Sundays at Grandma’s: Chicken, biscuits and mysteries of country life

This re-creation of a typical Sunday dinner at Grandma King’s includes fried chicken, creamed corn, turnip greens, green beans, mashed potatoes, a biscuit and iced tea. (Bill King for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution)

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This re-creation of a typical Sunday dinner at Grandma King’s includes fried chicken, creamed corn, turnip greens, green beans, mashed potatoes, a biscuit and iced tea. (Bill King for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution)

When I was a boy in the 1950s and ’60s, we’d make the 12-mile drive from Athens to my dad’s tiny hometown of Colbert about once a month, for midday dinner at my Grandma King’s house.

Even back then, the ride down Ga. 72 from the bustling college town where we lived to Colbert (pronounced Call-bert) was like a trip back in time.

The road to the railway hamlet was lined with cotton fields stinking of insecticide, prompting me, and my brothers Jonathan and Timothy, to hold our noses until we were past them. Dad wasn’t the fastest driver, so what should have been a 20-minute trip usually stretched out beyond half an hour.

There was minimal traffic once we had entered the “city” limits of Dad’s hometown, with a church, a couple of stores, a train depot and a gas station-cum-hot-dog stand dotting the largely bare roadside. A cloud of sand-colored dust was raised when we turned into my grandmother’s driveway. Lillian Estelle Kincaid King, or “Miss Lillie” as she more commonly was known, lived in a white frame house next door to the parsonage of the Colbert Baptist Church, which was built on land my grandfather had donated before he died when I was about 3.

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Writer Bill King, with his broken arm in a cast, is seen in this 1959 family shot with his grandmother, Lillian King; his father, William D. King; and his brother Jonathan King. (Courtesy of the King family)

Credit: Family

Writer Bill King, with his broken arm in a cast, is seen in this 1959 family shot with his grandmother, Lillian King; his father, William D. King; and his brother Jonathan King. (Courtesy of the King family)

Credit: Family

Combined ShapeCaption
Writer Bill King, with his broken arm in a cast, is seen in this 1959 family shot with his grandmother, Lillian King; his father, William D. King; and his brother Jonathan King. (Courtesy of the King family)

Credit: Family

Credit: Family

When my father was growing up, his family lived on a farm near the mill his uncles ran on the outskirts of town, but what I knew as Grandma’s house had become the family home by the time he’d returned from service overseas in World War II with his Welsh war bride. My parents lived there for six months before moving to Athens. My mother was shocked by the lack of indoor plumbing in Colbert, but, by the time we were visiting Grandma, a modern indoor toilet thankfully was in place. There also was a phone, though it was on a “party line” shared with other homes — a foreign concept to us city kids.

My father’s youngest brother, Larry, still lived at home when I was very young, and we always enjoyed playing with him. I remember he had a St. Louis Cardinals pennant on his bedroom wall, because the Atlanta Crackers were a Cardinals farm team then. Larry was just 11 years older than me, so he really was the closest I ever came to having an older brother. By the early ’60s, though, he was married, and living just down the street from Grandma’s house.

The food served by my widowed grandmother, who worked as a seamstress in the alterations department at the Gallant-Belk store in Athens, was classic Southern fare: fried chicken (cooked in lard), or maybe baked ham, or roast beef, or chicken and dumplings (the flat, dense Southern variety, not the fluffy kind my British mother made).

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Bill and Jonathan King are seen in 1960 with their grandmother in her front yard in Colbert. Her fried chicken was a favorite at Sunday dinners. (Courtesy of the King family)

Credit: Family

Bill and Jonathan King are seen in 1960 with their grandmother in her front yard in Colbert. Her fried chicken was a favorite at Sunday dinners. (Courtesy of the King family)

Credit: Family

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Bill and Jonathan King are seen in 1960 with their grandmother in her front yard in Colbert. Her fried chicken was a favorite at Sunday dinners. (Courtesy of the King family)

Credit: Family

Credit: Family

There were the usual sides that you found on a Southern table: butterbeans, collards or turnip greens, fresh sliced tomatoes or corn on the cob from the garden alongside the dirt driveway, green beans and mashed potatoes (which had a slightly metallic taste). Also, sweet creamed corn, which wasn’t to my liking, though my father and Uncle Larry both loved it. Larry liked to eat it spooned over a biscuit.

Sometimes, there was mayonnaisey potato salad, and maybe homemade applesauce. My cousin Becky recalls Grandma showing her and her sister Colleen how to make her applesauce when they were about 9 and 10. They were among my Uncle Joe’s nine kids, who generally visited Grandma at different times from us, because of the sheer numbers.

Plus, of course, there usually were light, fluffy biscuits. My cousin Bruce remembers that when Uncle Joe’s family got ready to leave on their long drive home to Columbus, Grandma “would always give me a small brown paper sack heaping full of her biscuits with butter and peach preserves.”

Grandma also served cornbread sometimes, and there always was sweet iced tea.

