Butter, sugar, vanilla, salt, eggs, and flour were ingredients essential in Mandy Brown’s pie making career. No matter what condition the Brown family lived in during the Great Depression, Mandy always strived to make sure she kept her family afloat. Having all six ingredients was an important factor in doing so.
Mandy was born on 1894, in Hayneville, Alabama, where she spent most of her life as a “halver”—a type of sharecropper who gave up half of earnings to land owners in return for tools, animals, and, land. She married Peter Brown and they had five children. She couldn’t read or write but she knew unfair treatment when she saw it. Being “halvers” meant Mandy and her family getting little to no profit for their work. A lot of the time the land owners wouldn’t even pay them what they promised.
Mandy knew she and her family were being mistreated so she took to making and selling pies to bring in extra income. In the 1930’s almost all odds were against the Browns in terms of gathering items needed for pies to sell. Most of the 20th century—prominently, during the Great Depression—was a period that still faced racial issues with segregation, which meant separate and unequal opportunities. More specifically, not having enough money to purchase certain ingredients and the difficulty associated with finding essential items was a major problem for Mandy.
Some immigrants who migrated to the United States opened up restaurants or cafes and sold products to both blacks and whites, which made it relatively easier for Mandy. A lot of those immigrants, however, came and went as a result of the Great Migration. This resulted in adry period of pie making and selling for Mandy.
Citronelle, Alabama—two hours away from Montgomery County— was a hot spot in the 1930s for Alabama’s growing season (Alsen). Citronelle was a town known for its rich produce and resources. Many farmers including my great-grandmother often gathered as many ingredients (that couldn’t be grown on the farm) as she could there. Most of the time, due to a lack of income, Mandy and her family relied on ingredients grown straight from their farm, which turned out to be just as useful.
“I don’t remember much, but I do remember pecans were one of the easiest pie ingredients my mother could get,” reminisced my grandmother Lucille Brown while telling me the story of Mandy. Pecan Pie was Mandy’s most popular pie to sell and her favorite to make as the availability of pecans was promising during the fall. A pound of shelled pecans cost a dollar in Citronelle, Alabama, but most of the time the pecans that she used were grown on the farm. When Mandy chose her pecans, she was always particular about which ones she wanted to cook with. Whenever her daughter Lucille helped her pick up pecans she urged her to chose the smoothest nuts in the lighter brown shade. If she found holes in the shells she’d toss them, and Lucille and her brothers would play games with them after their daily work was done.
“Two cups is just enough.”
Lucille sang this jingle whenever she went out to pick up shelled pecans for her mother, carrying a small red bucket that always equaled a perfect two cups after the shelling process. When Mandy prepared her pecans, she always knew to use two cups of shelled pecans for her pie from the little jingle her mother Ella taught her. This little jingle always stuck with Lucille as every time she sang it, she remembered times spent with her mother.
Cracking pecans was not an easy task, especially when the Brown family lacked the proper tools. Mandy would crack the pecan shells by placing two shells in the palm of her hand and gently but firmly pressing them together until she heard a cracking sound. She would press and rotate until the circumference of the shell had cracks all over. Whenever she squeezed too hard the shell and nut would crumble in to small bits, so she made sure to be careful. Once the shell was fully cracked she peeled the outer part off and threw the shells out in her yard. She would place her peeled pecans in an old mason jar her mother Ella Gibson gave her.
My grandmother Lucille always remembered her family’s farm, which consisted of “cows, some horses, a handful of chickens, an old pecan tree, cotton, and many fruits and vegetables.” Living with these resources on her farm Mandy worked with what she could. While Mandy prepared the pecans, Lucille would get a bucket of milk from her family’s cows and put it in the refrigerator to chill overnight. Mandy would allow Lucille to help her make the butter because it was her favorite part. Once the milk was chilled, Lucille had the honors of scraping off the cream and placing it into an old jar and letting it set overnight. Instead of churning the cream, she shook and shook the old jar until she had butter.
The eggs of course came from her chickens, and her sugar, salt, and flour were always gathered from trips to the mill. Vanilla however, was a lot harder to come by. Whenever she could, Mandy would barter for vanilla at the “rolling store”—a wagon that occasionally traveled to their neighborhood. After working hard to gather each of her ingredients, Mandy and Lucille would combine butter, sugar, eggs, salt, vanilla, and flour to make the pie crust and filling. They never forgot the most important step of adding pecans to make one of the town’s best pecan pies. Without having the ability to read or write, the ingredients we’re never written down. Ella, Mandy, and Lucille practiced pie-making for so long the recipes and measurements came naturally. Making pies is what connected these three inspiring women for generations, in a recipe that I hope to pass down to my own children.
Alsen, Dana J. “The Alabama Food Frontier: Development of a Cuisine, 800 to the Present.” The Alabama Food Frontier: Development of a Cuisine, 800 to the Present, alabamafoodways.org/. Accessed 15 April 2018.
Smith, Lucille. Personal Interview. 31 Mar. 2018