Born in Mobile in 1949, Shirley was the seventh of 14 children and stuck to her mother like glue from the start. “You always gonna have a child that’s gonna really stick close to you,” she says. “And I was that child.” In this spot, Shirley cultivated a love for cooking as she absorbed techniques from a mother who was always cooking and enjoyed doing it. Shirley became so skilled that even as a young girl, she would return from Sunday school and finish cooking Sunday dinner while her mother went to church. “Little darlin’, that’s so good,” her father said about every dish she made.
Shirley’s mother canned in the summertime: peaches and pears and okra. The family had a large garden, tended by Shirley’s father, who also fished, hunted, made scuppernong wine and fig preserves, and kept chickens. “We pretty much lived off the land,” Shirley says. Her mother especially enjoyed fixing chicken and dressing, and often picked blackberries or blueberries to make a cobbler that would be ready when the children returned from school.
Their kitchen was a refuge, but also a laboratory. Shirley experimented and her mother encouraged her. “She loved my potato salad,” she says. “I just would add stuff to it. I would put pimentos and stuff in the potato salad, and it’d be so red,” she laughs. She still stretches her repertoire, cooking all kinds of things, with a special fondness for ox tails, gumbo, ribs and anything Creole. Her mother baked when it rained, and Shirley does too. Her banana pudding is considered a family staple, along with her red velvet cake. And she cherishes “old school” recipes, like egg custard and Irish potato pie.
Shirley attended Blount High School, where she was a majorette, and at age 16, met her husband Andrew, whom she introduces as “the first boyfriend I ever had.” Turnip greens with dumplings was the first of Shirley’s dishes Andrew tried, and he was hooked. On the food and on Shirley: “I saw her, I had to have her,” he says. The two were married in 1968, and thanks to Shirley’s love of cooking and years of experimenting, she could copy any dish she tasted, including one of Andrew’s favorites: his mother’s pineapple pie. Even though she never got the written recipe, Shirley recreated it perfectly. One day, she made it for Andrew’s sister and took it to her at work, just to make her smile.
And that’s a critical element of Shirley’s cooking: She does it out of love, with a desire to nurture those around her. When we gather for a meal at her house, she doesn’t fix a plate for herself until everyone is finished. She doesn’t seem to want to miss how much we all enjoy eating together. She sits back and watches as we exclaim over every dish, contented by the joy and fellowship the food brings, wrought by her hands.
that’s a critical element of Shirley’s cooking: She does it out of love, with a desire to nurture those around her.
Above, Left to Right: Fried Cornish hens, ribs and sides. Jackson’s home is decorated with classic vintage touches. Prayers of thanks are essential before any meal at the Jackson’s. Shirley’s collard greens.
Walking in her mother’s footsteps, Shirley is now the matriarch. She and Andrew raised five children together, as well as Shirley’s younger brother, and their house is the gathering place for the whole family on holidays and Sundays after church when Shirley cooks a traditional dinner of Cornish hens, dressing, green bean casserole, collards, macaroni and cheese, and sweet potato pie. “This is the headquarters,” she says. They’ve lived in the house for 52 years, adding on as needed so it now boasts a spacious back room where at parties, the pool table doubles as a buffet, family members pack the floor to line dance (led by Shirley’s 80-year-old sister) and the microphones are always on.
Singing was fundamental to Shirley’s childhood, and she still sings in church today. Both of Shirley’s parents and all of her siblings were singers. “If they had some money,” Andrew says, “they’d have been like the Jackson Five. All of ‘em can blow.” But Shirley insists her mother’s voice was best of all.
Shirley’s mother was actually singing in church when she took her last breath. “She was singing ‘I Got Jesus and That’s Enough,’” Shirley says. At that very moment, a dove descended and perched on the windowsill, church members told her later. Shirley had visited her mother earlier that day. She’d brought ribs for dinner, and her mother had baked a butter cream pound cake.
As the last thing her mother made, that cake lived on in the freezer for years. So did Shirley’s grief. “It took me a long … when I say a long time … to get over the shock of it,” she says, shaking her head. “It felt like a dream.” Her mother was her best friend. They talked two or three times a day, with Shirley often phoning during her lunch break, just to check in. A week before she died, Shirley had sent flowers for her birthday, still fresh on the dining room table on that last afternoon they sat together.
Even now, nearly 50 years later, Shirley’s sadness is palpable. Her voice lowers and takes on a ragged edge, like a blade of grief is nestled up next to her heart. Some things never do heal, and Shirley has faced her share of troubles and pain. Mixed in with the triumphs of grandchildren excelling in school and boisterous family gatherings are the devastating losses brought by miscarriages and car wrecks.
But there is another thing her mother instilled in Shirley from the beginning, and that is faith. Her Christian faith emits an energy that others can feel, Shirley says. Even total strangers, who routinely seek her advice at the grocery store or wherever she happens to be. “You don’t have to wear a sign,” she says. “People watch you. People see Christianity in you and you don’t have to say a word. The life I live speaks for me. When I walk in the store, they gravitate.” Shirley counsels people to take time for solitary prayer, to ask God for help to make it through the day. “Ask him to move that stumbling block that’s in your way,” she tells them. “God will work it out for you.”
“You don’t have to wear a sign, People watch you. People see Christianity in you and you don’t have to say a word. The life I live speaks for me.”
