By Keith Sutton
When I think back, I find it difficult to remember any particular Christmas dinner our family had over the years. From the time I was very young until last Christmas, my family’s holiday meals have been much the same—turkey, ham, dressing, cranberry sauce, fresh-baked cakes and pies, and all the fixings. One Christmas dinner stands out in my mind, however—a meal of deep-fried, fresh-caught crappie my grandmother fixed for me when I was just a teen—almost 40 years ago. That meal I will never forget.
I grew up in a small town in eastern Arkansas. I was born in New Jersey, my father’s home state. But when I was five, my father and mother divorced. On Christmas Eve that year, dear old Dad dropped my mom, younger sister and me on my maternal grandmother’s doorstep in Arkansas and left. Hurt and bewildered, I had no way of knowing then that my life would be forever changed for the better because of that act. Instead of growing up in the suburbs of New York City where my father lived, I was fortunate to spend my early years in a small, rural Southern community where life was vastly different.
My mom and grandmother (we called her Banny) raised me. I had no father or grandfathers. But thanks to the guidance of many good men in our community—relatives, friends, teachers, clergymen—I became a good fisherman at a young age.
One uncle had a big farm pond full of bass, crappie, bluegills and catfish. I worked with him in his grocery several years, and during that time, every afternoon around 3 p.m., my aunt would watch the store while Uncle Julius and I went to the farm and checked his cattle. We really did check the Herefords he raised—counted heads, put out feed or hay, made sure none had wandered away or fell to predators or disease. But checking the cows was really an excuse for an hour or two of fishing in the pond. We’d shove off in the cypress johnboat Uncle Julius had built, and he would scull us around so we could drop minnows by stumps and stickups for slab crappie or cast a plug for one of the pond’s lunker largemouths. Fishing with Uncle Julius, I learned dozens of masterful ways to catch fish.
Another relative, Uncle Pat, also had a big pond, but it was stocked only with catfish and bream. The bream were food for the pond’s big channel and blue cats, and the whiskerfish grew fat eating them. Nice thing was, Uncle Pat’s pond was off limits to adults—kids’ fishing only. Nine times out of ten when I visited, I was the only kid fishing. Uncle Pat would come down to supervise, sometimes bringing a secret-recipe stinkbait for me to try, or bringing a trotline he would show me how to set and run. Always we caught catfish, and every time we were together, I learned some new fishing trick.
Many other people shared their outdoor wisdom as well, and by the time I was 12, Mom decided I was mature enough to fish at places that often were several miles from home. From then until the time I found the fairer sex, that’s pretty much all I did. Some days my young companions and I would ride bicycles to one of the local ponds to fish. Sometimes our parents would drive us to the river to fish and camp. When the trips ended, we always had fresh fish for our families to eat.
I didn’t realize it then, but having this bounty of freshly caught fish—and the wild game I killed, too—was of great benefit to our household. Mom was a teacher. Banny was a nurse. Neither made much money, and they struggled to make ends meet. We always ate well, however, and more often than not, the delicious meals they prepared featured game or fish I brought home. Both women loved crappie—pan-dressed and pan-fried—more than anything, so they were especially happy whenever my crappie fishing proved successful.
Holidays were special times, though, and while no one would have complained if we’d had a meal of crappie, catfish, rabbit or quail for holiday meals, Mom and Banny always scraped together enough money to buy a turkey or ham to serve for holiday get-togethers. Those were wondrous repasts so delicious and filling we could hardly wait for them to be cooked and served. What good times those were!
Our family always was healthy, too, perhaps in part because of all the fresh game, fish and garden vegetables that graced our table. We rarely ate prepared foods. But in 1973, just before I started my senior year in high school, Mom fell seriously ill. Our small-town family doctor diagnosed her illness as a bad case of bronchitis and treated it thusly. But, after more than a month, when Mom hadn’t improved from the serious bouts of coughing that wracked her body, a visit to a specialist in Memphis brought dire news. Mom was dying of cancer.
I could hardly fathom what the doctor said. Mom had never been sick, and suddenly we learned she only had months to live. How could this be happening? Mom was just 40 years old. No one died that young. Why her?
She died in January. I was just 17. My sister was 14. Before her passing, Mom had arranged for my sister to live nearby with an aunt—Banny’s sister. Mom felt it would be too much of a burden for my 70-year-old grandmother to raise her.
“You’re old enough to go out on your own,” Mom told me. “Go to college. Get a job. Get a place of your own. You’ll be fine.”
And that’s how it was. At age 18, shortly after Mom died, I rented my first house, started college and got a full-time night job. My sister moved in with my aunt. Banny was left alone in a home that four of us had lived in just a few months earlier. I saw her often, but not often enough. It was obvious she was heartbroken.
Keith Sutton with a Christmas crappie—still part of his holiday game plan.
When Christmas break started that year, I went home to stay with her. Neither of us had gotten over Mom’s death, and while we chatted about other things, we talked mostly about the big hole left in our world when Mom was gone.
“I don’t feel much like celebrating the holiday,” Banny said. “It’s not the same without her.”
“I feel the same way,” I said.
Then Banny smiled. She held my hand, patting it.
“You know what I want for Christmas dinner?” she said with a twinkle in her eye. “A mess of crappie. Your Mom always loved them. I do, too.”
Snow was falling as I reeled in the last of 10 slabs I caught in Uncle Julius’ pond later that day. Banny was waiting at the door with a cup of hot cocoa when I got home.
She dredged the pan-dressed fish in seasoned corn meal and fried them crisp and golden. And while we nibbled on the crunchy tails and flaky white fillets, we shared stories about a daughter and mother who meant the world to both of us.
That was the most memorable Christmas dinner I ever had.