For years and years, until after I graduated from Chapel Hill, my mother, my brothers and I would get in the car on December 23rd to drive to Savannah to see my mother’s aunt, Marion Heins Peagler for a Christmas visit and lunch.
In the early 1980’s, we would go to The Pirates’ House, that landmark Savannah institution. Herb Traub, the then owner, was one of my great-aunt’s friends. He would let us go upstairs to the Rainforest Bar. He would turn on the water and we would watch as rain came down before tropical plants and painted jungle scenes. A little tikki. A lot tacky.
After Mr. Traub sold The Pirates’ House, we moved our Christmas gatherings to The River House. Located on the tourist path of River Street and owned by the Harris family, The River House was another Savannah institution. The Harris family had long been in the hospitality business in Savannah and were also friends of my great aunt and uncle.
Frankie Harris was the owner and proprietor at The River House. He always fussed over Aunt Marion
“Shirley,” he would say to our favorite waitress, “take care of this special girl.”
“Did y’all hear Frankie? He still calls me girl. That just makes my day. Oooh what a treat. Frankie, can y’all send over some of that pahhtay, you know I’m wild about it.”
We were all wild about the pâté.
“Of course, Miz P, right on the way.”
They were special luncheons, but they really were not the star attractions of our visits.
The star of all those visits were Aunt Marion’s cheese straws.
Aunt Marion and Uncle Miner Peagler lived in the Ardsley Park section of Savannah. Their address was 610 Washington Avenue. Their phone number was 912-EL55789. We boys looked forward to the trip every year because we loved our great aunt and uncle. But, mainly we loved her cheese straws. Cheese straws and a cold Co-cola right out the icy green bottle: our ambrosia and nectar, our mead, our manna from Heaven.
Aunt Marion was our own Auntie Mame. She was fixy. She was fun. She laughed. She smoked. She drank. She had her hair done once a week. She sold a clothing line. She had taught elementary school for years and years. She had a wicked sense of humor. She would giggle whenever anyone fell, tripped, hurt herself, showed up in a cast, walked with a cane.
“I shouldn’t laugh,” she would say holding her hand before her mouth. Through peals of laughter she would say “It’s a sickness. A sickness I tell you. I shouldn’t laugh”
She often crooked her right pinky finger as she emphasized a point with her other four.
One cold Saturday we picked her up at her house earlier than she thought we would be there. Flummoxed by the early arrival, while getting dressed she grabbed the first large spray bottle in her bathroom and sprayed her head with half the contents of the pressurized aerosol can in her bathroom. Unknowingly, she had doused her hair in Lysol instead of Aqua Net. Riding in the car with her that day was a lesson in astringency.
At those Christmas luncheons, we would include other friends to go with us. Specifically, Taylor Kinsey and Hayes Williams. They came to know and love Aunt Marion, too. When ordering soup, she would often say, “I want that soup …you know, very”. Hayes knew what she meant and would then say to the waiter, “Hot…she wants it very hot.” He imitated Aunt Marion for years saying, “You know, I want my soup… very…” Waiters and waitresses all over Savannah knew what she meant. They all knew Mr. and Mrs. P.
We were Aunt Marion and Uncle Miner’s substitute grandchildren for years until their own grandchildren came along, only one of whom lived in Savannah. We O’Kelley boys were always near and dear to our Savannah kin. I think of myself as having three sets of grandparents related by blood: my mother’s parents, my father’s mother (my grandfather having died years before I was born), and Aunt Marion and Uncle Miner.
Aunt Marion made the world’s best cheese straws.
The receipt for the cheese straws had been handed down from her mother, my great-grandmother. Aunt Marion always said making them hurt her arms, hurt her legs, hurt her shoulders. She said pain would shoot up her wrist as she cranked out the cheese straws using an old manual cookie press.
We always thought she was teasing as she told us such tales in the 1980’s wearing her Ultrasuede, sipping a vodka tonic, smoking a cigarette.
“Makes my arms burn like fire when I make them,” she would exclaim. “Judas Priest…I’m going to stop next year.”