And Shirley can spot those in need. She recently noticed an anxious young employee at Sam’s Club who “had this desperate look.” She told him, “It’s going to be alright,” and they got to talking. He was stressed about money, struggling in math and thinking of quitting school. They wound up praying in the parking lot, with Andrew, together. “God has something for you,” Shirley assured him. She advised him to go in prayer, and also to find a math tutor.
Shirley blesses others with her cooking as well. She keeps sweet potato pies at the ready in her freezer to take to an ailing friend, or to a funeral. She once flagged down the postman and gave him an entire banana pudding. She is known in her community for always having good food to eat and always wanting to share it. “That’s why so many people flock here,” she says. She even keeps to-go boxes and plastic silverware on hand for those who can’t stay.
Shirley cooks in abundance. She once made so much seafood the preacher said she’d served “everything in the ocean.” She has worn out four stoves in as many decades. But Shirley is also a person who knows what’s important to her and keeps it in constant mind, who keeps things straightforward and simple. On the day we gather to eat, her centerpiece is a single fresh pineapple: a symbol of welcome for all who come to her table. mb
Shirley Jackson carries on her mother’s legacy of cooking meals for the whole family. A Sunday gathering at Jackson’s house after church is about celebrating faith, fellowship and food.
Sunday Mac and Cheese
1 1/2 cup uncooked macaroni
3 tablespoons butter
Dash black pepper
1 egg, whisked to combine
1 cup milk
1 8-ounce block of cheddar cheese, diced
1 cup shredded sharp cheddar, for topping
1. Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Bring a large pot of salted water to a boil. Add macaroni and cook until firm but tender, about 8 minutes. Drain the pasta and set aside.
2. In the same pot, over low heat, add butter and stir until melted. Turn off heat and add pepper, egg and milk. Stir to combine. Add diced cheese and macaroni.
3. Grease a 2 quart baking dish and pour in macaroni. Top with shredded cheese and bake for 30 minutes, until bubbly at the edges.
5 pounds Irish potatoes
1 tablespoon salad cube pickle relish
2 tablespoons Hellman’s mayonnaise
1 teaspoon yellow mustard
1 teaspoon sugar
salt and pepper, to taste
6 hard-boiled eggs
1/4 onion, diced
1/2 stick celery, diced
1/2 bell pepper, diced
paprika, for garnish
1.Peel and cut potatoes, and boil in salted water until done but still firm. Drain and set aside to cool.
2. In a large bowl, combine relish, mayo, mustard, sugar, salt and pepper.
3. Dice the eggs and gently stir them into the sauce along with diced vegetables. Add potatoes and toss to coat. Pour into a serving dish and top with slices of 2 remaining eggs and a generous sprinkling of paprika. Refrigerate overnight. Serve chilled.
Shirley’s Collard Greens
2 large bushes fresh collard greens, stems removed
2 strips bacon, diced
1/2 onion, diced
1 cup chicken broth
1 teaspoon greens seasonings (she likes Jimmy Lowe’s)
1. Dice collard greens. Wash thoroughly.
2. In the bottom of an extra-large stock pot over medium heat, fry bacon. Add onions and saute until translucent. Add the prepared collards and stir until slightly wilted. Add broth, 1 cup water and seasonings and bring to a simmer over medium heat. Cover and cook for one hour, stirring occasionally and checking that all liquid has not evaporated. Add more water if needed.
1 cup orange marmalade
1/2 cup soy sauce
1/2 teaspoon ground ginger
1/2 teaspoon garlic powder
1/2 cup ketchup
1/2 cup brown sugar
2 slabs baby back ribs, sliced apart
1. Preheat oven to 350 degrees. In a medium sized bowl, combine all ingredients except the ribs and whisk to combine. Set aside.
2. Place sliced ribs on a large broiling pan and drizzle with most of the sauce, reserving some for finishing. Bake for one hour uncovered, basting occasionally with pan drippings.
3. Before serving, top with remaining sauce and bake a few minutes until sauce browns slightly.
Fried Cornish Hens
Vegetable oil for frying
8 Cornish Hens
1 bottle Tony Chachere’s Creole-Style Butter Injectable Marinade
smoked paprika, to taste
garlic powder, to taste
onion powder, to taste
Tony Chachere’s Creole Seasoning, to taste
1. Preheat a deep fat fryer, or fill a large cooking pot with 2 inches of vegetable oil and slowly bring oil to 400 degrees. Meanwhile, inject hens with Creole butter. Season hens inside and out with powdered seasonings.
2. Fry hens 1 at a time until browned and cooked through, about 20 minutes.
1 can condensed milk
1 block Philadelphia cream cheese, softened
1 16-ounce container whipped topping
1 box French vanilla instant pudding
1 quart half and half
1 box vanilla wafer cookies
3-4 large bananas, sliced into coins
1 bag Pepperidge Farm Chessmen cookies, for garnish
1. In the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with the whisk attachment, combine condensed milk and cream cheese. Add pudding powder and mix well. Gradually add half and half. Remove from mixer and fold in whipped topping.
2. Line the bottom of a large serving bowl with a layer of wafer cookies. Top with a layer of sliced bananas and then with about one third of the pudding. Repeat layers two more times, finishing with pudding on top. Decorate the top with Chessmen cookies, cover with plastic wrap and refrigerate fully before serving.
Emily Blejwas is the director of the Alabama Folklife Association and author of “The Story of Alabama in Fourteen Foods.”