By Steve Oden
Readers have asked if I would consider re-publishing some of their favorite columns. These scribblings of mine have appeared for almost 40 years in newspapers and magazines. No idea of how many words I’ve typed in the process, but a rough estimate would be in the range of 1.2 million. Busier now in retirement than when I worked a real job—and due to my inherently lazy nature—I intend to recycle what folks have told me were “good ‘uns.” I hope you enjoy revisiting these stories about the mountains, the people and our unique traditions. – Steve Oden
A cracked cup rescued from my parents’ tractor shed decades ago occupied dusty corners of cabinets in houses across three Appalachian states. It traveled thousands of miles with my family, not quite an heirloom but an object of interest because it originated from my childhood. The coffee cup, which likely was a premium in a box of oatmeal or soap flakes, pre-dates my arrival by decades. I remember the cup, however. It bore a distinctive flawed rim, as if someone had chipped a piece of ceramic from the edge and then filed the jagged break smooth.
I just couldn’t pin down the recollection of where I’d first seen the cup. When my wife and I performed the chore of spring cleaning and emptied cabinets to wash plates and knick-knacks, we always wondered what possessed us to keep the flawed cup. It was decorated in black enamel paint, truly ugly object, and probably not worth a nickel.
Why didn’t we throw it away? One day at a country café, a place where the cook slaps baseball-sized hunks of fresh ground chuck on the griddle for quarter-pound hamburgers and the pie is homemade, I watched in fascination as an old man prepared to drink his coffee. What piqued my interest was that the coffee was served in a steaming mug, but he also asked for a saucer. Then he added cream and sugar to the mug and stirred vigorously. Amazed and feeling that a door to the past had opened, I watched as he poured coffee out of the mug into the saucer, lifted it to his lips and blew on the steaming liquid.
Finally, he supped… This means he didn’t politely sip. The old man slurped loudly and with gusto until the saucer was empty. He smacked his lips and filled the saucer again. My own grandfather, Mack Brown, drank his tongue-scorching coffee in the same manner. This memory association brought back an image of him, a small man in faded work clothes sitting at the kitchen table before sun-up, his bald head gleaming under the single light bulb that illuminated the room. My grandmother poured strong coffee from a battered and blackened tin pot that bubbled on the back of the stove.
Grandpa Mack received his first jolt of caffeine in a cheap cup painted in black enamel. He drank his coffee unadulterated, so he immediately poured the steaming liquid into a matching and equally ugly saucer, blew on the coffee and supped with gusto.
Whether my cracked cup is the same that Grandpa Mack poured his coffee into every morning for over 60 years of married life, I don’t know and can’t prove. I want to believe it was part of a set collected by my maternal grandmother through the purchase of particular brands of laundry powder or oatmeal—probably from the peddler.
The peddler, in his green panel truck with red wheels, came weekly, trading grocery items and sundries for fresh eggs, chickens, garden produce, and butter. Most of my grandmother’s mismatched tableware came from premium rewards for buying bulk foods or housecleaning supplies.
I can’t imagine the patience required on her part to collect a single place setting. It probably took more than a year. I remember several cups and saucers in the pattern, but no plates or platters. There might have been a teapot, but I am not certain.
The old man supping his coffee from a saucer at that rural café brought back memories of table etiquette once common in the Appalachia. Nobody thought the behavior rude, and it kept coffee drinkers from burning their tongues or lips.
I’m glad my wife and I resisted the temptation to throw the chipped cup away. I wish we had a matching saucer, but we cherish something tangible from the domestic life of my grandparents, who married in their middle teens.
They filled an old clapboard farmhouse with happiness and 14 children, all of whom learned to sip their coffee from saucers. When the numerous Browns engaged in “saucer-and-blow” before supping and smacking their lips, it made for noisy meals and family gatherings—but it was music to my ears.