By Bill McFadyen
Growing up, Virginia was always about making our house a home. She was our mother, but more so she was our mom. Papa Scott was growing a small business into a large one. He was an incredible provider and in the last 20 years of his life, those years when I came to appreciate such things as the sacrifices we make in long working hours for the gain of those provisions, I glommed onto him trying to absorb knowledge.
There was another, though. The man who early on gave me the things I wanted as opposed to the things I needed was my dad’s brother-in-law. While he and I pumped no matching DNA through our veins, we enjoyed a world all our own, a language no one else spoke. We rode thousands and thousands of miles together, first him doing all the driving until we traded places and I permanently took the wheel. We tromped through swamps and we sluiced through waters. Those stories are my very favorite parts of me, formed over his and my fifty years together.
It occurs to me for the first time that in addition to hunts we made and lines we cast, there was one other thing that we did nearly every time we were together that has heretofore gone unchronicled. We ate so very well!
Much of that good eating followed hours of preparation by his wife, dad’s sister – Zula. She made venison into a delicacy. She fried cornbread such that the little air bubbles left holes in the crinkly edges. I never have dolloped whip cream on pecan pie that tasted anywhere close to as good as what she blended up and took from the fridge in a little porcelain pitcher.
Still, make no mistake – Reggie was a storied chef in his own backwoods way. He was a Kingsford charcoal man. He used it as his medium to cook rib eyes or venison loin or Spanish mackerel fillets. He had a fresh bag of it everywhere he ever lived, but he made the most memorable productions from its use at Long Beach, North Carolina, where the grill was rolled out of the garage onto a concrete slab under the porch. Once lit, it was brown toddies all around while the oranging coals got right. Zoonie would look lovingly upon her champion adjusting his grill in the evening breeze of the Carolina coast, turn to anyone in earshot, and say those famous-in-our-family words – “This is just elegant.” Fayetteville’s Greg Kalevas makes my favorite steak today. Nothing of his, though, tastes like Reggie’s handiwork after a sunburned day of Clark spoons on monofilament leaders trolled through choppy waves close to shore.
One year, in a display of unconventionality that bespoke the discipline of “eat it because I say so,” Reg obtained a quantity of huge jumping mullet, which he filleted to perfect bonelessness. To that point in my life, jumping mullet had always been bait. Reggie found two large earthenware jugs. He had a specific formula of a layer of salt, a layer of fillets, and a sprinkling of water. Salt, mullet fillet, water, salt, mullet fillet, water. Not to the top though, because in a couple of weeks, all the water in the fillets was now extracted into a brine rising higher daily inside that vessel. For unforgettable pre-dawn winter breakfasts, before we went deer-hunting, Reggie would take out four fillets, rinse them in fresh water and sear them as our breakfast meat.
I do not remember distinct deliciousness, though I do recall the sheer adventure of it. It was one of those aforementioned languages in which he and I spoke for decades after. And in those days before Dasani and Aquafina, I absolutely remember the craving for water as the morning wore on.
To this day though, the one thing I best remember Reggie cooking more than anything else was bacon. More specifically, Long Beach bacon.
It always transpired in the hour prior to our leaving to go fishing. I was feverish from waking, frantic to board the boat, a boat which (like every other boat at the beach) had a name. Quite cleverly, Reggie’s boat was named “Reggie’s Boat.” On the CB radio, you would hear, “Reggie’s Boat, this is Sea Lark, come in, Reggie’s Boat.”
While it was admittedly an acquired trait, I came to appreciate the methodical pace of breakfast at Long Beach. For Reggie, Long Beach breakfast was a full chapter of a day to come. He situated his large iron skillet over a medium hot burner. He lined up the bacon in symmetrical rows. As the bacon began to singe, he segued to preparing a pot of grits while I arranged five pieces of white bread on an aluminum pan. I adorned the bread in irregular patterns of chunky butter pats, maybe five to a slice. Reggie flipped the bacon for the initial singeing of the other side and thereafter stirred the grits.
There always came an indefinable point in the bacon cooking when Reggie turned down the heat and took hold of the same oversized two-pronged fork he would use later that night at the grill. For the next five or ten minutes, every hump caused by the shrinking bacon was pressed back onto the frying pan surface with that fork. Every hump on every strip. Grease would pop and briefly he would withdraw, but he quickly returned to the task of cooking every square millimeter by pressing it into the pan. Finally, he would deposit perfectly browned, humpless bacon onto paper towels to drain.
There was a Maxwell House coffee can under the sink into which some, but not all, of the grease was poured. At that moment, I would put the bread into the oven and shovel a big pat of butter into the grits. Reggie then cooked four eggs, two at a time, in the bacon grease. Over easy, such that the yoke never hardened.
When we left for the morning’s run through Lockwood Folly inlet in “Reggie’s Boat,” there would be left at home two rinsed but unwashed dishes in the sink, a third of a pot of grits on the stove, a piece of toast, and two strips of perfect bacon waiting for Zula when she chose to roll out of bed. I never thought much about that part of her day though. I was too busy looking for that night’s supper that was somewhere swimming underneath a flock of diving seagulls just out of my sight.