Fifteen years ago I was standing in front of a huge meat cooler in an IGA store in Monck’s Corner, SC and seeing a part of my youth pass before my eyes. I was looking at a massive variety of fresh and smoked animal parts, pigs feet, ham-hocks, jowl meat, pig ears, turkey legs, chicken feet, ox tail, and fat back. These were all the things that my Uncle Johnny sold in his Columbia, SC grocery during the 1950s.
My brother and I spent the occasional summer visiting our South Carolina relatives and working in Uncle Johnny’s store. Boswell’s Grocery was located in the middle of a large black district of the city and impoverished blacks were the main walk-in clientele. The store also had a sizable “white” trade but that was mostly by telephone and delivered via a Chevrolet panel truck. One of the main joys of spending summers in the store was getting to run around the city in that truck and getting a South Carolina driver’s license at the young age of fourteen.
On Saturdays the rural people would come to town and buy staples for the next week. These were mostly share croppers and tenant farmers, both black and white. Some of the nicest but poorest people I’ve ever experienced. These were the people who bought flour, corn meal, pinto beans and rice in twenty-five and fifty-pound printed cloth sacks and wore dresses and other clothing made from the empty sacks.
Boswell’s had a walk-in cooler for meat and dairy products. There was always a side of beef and a hog hanging from overhead gambles with the better cuts going to the white trade. The lesser cuts and smoked items were sold to the poor who used them as seasonings for soups, stews, and rice and bean dishes. Cheaper cuts were also often barbecued in makeshift pits in people’s grass-less back yards.
There was a large wooden box with a hinged lid, half filled with rock salt, and used to store big slabs of pork fat back. Fat back is the layer of fat from the back of a hog and is similar in flavor to uncured bacon and used as a seasoning. On Fridays the box was filled with salt-cured fish to meet the needs of the Roman Catholic community and an affordable source of protein for the poor.
In the middle of the store was a large cold water-bath soft drink machine. Nearby were racks of packaged snacks such as honey buns, cup cakes and fried pies. There were also half a dozen or more boxes of bulk Nabisco cookies that people bought by weight. Uncle Johnny’s rule was we kids could eat all the broken cookies we wanted. For reasons unknown there always seemed to be a ready supply of broken cookies. One of my brother’s favorite stories is about a black laborer who frequently came in the store and said, “Missa Johnny, give me a R-n-C Cola and a nickle worth ’em bussed up cookies.”
The blacks who lived in the Lincoln Street area, also known, for some ironic reason, as White Town, lived in unpainted shotgun houses, sitting on stone stilts along narrow unpaved dirt streets. Their homes came with no screened doors, no window screens, no electricity, no indoor water, and no indoor sewer system. Their water came from a common tap at the end of each street, and every back yard had that house behind the house. In the steaming heat of the South Carolina summers they would sit on their porches and stoops talking about events of the day and swapping rumors. About every other house would have a rusty oil drum with a smoking fire burning to help ward off the mosquitoes.
At the end of Wheat Street was a juke joint made from scrap lumber, metal advertising signs and topped with rusted tin roofing. On weekend nights the place came alive with music and the sounds of people bustin’ loose and having fun. On the occasional Friday or Saturday night my Aunt Mary, a registered nurse, would be summoned to tend to someone’s wounds suffered in a fight.
Boswell’s Grocery was another of those places that had a distinctive aroma. It was some mixture of unwashed working people, oiled wooden floors, smoked meat and fish, fresh bread and bakery goods, kerosene, bulk dried produce, topped off with the distinct odor of my uncle Johnny’s ever-present nickel cigar.
All this came back as I stood in that IGA store years ago. I remarked out loud to myself, “I’ve seen all this before.” A younger black man, thinking I was speaking to him said, “Pardon.” I told him how all this was so familiar to me and we began to talk about the similarities of our childhoods. He told me stories about his grandparents making ox tail soup and fifty ways to use fat back or chickens feet.
The last time I was in Monch’s Corner the IGA store had been torn down. Years before all of Columbia’s White Town, including my uncle’s store, had been razed and replaced with fraternity and sorority houses for students at the University of South Carolina. It somehow bothers me that exactly where my uncle’s store once stood, a multi-generation institution that provided for the daily needs of decades worth of families, there now sits a Chi Psi frat house.
All this is a bygone reality of a bygone era. I can’t imagine a person today knowing what to do with smoked chicken feet or be willing to buy a pound slab of something called “fat back” from an old wooden salt-box. Hell, we all know people who wouldn’t think of eating something three seconds past its “best by” date. For the people who lived around my uncle’s store, however, the “best by” date was whatever date you had the necessary number of nickels to buy it or the date Johnny Boswell let you put it on the cuff. I have little desire to return to those days but I truly appreciate the memories.