for The Ozarks Mountaineer
It’s funny how the smell of something can bring back a memory long forgotten. You can pass by a person while walking down the street and catch a whiff of perfume or cologne and immediately flash back to the memory of your first date in high school, long ago.
The smell of chili powder does that for me, not remind me of a date, but of an event and a time in my life. One whiff and I’m reminded of the chili suppers at Taberville School. The P.T.A., an acronym for the Parents and Teachers Association, which predates the P.T.O., would hold chili suppers in the winter months to raise money for the school. Profits went to buy maintenance items like chalk, toilet tissue, floor sweep for the wood floors and coal or wood for the stove.
In my memory, chili suppers were always on Friday nights. We kids would have to finish our lessons and homework early in order to clean the room before we left for home. The blackboards had to be washed, floors swept and trash cans emptied and their contents burned behind the school house.
The envied job to get on that afternoon was dusting the blackboard erasers. There was always a race to see who could get their hand up first to volunteer for dusting the erasers, and everyone else wanted to go along to help. For some reason it was always a two person job, which was strange because we only had about ten erasers. First, you’d have to wash the blackboards with water from the well outside. Then you’d work on the erasers.
The job of dusting the erasers consisted of carrying them out in a bucket, then spending several minutes on each eraser, pounding two against each other, then one by one on the back of the school house. It was a dusty job, but made more pleasant because you were out of sight of the teacher, and you were outdoors.
The teacher was usually so occupied with overseeing the floor cleaning and straightening up, she would forget about the eraser cleaners and you could count on being outdoors, goofing off for a half hour or more.
After the kids went home at 3:00 p.m., the teacher checked over the room one more time. She’d put away all of her desk supplies and check to see each student had not left anything out on their desk. By that time, the first of the P.T.A. ladies would be arriving and start putting out the tables for cooking and serving.
The school owned a double burner hot plate and the ladies got to work making the chili. Other women unloaded the pies and cakes from their cars and placed them on a cloth covered table.
First, coarsely ground meat, ordered from Motts Locker in Rockville was started browning in big kettles. Just as soon as the meat began to brown, packages of chili seasoning went in, along with lots of chopped onions. The ladies stirred with big wooden spoons as the meat browned, the smells quickly filling the building.
Another pot of vegetable soup would begin to simmer. Most of the ingredients for that had been prepared ahead of time. Celery, onions and potatoes would be added, along with well water and the whole thing brought to a slow simmer to be ready for serving for those who didn’t want chili.
All afternoon people stopped by with donations of pies and cakes. Big bowls of crackers were laid out and a block of cheese cut up. Onions were sliced in thin slices, bottles of catsup and vinegar were placed on the serving line.
I loved the chili suppers because it was always fun for me to see how the school house had been transformed from the everyday drab smells of coal, floor sweep, white paste and children, into a makeshift kitchen of interesting smells.
When people began arriving about 6:00, the first smells they encountered before even entering the school house would be the coffee, freshly brewed, and the spicy chili. Then as you walked in the door of cloakroom, you’d notice cigar smoke, a pipe or two and whiffs of after shave and perfume. But above it all, the smell of freshly made chili predominated.
Chili suppers always included entertainment of some sort. Small children recited poems or stories they’d written. One of the parents would play the piano while the children performed a musical number, usually a song memorized from one of the old song books in the library cabinet. Sometimes a local fiddle or guitar player would play or sing.
But the real reason for being there was to make a donation to the P.T.A. by buying a bowl of chili and a piece of pie or cake. Soft drinks or coffee were sold for 5¢ and the adults visited with each other while they ate.
Kids, of course, ate fast, then went outdoors to play. The one outdoor light was a hundred watt light bulb above the building’s only door. Under that light, kids played games on the old concrete porch. The older men, after eating, went outside to sit on the porch, or lean on their cars and smoke.
That smell, of chili powder, reminds me of all of that, every time I open a package of chili seasoning. I can see the faces of the P.T.A. ladies as they stirred the pots of browning meat. I remember the smell of the school room, of the pies and cigar smoke. That’s what comfort food is, I suppose, a dish that evokes not just the smell and taste of the ingredients, but a time and place when that smell predominated, when you were happy and comfortable. One whiff of chili seasoning and I’m back in the third grade, excited about going to the chili supper at our school.