Uncle Fat and Cabbage-head

By Karen Dill

The climatic temperaments in the month of March have been likened to gentle lambs or irascible lions. In the mountains, this description seems especially applicable. On March 1, the wind can whistle through the ridges like the roar of a grouchy lion or it can whisper as soft as a lamb’s kiss. The days that follow tend to be unpredictable and often down right crazy. We’ve had days in March when the schizophrenic weather ran the gamut: bright sunshine, rain, snow, sleet, horrendous winds and blue skies — and this was all in one day. March weather is crazy but fun and never boring.

My relatives are much like March weather. They seem to fall into climatic categories despite originating in the same gene pool. My aunts tend to be lambs; gentle and sweet while my uncles resembled lions with their roars and larger than life personalities. And strangely enough, the sweet lambs fall hard for their crazy and often dangerous lions and despite their tumultuous love, stand by their men.

One particular uncle, my father’s brother, a scowling man called Uncle Fat, reigned terror in my childhood. He did not marry until late in life so had no wife to buffer his behavior for many years. His actual name was Frank but that had evolved into Fat for no reason that I could ever discern. I dared not ask and he wasn’t telling. He was not overweight but he was as mean as a miser, a striped snake, and worse than a junkyard dog. Not only was he a bully, but Uncle Fat had a host of mean little dogs that shared his ancient single-wide mobile home with him and they were yappy and downright hostile to anyone who crossed the threshold. My mother was terrified of dogs and Uncle Fat loved to sic them on her when we visited. He sat on a broken down couch surrounded by spit cans while his legion of little dogs circled the tiny rooms of the trailer like demonic minions. My poor mother, a sweet and gentle lamb, cowered in a corner and the dogs, sensing that she was frightened, happily snapped at her feet. One actually bit her once and with broken skin and spirit, she burst into tears the minute we walked down those rickety trailer steps.

I was not afraid of dogs (or much of anything back then), but Uncle Fat managed to find my Achilles heel. Because I loved sauerkraut and swooned when my kind lamb-like Aunt Wilma (his sister), who lived next door, would give me a bowl full each time I visited, Uncle Fat decided to call me Cabbage-Head. I especially loved the pickled core and I alone was given that prize. And although everyone in the family loved cabbage as it was a year-round staple vegetable in the mountains and could be “boiled up” in a New York minute, Uncle Fat decided that I alone deserved that unflattering moniker.

Uncle Fat liked nothing more than to eat a plate of boiled cabbage, belch loudly, pass wind and complain bitterly to whoever would listen that the “old stink head” consumed “had sure ‘nough give me some powerful gas.” All of the uncles would vocalize an “amen” or nod their agreement depending on who was talking that week. They tended to have periods of silence and dark moods that were as ominous as a blustery cold night in March and could go for weeks without muttering a word.

I would swear silently that I’d as soon be an old maid than marry up with the likes of my uncles. Despite my love for my father, he too could be contrary as his brothers and was stubborn as a mule. His older brother, my Uncle Toot, had long bouts of silence and spent more nights sleeping in his truck than not. All the uncles were certainly colorful characters, and I did learn with maturity to tolerate their strange and often outrageous behaviors. At age 6, however, I was a bit sensitive and “prideful” as my mother reminded me — so “Cabbage-Head” stung.

I would examine my own head in the mirror, looking for signs of cabbage leaves and smell the air around me, sure that the name had permeated my body in some disgusting manner and because the name came from Uncle Fat, I tried with all my might to dislike the vegetable. I could certainly live without the greasy over-cooked mass that usually graced the pots of my relatives, but I craved the tart sauerkraut much like my uncles on my mother’s side craved moonshine. So I continued to eat it and at a family reunion in a moment of rash 6-year-old bravery (or stupidity) or maybe I was just drunk with the salt from the sour cabbage core, when Uncle Fat bullied me with the Cabbage-Head title, I snapped back with “and you’re a mean old fat-head.”

My remark, despite its truth, was met with cold stony silence from the uncles and soft gasps from the aunts. I had definitely crossed a line. While my father’s family was rough as a corncob and lacked many social graces, being disrespectful to one’s elders was frowned upon. What pleasure I derived from the snappy comeback quickly dissipated when I realized that a “whupping” was in my future. Later that day, I endured the pelts from the razor-sharp hickory stick with stoicism, blinking back tears with each stinging blow yet savoring a quiet pride in my soul that I had stood up for myself (however disrespectful and inappropriate my stance might be within my mountain community).

For a while cabbage was not my friend. Even though Uncle Fat gleefully continued calling me Cabbage-Head, I bit my tongue and held my peace. This was a lesson I would continue to learn the rest of my childhood and I’m still working on it. Take the bitter with the better, my mother would say, and Cabbage-Head became easier to bear when Uncle Fat had a stroke and the best he could mutter was “abby-ead.”

