dreams of poptarts and trail mix

For as long as I can remember, my mother has been an iconic Southern hostess. Growing up, we’d have dinner parties most weekends where we had more food than anyone could possibly imagine eating, a house that had been scrubbed from end to end for a straight twenty-four hour period, and giant bouquets of fresh flowers from the garden or the farmer’s market adorning every flat surface to be found. While my sister and I loved the parties themselves, we hated the prep. We’d be sent out to the garden, and the neighbor’s garden (“surely they wouldn’t notice!”), with scissors to cut infinite amounts of flowers, we were on duty 7:00am grocery duty to ensure we’d escape the crowds, we vacuumed steps and scrubbed bathrooms, we went back to the grocery when we forgot something, and, most of all, we tried to keep my mother calm in promising that, yes, this would be the best party yet.

Every Saturday we’d repeat. We loved the parties so we didn’t mind much, and really,  it was just our way of life.What we did mind was that sometimes, my mother took the hostessing idea to the extreme.

Every two months or so, we’d take a family camping trip. While we might not have a crowd along to host, the camping trips were perhaps the times that brought out my mother’s truest, most guttural hostessing instincts.

First, we had a GMC Astrovan. You know, they’re giant, boxy, generally incredibly ugly cars. Our was navy blue.

When we would go camping, my mom would pack our Astrovan to the brim. By the time the car was packed (it always took at least three hours),  my brother, sister, and I had a hard time fitting in. My brother, being the youngest, always had to sit in the smallest possible space between bulky piles of camping paraphernalia.  Mary Kate and I sat on top of boxes, two feet above the top of our seats.

A bit of the car was packed with ‘normal’ camping things of course, like a tent, sleeping bags, and blankets. But most of the ‘things’ weren’t camping ‘things’ at all. Nine or ten different board games in case we got bored, coolers full of fresh flowers so that we could have fresh bouquets on the rocks where we’d inevitably set up our tent, pocketbooks of makeup (just in case!), a game of croquet, fishing poles (no matter there weren’t any bodies of water near our campsite), a number of old party dresses and pairs of high heels in case we wanted to play dress up, piles of books, boxes of cross-stitching supplies, two or three Nintendo GameBoys with twenty or so games between them, and a lot of cooking tools. A whole lot of cooking tools. Literally, my mother would clean out the drawers of our kitchen and pack all of her cooking supplies into boxes. It didn’t matter we’d be gone for one night. We’d surely need them.

When we went camping, we scoffed at PopTarts or the infamous peanut butter and jelly (called PB and J by the especially crude) or trail mix. My mother firmly believed that just because we were in the woods didn’t mean we had to give up our ways of giant bouquets of flowers and bountiful homemade meals.

In fact, on most of our one night camping trips, I’d say we spent 21 of the 24 hours cooking, getting ready to cook, or shopping for the food we’d need to cook. Which was oddly familiar to what we’d be doing if we were home hosting a dinner party.

Our agenda would look something like this:

5:00pm: We arrive at the Food Lion in Pilot Mountain, North Carolina. We made sure to go straight to the grocery instead of the campsite as it was clearly more important to buy our food rather than set up our campsite.

6:15pm: We leave the Food Lion. We weren’t able to fit all the groceries into the car because it was already so packed. My sister and I would be assigned to sit on a bench outside the store and wait for the Astrovan to come back for trip two. We complained and talked about how much we wish we could just eat PopTarts.

7:00pm: My dad finally comes back with the Astrovan. My mother’s already cooking of course.

7:20pm: We finally arrive at the campsite where my mother hands us each a cutting board and knife and tells us to begin chopping celery and onions for the chili she’s making. She’s built a campfire to cook chili on, and of course we have two gas camping stoves set up so we can simultaneously prepare cornbread and, well, we’re not quite sure yet…it’s just set up. Just in case. My brother’s sitting with the GameBoy, oblivious that we’re camping, and my dad has been assigned to wash lettuce for the salad and is doing so dutifully. He’s standing up by the road at the water pump laboriously pumping water for each lettuce leaf. He’s got the salad spinner in hand.

7:45pm: We’re done chopping celery and onions and my mother’s put all of the ingredients for her chili into the pot. Turns out it has to cook for two hours. We’re mad and hungry. Good thing we bought six different varieties of chips at the grocery store.

7:46pm: My mother doesn’t want us to eat chips. She was planning on making appetizers of baked brie (that’s why we had that other stove set up!) and cream cheese with her homemade pepper jelly spread over the top.  It’s our job to find the crackers.

