original version of role playing games, the kind children played in their back yards by saying, “Let’s play Army”. We played a lot of those, Robin Hood and his merry men, pioneers going west, cowboys and Indians. Do children even do that anymore? I don’t think we ever played Yankees and Rebels.

Many versions of the casserole I was making  call for topping it off with crumbs, usually corn flake crumbs but I did see one version with Ritz cracker crumbs. We don’t have corn flakes, but we do have the crackers. I pondered leaving off the crumbs, but decided to go ahead with the whole shebang. It seems appropriate. “Shebang” is a Civil War term, originally a name for the lean-to’s that prisoners of war built themselves if they could. Otherwise, they went without shelter. I learned this in a visit to the National Prisoner of War museum in Andersonville, Georgia. 

I’m a cheery little Christmas elf. The casserole smelled delicious, though, and two thirds of it disappeared later at the dinner. Before dinner we stood in a circle, held hands and said grace. The woman presiding suggested we do like at Thanksgiving, and go around the circle and each name one thing she was thankful for. Most of us named something family related, particularly that family members were returning home for Christmas. I did not say that I am thankful that I am not living in the midst of war wondering where my next meal was coming from, much as I am. I said I’m grateful that my son, too, will be home for Christmas. And so I am.


  1. I did not say that I am thankful that I am not living in the midst of war wondering where my next meal was coming from, much as I am.

    I wonder what the reaction would have been if you had.

    I saw a photo in the newspaper of the fighting in Goma. Well, actually it was of refugees fleeing the fighting in Goma, specifically a mother with some children. She had one child in a sling across her front, another sling with some possessions across her back and at least two small children walking with her. The baby in the sling looked to be about the same age as my son.

    And that was when I realised that if we have to flee anywhere I'll have to carry him, and all the accoutrements a baby needs.

    I hope she and her children got to safety, and had enough to eat.

    So yes, I am grateful we're not in a war zone. But if someone were to ask I'd probably say that I'm grateful that my son is still here. Sometimes it's easier to state the obvious.

  2. I was afraid that saying that am thankful that I am not living in the midst of war would sound like a pretentious rebuke to the women expressing more homely concerns, since the situation did not allow for a long explanation of how I happened to be thinking about war and privation.

    That poor woman. I, too, hope she and her children found safety.