As the years passed, I learned to choose my battles, to avoid calling my children silly names and to enjoy cabbage prepared in new delectable ways. Despite my early association with this ordinary vegetable, I found it in a sweet and sour concoction on a plate of Jagerschnitzel in Germany, in a spicy slaw on fish tacos in Mexico, and the star of a gingered cabbage soup in New York City. Over the years I have sautéed diced cabbage with onions, diced sweet potatoes and green and red peppers for a simple and nutritious dinner. I have invented various coleslaw recipes using both green and red cabbage. I use it in soups and stews and once threw some diced cabbage in a meatloaf. And when March rolls around, cabbage is always teamed up with corned beef and potatoes for St. Patrick’s Day.

This year in honor of my Scotch Irish heritage, I prepared the traditional St. Patrick’s Day food in a nontraditional manner. My mother would prepare the meal the same each year — boiled cabbage, boiled then baked corned beef and boiled potatoes with butter — and while ritual is comforting, over the years, I would encourage her to divert from the same presentation. She would reluctantly agree to open the jar of hot mustard to smear on the corned beef or slice the loaf of dark rye that I brought from the big city of Asheville but her heart was never really into changing the time-honored tradition of plain meat, potatoes and cabbage. My father’s favorite part of the meal was drinking the pot liquor from the cabbage with crumbled cornbread, and that ritual was certainly not to be messed with in the name of culinary progress.

For this year’s meal, I have invited friends who are willing participants in my food experiments and are game for new dishes as long as we can wash them down with good local ale. I have decided on combining the meat and cabbage into cabbage rolls topped with a spicy Creole sauce. The potatoes are mashed with leeks and fresh horseradish, and I will bake a loaf of Irish soda bread for the first time. Dessert will be a pistachio pound cake that I made for my first set of in-laws in the ‘70’s in an attempt to impress them with a green dessert on St. Patrick’s Day. They frowned at a green cake (was it moldy?) but it was so moist and flavorful their disdain turned to reluctant approval for the dessert (not their new daughter in-law).

The cabbage rolls begin with a quick blanching of cabbage leaves. This has to be quick as you want the leaves to be pliable yet not too soft. As they are cooling and draining on a clean dish towel, the corned beef mixture can be formed into small oval balls in preparation for the stuffing. I have mixed ground spicy corned beef, some finely ground bread crumbs, sautéed onions, garlic and celery, a bit of catsup, a dash of hot sauce, salt, pepper and chopped fresh parsley together with a beaten egg to bind the mixture. I wrap the cabbage leaves around the beef mixture in burrito style, place in a glass baking dish and cover with a spicy Creole sauce. While the stuffed cabbage rolls are baking, I prepare the vegetables.

Potatoes are boiled and hand mashed with creamed horseradish, buttermilk, butter and freshly ground parsley and chives. I chop the remainder cabbage that I’ve used for the rolls with green and red chopped bell peppers along diced yellow onion and sauté the mixture in a little olive oil and vinegar. I season the cabbage side dish with salt, pepper, sugar and some red pepper flakes. It smells like the cabbage prepared in my mother’s kitchen but is a bit healthier I think and with the smells from the stuffed cabbage and horseradish potatoes, the smell is actually heavenly.

I’ve baked the Irish soda bread earlier in the day and despite its rather flat and bland appearance, I think that it will go well with the spicy meat dish The glorious green cake with a spontaneously inspired green icing was baked the day before and awaits its presentation on a green shamrock doily. It is St. Patrick’s Day, after all, and served with Irish coffee, the cake will be downright beautiful. Bolstered by the Guiness Ale served with the meal, limericks may be invented and blarney will reign as we praise cabbage, green cakes and all things Irish.

The meal is delicious — a crazy combination of sweet and tart, sturdy and delicate. The cabbage is a hit and I’m again reminded that cabbage is not a one-trick pony. It can be prepared in a number of delicious ways and grace any meal, despite its lowly and pedestrian roots. Like my uncles and aunts, that ordinary vegetable can be complex and interesting. Over time I’ve come to appreciate the subtleties in foods and in relatives. Some things in life can be taken at face value but family, despite their warts, offer many lessons and gifts from the heart. They offer variety and spice on mundane days in March, pepper us with humor, teach us humility and grace. I now realize that when Uncle Fat barked out his “Hey, Cabbage-Head” greeting to me each week, he was recognizing my uniqueness and testing my fortitude. Now, in my memory (a little foggy with age), I think I see a twinkle in his eye as he spits tobacco in his tin can and orders his mean little dogs to snap at me. Or maybe not—for memories like March weather and mountain relatives can be tricky.

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