Martha White Remembered

  • Monday, May 5, 2014

Mrs Gee (left) visiting Mrs. Shaw(right) in the 1980s. PHOTO PROVIDED

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Cornbread has been called a “cornerstone” of southern cuisine in this country. It is a staple of several ethnic groups and has added richness to our collective diet. Even the crumbs can be put to good use. As a child I remember going with my father to Greeleyville to the grits mill with a sack of shelled corn. A man we called Mr. Crumb ground the corn into meal. My mother, and perhaps everyone’s mother, knew how to sift the resulting product into grits and cornmeal. I often wondered why it was called a grits mill but not a cornmeal mill.

My mother’s cornbread was great and I am grateful to my wife’s aunt for teaching her to make good cornbread. My childhood neighbors, Mrs. Ethel Gamble and Aunt Rosa Brown, always had an ample supply of good cornbread around and I visited them regularly around dinnertime. I recall that my grandmother was a little heavy on the baking powder. Cornbread and buttermilk always made for good dining.

Today’s cornbread makers don’t visit mills because they can buy Jiffy Mix, Adluh or Martha White corn meal from the grocery store. Martha White brand corn meal was established in Nashville, Tennessee more than a century ago. The real Martha White was Martha White Lindsey, the three-year-old daughter of the businessman who introduced the brand. She died as an adult the year before I was born. This Nashville product has long been associated with country music, another Nashville staple. I remember Martha White as a longtime sponsor of the Grand Ole Opry on the radio during my childhood years.

Nearly 20 years ago, I wrote in the pages of this newspaper about Paul Murray and Emiel Baker and their influence on my early life. Two decades after leaving home to go to college with Mr. Baker’s encouragement and support I came back to visit him. I thanked him and he said that he was proud of me as he repeatedly said, “YOU CAME TO SEE ME! YOU CAME TO SEE ME!” I could see that he was very ill but he told me about his poor prognosis anyway. My visit was brief and I left knowing that I would not see him again. He died a few days later during the summer of 1989.

Nearly eight years after Mr. Baker died I visited my mother in Salters and found her in the kitchen baking a cornbread. Before I could ask how she knew I was coming she said, “Mr. Emiel Baker’s sister, Mrs. Virginia Gee is sick and she sent word that she wanted me to bake one more cornbread for her before she died.” My parents left to take the bread to Mrs. Gee and I was off to visit the town hall in Greeleyville where I struck up a conversation with an interesting lady. In a few minutes, she told me about her life and asked about mine. Out of the blue, she said that she once lived in Kingstree beside Mr. Emiel Baker’s sister, Mrs. Gee. She then asked me if I knew Mrs. Gee. I told her that my mother knew Mrs. Gee and ironically was on the way to take a cornbread to her even as we spoke. As I was leaving, I asked the lady her name and she said, “Martha White.” I could not believe that I was talking about cornbread to someone named Martha White.

I never met Mrs. White again but I took note when Martha White was elected and served briefly as Mayor of Greeleyville in 2002. Mrs. Martha Ann McDonald White died at 75 recently. I met her only once and very briefly many years ago but I still remember her.

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