She would not stop until old age and infirmity caused her to break up housekeeping, as the old folks used to say.
Each December 23rd we would scarf down those treats consisting of a magical mix of the sharpest of cheddar, real butter, flour, salt, red pepper and one secret ingredient. We had no regard for their maker. We had no regard for the work required to churn them out year after year after year. We only knew we loved them and inhaled them. Manners? What manners? Pass me the damned cheese straws.
After our luncheons, to continue our merry making over Christmas, Aunt Marion would load up tins of cheese straws for us to take home to Beaufort. Our father would be lying in wait, “Ooh…yes! Aunt Marion’s cheese straws!” he would exclaim as we walked into the house on those Christmas Eve Eve evenings.
We would see who could sneak them when no one was looking.
Our friends would come over during Christmas break and ask, “Y’all been to Savannah yet? Yes! Aunt Marion’s cheese straws? Sweet.”
Aunt Marion was known all over Savannah for her cheese straws. Ladies with whom she taught school counted on them as gifts, every year. Her husband’s business associates counted on them as gifts, every year. All of their friends and family counted on them as gifts, every year. In addition to cheese straws, she was a wizard in the kitchen with so many other dishes, thanks to her mother and thanks to Martha Shannon, her parents’ cook, but that is a tale for another day.
The Christmas of my senior year in college, I got a wild hair. I was probably drunk when the idea came to me. Someone in the next generation needed to go to Savannah and watch Aunt Marion make cheese straws before she got to be too old to make them. She was more than generous with the family treasure having scrawled the ingredients and directions in her loopy school teacher handwriting and having distributed same to my mother and her sisters, to her own daughters in law, and to almost anyone who would ask for it. I have my original copy. Suitable for framing.
On December 21, 1993, I rang up 912-EL55789. I asked if I could head over to watch Aunt Marion make her cheese straws. At that point, Uncle Miner had died, and I think Aunt Marion was a bit lonely rambling around in her house. “Well of course, Son. Come right on. It will make my day. Just make it. Ooh what a treat” She was big on that: it will make my day, oooh what a treat. Back then, it only took forty five minutes to get from our house in Beaufort to her house in Savannah. Over the Talmadge Bridge, straight on Oglethorpe, right on Whitaker, left on Victory, right on Abercorn, left onto Washington. Piece of cake.
And, there in her kitchen on Washington Avenue, I watched the cheese being hand grated on the old knuckle buster, dumped into an ancient food processor, secret ingredient added, mixed just to the perfect point of combination, stuffed into a cookie press, and shot out onto well-seasoned baking sheets. Lined up. Cut. Sprinkled with a little more salt. “Whew…this KILLS my hands and burns, oh it burns, Son” she said. Her one admonition while they were baking, “Whatever you do, don’t let them brown. They’ll be bitter as gall. Gall I say. You want to try?” I tried. I failed. It was a lot harder than I thought squeezing out dough using nothing but brute force. My right shoulder muscle began to hurt, too. My knees ached standing in the same position. I had no idea she was being serious about cheese straws being a labor of love.
We came back two days later for our annual Christmas luncheon, and I took only a couple of cheese straws that visit knowing the work put into them. I attempted my first batch, ever, over that Christmas break. They weren’t terrible, but they weren’t Aunt Marion’s, to paraphrase my father’s initial critique. I made them a couple of times back in Chapel Hill. I made them once or twice after graduation before I went to live in Kenya for a year. They weren’t terrible, but they weren’t Aunt Marion’s.
Fast forward years later. Law School. There was a party coming up for some friends of ours who had just gotten engaged. I decided to have a few people over for a pre-party. I made cheese straws. And they didn’t suck. Really. They didn’t suck. In fact, they were almost as good as Aunt Marion’s. It helped to have a food processor and to be completely fearless, not caring if they were horrible. That seems to be the trick in the kitchen, whether with cheese straws or biscuits or pancakes or steaks or gravies or Thanksgiving turkeys. To quote Mrs. Child: “The only real stumbling block is fear of failure. In cooking you’ve got to have a what-the-hell attitude.” In the fall of 1997, I had that what-the-hell attitude.