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The King boys, Bill (second from left), Jonathan (center) and Timothy (in his father’s arms), sit with their parents, William D. King and Mollie Parry King, on their grandmother’s front steps. (Courtesy of the King family)

Credit: Family

The King boys, Bill (second from left), Jonathan (center) and Timothy (in his father’s arms), sit with their parents, William D. King and Mollie Parry King, on their grandmother’s front steps. (Courtesy of the King family)

Credit: Family

Combined ShapeCaption
The King boys, Bill (second from left), Jonathan (center) and Timothy (in his father’s arms), sit with their parents, William D. King and Mollie Parry King, on their grandmother’s front steps. (Courtesy of the King family)

Credit: Family

Credit: Family

Frequent dessert offerings were banana pudding and peach cobbler, both favorites of my father and his brothers, as cousin JoAnne recalls. Or, we might have apple pie, or yellow layer cake with chocolate frosting, or strawberry shortcake made with biscuits. Grandma also made fried apple turnovers, sometimes called half-moon pies because of their shape.

We ate in the dining room, but afterward Grandma would put just about everything on a table in the kitchen with a tablecloth over it. My mom, a bit wary of leaving food out, would go in and take anything she thought her sons might eat for supper and slip it into the refrigerator (or “Frigidaire,” as Grandma called every fridge).

Sometimes, in the afternoon, we’d play outside. A subject of fascination for us behind Grandma’s house was the “storm pit,” which looked like a rusted tin roof sitting on the ground, but had an earthen cellar underneath, for sitting out tornado warnings. My mother wouldn’t allow us to go inside it. There were a lot of those pits in Colbert — apparently inspired by a killer tornado in North Georgia in the 1930s.

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Writer Bill King’s grandmother lived in the tiny Georgia town of Colbert, where the old railway depot served as City Hall until recently; now it's a museum. (Bill King for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution)

Credit: Bill King

Writer Bill King’s grandmother lived in the tiny Georgia town of Colbert, where the old railway depot served as City Hall until recently; now it's a museum. (Bill King for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution)

Credit: Bill King

Combined ShapeCaption
Writer Bill King’s grandmother lived in the tiny Georgia town of Colbert, where the old railway depot served as City Hall until recently; now it's a museum. (Bill King for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution)

Credit: Bill King

Credit: Bill King

My brother Tim also recalls Grandma occasionally playing the piano in her living room. Mostly, though, afternoons in Colbert were spent visiting kinfolk, which for us kids was boring — except when we went to see my great Uncle Leon (Grandma’s twin), whose modern brick home had a small lake, a rope swing in a tree and a fallout shelter that doubled as a storage place for preserves. If my cousin Roma, Leon’s granddaughter, was visiting, we had fun playing outdoors with her.

My great Aunt Jess lived in town, on the other side of the highway, and we spent a lot of time there, too. Although she had indoor plumbing, Aunt Jess also had an outhouse out back — a two-seater!

When I was very little, we visited my grandmother’s father, Grandpa Kincaid. My mother would take him some of her pound cake, because he loved it. After he died, his widow, Miss Fannie (Grandma’s stepmother), sometimes joined us on Sundays.

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Seen from left are writer Bill King as a child, his Uncle Larry, his grandmother and his father. Only 11 years older than Bill, Larry was like an older brother to him. (Courtesy of the King family)

Credit: Family

Seen from left are writer Bill King as a child, his Uncle Larry, his grandmother and his father. Only 11 years older than Bill, Larry was like an older brother to him. (Courtesy of the King family)

Credit: Family

Combined ShapeCaption
Seen from left are writer Bill King as a child, his Uncle Larry, his grandmother and his father. Only 11 years older than Bill, Larry was like an older brother to him. (Courtesy of the King family)

Credit: Family

Credit: Family

Frequently, we drove farther out in the country to see Dad’s Uncle Sherm and Aunt Gussie, who lived on a small farm with smelly pigs and an old Ford (a Model A or Model T, I’m not sure which) sitting in the shed.

Once, when Uncle Sherm pulled something that looked like a candy bar out of his pocket and cut himself off a hunk, I asked if I could have a piece, which set him and my dad to laughing. “I don’t think you want a chaw, boy,” Uncle Sherm said. (My cousin Sharon recalls with horror that both Sherm and Gussie dipped, and spat into old coffee cans.)

Eventually, though, my brothers and I would want to go “back to Colbert,” which, to us, was Grandma’s house.

After supper, which frequently was a banana sandwich on white loaf bread, if we didn’t have some of the leftover fried chicken, we’d lobby not to leave on the “long” drive back to Athens until after the Sunday evening Disney program, because Grandma had one of the earliest color TVs, and we only had a black-and-white at home.

Yes, in many ways, visiting Colbert for Sunday dinner was like a trip into the past, but when it came to television, Grandma was cutting-edge!

Read more memories of Sundays in Colbert at Bill King’s Quick Cuts blog, billkingquickcuts.wordpress.com. He can be reached at junkyardblawg@gmail.com.

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