7:48pm: We find the crackers. But I’m mad and pouty because I hate cheese. Everyone knows this and we always have to eat varieties of cheese as appetizers.

8:30pm: I’m hungry. The lettuce is washed. I’m supposed to be making the salad dressing. I’m jealous because Turner is still playing the GameBoy. Mary Kate is helping with the cornbread. I can’t find Dad.

8:35pm: Turns out Dad is still unpacking the car because we never finished. I’m pondering why we brought the toaster oven because I don’t see any plugs. My mother is arranging her flowers into bouquets that she’s setting up around the campsite.

9:45pm: The chili’s done. We hover around it. We’ve waited long enough.

10:00pm: We’re done eating.  Now we start washing all the dishes.

10:30pm: Dishes are washed. Mary Kate and I collapse into sleeping bags. Day 1 of camping down, 1 more to go.

Saturday morning, 6:00am: We wake up to sounds of pots banging around outside the tent. I look outside and see that my mother is in the process of cracking a dozen eggs into a bowl. Bacon is popping in a pan over the fire. On the second gas stove, she’s making pancakes of two varieties: banana and plain. She tells me to come out and help her.

7:00am: Breakfast has been cooked and eaten.

7:30am: We’re given permission to go on a short hike.  Mary Kate and I have to be back by 9:00am to help start cooking lunch.

9:15am: We came back late. We hope no one notices. My mother’s making a cassoulet for lunch and she’s so focused on the task at hand, she doesn’t notice we’re late. For the next three hours, mom’s the queen bee and we’re the workers, following her around quickly, wildly, and doing as we’re told to make sure lunch is perfect.

Noon-ish: Lunch is served. Cassoulet, homemade sourdough bread (my mother always traveled with her jar of sourdough starter), strawberry-melon-blueberry fruit salad, and the infamous Bowman chocolate pie for dessert.

1:00pm: We start cooking for dinner. We’re not staying tonight, so we’ll eat an early dinner. The pot-roasting process begins with the dicing of pounds of carrots, potatoes, and beef. It doesn’t matter that we’re only a family of five; throughout the weekend, we always make at least three times the amount we actually need. It’s a Southerner’s worst nightmare to run out of food before everyone’s satisfied.

4:00pm: Dad starts packing up the Astrovan. We’re still cooking.

5:00pm: We eat dinner. We aren’t even really very hungry by this point, but we eat anyway. (Again, that’s a Southern thing.)

5:30pm: We finish washing the dishes.

6:00pm: The car is packed, and we stuff the last of the dishes from dinner into the Astrovan. Turner, still playing the GameBoy, is stuffed into the car into the smallest space possible. Mary Kate and I assume our roles on top of boxes, and this time we have pots of leftover chili, cassoulet, and pot roast on our laps. No matter they haven’t been refrigerated and might have gone rancid. We don’t want to waste. As we drive back to Winston-Salem, Mary Kate and I whine that we never got to go to the top of mountain, or use our croquet set, or play those board games. We only got to cook.

7:00pm We arrive home.  My mother decides she’ll have people over for drinks and dessert tonight. She leaves for the grocery.

And so it goes with Bowman camping trips and, in general, life with a woman who loved more than anything to host a good party.  It seemed our life was one continuous cycle of grocery shopping, cooking, eating, cleaning dishes, grocery shopping, cooking, eating, and cleaning dishes again. While my sister, brother, and I complained enormously at the time, I think we all secretly relished the fact that our mother was notoriously the best hostess and cook in town. That being said, a delicious Smores PopTart would have been nice every now and then.

My Mother’s Famous Chili:

1 pound of ground beef

1 cup of onions, diced

1 cup of celery, diced

2 cans of red kidney beans, one light and one dark

1 large can (32 oz.) of diced tomatoes, with the juice

4 T. chili powder dissolved in a cup of hot water

In a 5 quart pot, saute the celery and onions in a good amount of butter until clear. In a seperate frying pan, brown the ground beef. Drain the beef and mix into the pot with the celery and onions. Drain and rinse the beans and add them to the pot. Add the tomatoes. Add salt and pepper to your liking. Cover and cook over medium-low heat for 3 hours. Take the lid off and add the 4 T. of chili powder, dissolved in a cup of hot water. Make sure to stir the chili well as you add the chili powder. Replace the lid and cook for 1 more hour over medium-low heat. Take the lid off and cook for 2-3 more hours. Serves at least 6.


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