Another fast forward years later, as newlyweds, my wife and I gave cheese straws to friends our first married Christmas. I served cheese straws at parties. I made them for our girls’ Christenings. I made them for our now defunct supper club. I made them for graduations. I made them for church functions. I made them for my sister-in-law to take to her high school reunion (which cheese straws she dropped walking into the hostess’s house). I made them for birthday parties. I took them as hostess presents. I gave them to friends in Charlotte, Pawleys Island, Columbia, Flat Rock, Linville, all over the Carolinas.
Over time, folks in Charleston told me that I should sell my cheese straws. They were my go to any time anyone came over for supper or for a drink. It’s all I have to offer. Over time, folks in Charleston would buy my cheese straws for parties and suggested I create a website, market them, get in the specialty food bidness. The problem is that Aunt Marion’s cheese straws contain a lot of butter. Real butter. All of that lovely butter begins to turn rancid unless the cheese straws are frozen. They can be frozen for months and months at a time. Food retailers don’t want you occupying freezer space unless your names are Ben and Jerry.
Some twenty years later, I, too, have made thousands upon thousands of cheese straws. I have taken them to the houses of the deceased. I have taken them to brides and grooms. I have packed them in carry-on luggage to take to friends in California. I have mailed them to friends in Maine.
I know how to coax the best out of Aunt Marion’s cheese straws at this point. I don’t like to make them if it’s raining, unless it’s a really cold rain in the winter. The temperature outside affects them. The humidity level affects them. The ovens in which they bake affect them. The temperature of the cheese affects them. The temperature of the butter affects them. The coarseness of the salt affects them. They are temperamental little things. Making them in the summer requires a little less of one ingredient. Making them in the winter requires a little more.
Like Aunt Marion, I, too, develop carpal tunnel syndrome around Christmas. I know why Aunt Marion says her arms burned. I know why she said her knees hurt. I know why she said her shoulders ached. I also have overcooked them, and they were, indeed, bitter as gall. At fine stores everywhere, I ask for extra brown paper bags for draining them after they come out of the oven.
One Saturday before Christmas a few years ago, I made batches and batches and batches for friends who were giving them as their families’ Christmas presents. I think I went through at least five pounds of butter. It was all a greasy blur. Our kitchen smelled like butter and cheese for days after. So did I. Opening the oven as the cheese straws baked that day, blast waves of buttery, cheesy steam hit my face, fogged my glasses, and dyed my hair with dairy turned to the third state of matter.
I can barely stand the sight of cheese straws. I can’t stand the smell of them as they bake. I do not eat them if I serve them. I make my family test for crispness. I feel ill even as I type this. Aunt Marion always passed cheese straws at her house, but, come to think of it, in the thirty one years I knew her, I never saw her eat them.
Two lovely friends used to host an annual Christmas party. Every year that they hosted, I would drop by the night before with four bags of cheese straws. That was usually enough for that rowdy crowd to at least have a few at the bar or as they passed the dining room table or stood by the island in the kitchen. The hostess would immediately whisk one bag away and hide it from her husband and her children. The host would later find them hidden in their usual spot and take a few from that cheddary cache. Those friends say that they miss hosting their party, mainly because of my night before visit. I still give them cheese straws for Christmas, not to get invited back to the party, but, as this is Charleston, it’s now a tradition.
At one point, I gave out the receipt all the time. Now, I don’t.
Apparently, I must be leaving something out according to those who benefited from my knowledge as they used to tell me their final products weren’t as good as mine.
How could they be?
Those cooks didn’t go to Savannah to watch their beloved Aunt Marion in 1993.
Aunt Marion died ten years later. She’s buried next to Uncle Miner out at Bonaventure on the Wilmington River.
I’ll never fill Aunt Marion’s cheese straw making shoes, Ferragamos with ribbons that they were, so that would be really weird. But, I like to think I’m carrying on her legacy, one cheese straw at a time.