Family Story: Baked Beans on the Ceiling

Grace Stephenson Sullivan at the Atomic Energy Commission, left foreground

“Are those…baked beans…on my kitchen ceiling, Grandmother?”

It was my mom’s perturbed voice. You could also tell when she was perturbed by how she called somebody. Granny Grace—my great grandmother—was always just Granny, or maybe occasionally Gracie, but ‘Grandmother’ was the moniker mom used when Gracie did something vexing. Come to think of it, Gracie was perpetually causing somebody vexation, somewhere, if not in person, then at the other end of a telephone line. If one was brave (or foolish) enough to call her out for it, a shrug of the shoulders together with an expression of surprised innocence was about as much gravitas as one might expect of her. Except for the time much later in her life when the nursing home staff called her out for the cigarette ash pile they found on the floor in front of her commode, and furthermore for her colorful language during the ensuing inquisition. And then some silly staffer would have the temerity to exclaim, “Mrs. Sullivan—we don’t use that kind of language here!”

This call for decorum did not sit well with Granny Grace, and so you can imagine…. But that is a story for another day.

On this particular occasion, though, Granny Grace had paid us a visit in Memphis, back in the years when she was still fit enough to travel, and before she lost her eyesight to detached retinas. Call it the early 1970s or thereabouts. Granny would book a ride on a Greyhound Bus, when bus travel was elegant and comfortable enough, and my daddy would drive across town to retrieve her at the station. She usually stayed with us for a week or so, just long enough to vex my mom, and probably six or so days too long for my dad.

For me, these visits were simply delicious, and that is all. What’s more, she often arrived sometime during the school day, and so all day long I was on pins and needles, knowing she’d be there waiting when I came home. She would smell of Viceroy cigarettes and Ivory soap, she might still be wearing a pair of sparkly clip-on earrings reserved for fancy dinners or travel, and she would have presents, for me and my younger brother. Her things would already be stashed in the upstairs guest bedroom, right across the hallway from my room. The case for her dentures would be unpacked and sitting on the nightstand next to whatever reading she brought with her: maybe it was The Unexpected Mrs. Pollifax, or Plain Speaking by Harry Truman. Sometimes I would finger through the pages and read snippets of paragraphs, looking for more insight into this colorful member of my extended family. After a day or two a double Old-Fashioned glass would appear next to her reading, for the wee nip of bourbon she routinely took to bed with her, this woman who’d not long ago retired from her life as a librarian working for the Atomic Energy Commission in Oak Ridge, Tennessee—a place where loose lips could sink ships. And she’d have put her satiny pillowcase on the pillow, the one that kept her coiffed hairdo more or less preserved while she slept.

Granny Grace also commandeered the kitchen for her own purposes during her visit, a thing which drove my meticulously neat and clean mom to the brink of insanity. Not only did Granny bring her chain-smoking habit into our house, but also a Julia Child-like abandon to our cooktop and kitchen counters. But in a household where breakfast was typically cold cereal—or even a cold Pop-Tart eaten right from the wrapper during the busiest months in my ballerina mom’s hectic life—I knew Granny’s visit held the promise of salty, crispy strips of bacon, scrambled eggs, and homemade biscuits, every morning of her visit. And if I begged her, she’d make me a concoction of her own invention she called a Patsy Ann Egg, named for my mama when she was still a child: this was a piece of buttery, salty toast, shredded and poked down inside a coffee mug, and then a fried egg thoroughly mashed into the pieces with a fork, and finally seasoned with still more salt and pepper. You ate it with that fork, right out of the mug. The velveteen egg yolk comingling with butter-saturated bits of toast—that was pure bliss: nobody ever needed urge me to finish my breakfast with that divine mug of heaven cupped between my hands.

Making Gracie’s Biscuits in My Vermont Kitchen

I thought about Patsy Ann Eggs this morning, but did not have time to make one in my hurry to get out the door for the usual Sunday morning doings. But yesterday morning I had plenty of time to make Gracie’s biscuits. I imagined her standing over my shoulder and critiquing my methods as I worked quickly and quietly, although I’m pretty sure I’d get a solid pass. I have long committed Granny’s recipe to memory, and with every move I’ve made in my adult life—four of them in the last six years—have tweaked the baking time and temperature to match a new oven’s temperament. In our new-old Vermont home, I’ve just about nailed it. Some weekends I make a double batch so I can take some to the church freezer; I love knowing that a few locals who find themselves down on their luck at the moment sometimes get a little Granny Grace love to take off the edge, even if they don’t know it.

A Proper Biscuit Cutter

Recently, though I opined to the Chef that I needed a proper biscuit cutter. I had one, but its handle broke a while back. So then I started using a glass tumbler that was about the right size, but found its rounded lip wanting. A few weeks ago, though, we stumbled across this one at a local antique store, for $2.50. It somehow reminded me of Granny, although I am not at all sure she actually used a proper biscuit cutter to make her own biscuits. It showed signs of heavy use, but I polished it to a fare-thee-well in short order. I can fault it only for making biscuits a tad thinner than I like them, but that is probably just as well: my own culinary proclivities could stand a bit of moderation just now.

A More Moderate Biscuit

I’m not sure Granny ever sufficiently answered my mama’s question about the baked beans. But we did have baked beans during that visit, and they were indeed glued to our kitchen ceiling, along with bits of tomato sauce. That was the kind of food—and love—you could expect when your great grandmother made the trek all the way across the state from Knoxville to Memphis to be with you for a while. If my mom had to pull out a step stool and climb up to scrub dried beans and other food off our kitchen ceiling, well so be it.

Back home, Gracie’d make sure her freezer was well stocked with a couple pounds of salty bacon, and then she’d sit on her wicker sofa with a few strips of it on a small plate at her elbow, maybe a couple slices of tomato, maybe a biscuit, most assuredly a cup of black coffee, and her cigarette burning in a nearby ash tray. She’d turn up the telly in this pleasant room that looked out on the main channel of the Tennessee River so she could hear it through ears that were also beginning to fail her, and argue politics endlessly with the pundits. If you happened to stop by to say hey, she’d implore you to “turn off that idiot box” and come and sit down next to her, where she was patting the sofa with her hand. She’d offer you coffee and bacon if you wanted it, and she would doubtless tell you a few stories you’d already heard—but maybe with some detail or other that was new—and she would opine endlessly about her beloved Democrats and the upcoming election.

Nope, Granny Grace—this time let me make you a breakfast sandwich to go with your black coffee: I think you’ll like it.

2 thoughts on “Family Story: Baked Beans on the Ceiling

  1. I think your Gracie was an original! So good that you have her biscuit recipe and the Patsy Ann eggs. My grandmother made a similar egg dish but it was just called soft boiled eggs. You buttered a slice of toast and tore it up into a small bowl and added one or two soft boiled eggs – a pinch of salt and a shake of pepper and an extra pat of butter and then mashed it all together… This is what you’d get if you were feeling ill. It is still my comfort food that I crave when I have a bad cold.

  2. Love this story! Many many memories! Miss her still! I make Patsy Ann eggs for my 4 yr old grandson ( not quite as salty!) and he absolutely loves them.
    We had wonderful times with Granny and it’s great we can pass the stories along.
    I would love it if you would share biscuit recipe. Not sure that I have it.
    I so enjoy your writings

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