Excerpt from An Hour Before Daylight by Jimmy Carter, plus links to reviews, author biography & more

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An Hour Before Daylight

Memories of A Rural Boyhood

By Jimmy Carter

An Hour Before Daylight
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  • Hardcover: Dec 2000,
    280 pages.
    Paperback: Oct 2001,
    288 pages.

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I don't remember much about the summer heat, but I have vivid memories of how cold it was in winter. The worst job was getting up in the morning to start a fire going somewhere in the frigid house. We kept a good supply of pine kindling, which we called "lighterd," to start the blaze that would eventually ignite the long-burning hickory and oak, but I always hoped that some live coals were still smoldering under the ashes so the fire would start quickly. There was an open fireplace in the living room that we lit only late in the afternoon, when the family would gather there, but the fire (later a wood-burning heater) in the bedroom where Mama and Daddy slept was made at dawn, so we shivering children would rush there in the mornings to put on our clothes. I had the northeast corner room, which had no source of heat. We never thought about pajamas, which would have been warmer than the BVDs that Daddy and I wore on cold days under our shirts and trousers, and then slept in at night.


Almost all our food was produced in our pasture, fields, garden, and yard. My mother did not enjoy cooking, but was good at preparing a few basic dishes, and Daddy liked to cook special meals such as batter cakes, all-too-rare waffles, and fried fish. At hog-killing time, he fixed souse meat, a conglomeration of meat from heads, feet, and other animal parts that were boiled to a thick, soft mush, heavily spiced, and then congealed into a loaf that could be sliced for later consumption. He also assumed the responsibility of preparing homemade mayonnaise throughout the year and eggnog at Christmas. Whichever farm woman who came in to cook for us when Mama was working as a nurse just embellished the basic meals of her own family with a few of our fancier foods, like rice, cheese, peanut butter, macaroni, and canned goods. Nothing went to waste around our house, and we were expected to eat whatever was prepared and to clean our plates before leaving the table.

Corn was our staple grain, and rarely would we have a meal without grits, lye hominy, roasting ears, or one of the half-dozen recipes for corn bread. We always had chickens available, either hens or fryers, and it was usually my job to catch and kill them so they could be dressed and then baked, fried, or made into a pie for dinner or supper. (We never heard the word "lunch" applied to sitting down at a table.) Chicken was standard for Sunday dinner after church, when we also had fresh vegetables: peas, potatoes, string beans, butter beans, okra, rutabagas, and all kinds of greens, with collards our favorite, but never any spinach. We also had mashed Irish potatoes or rice and gravy, biscuits, and a pie made from seasonal fruit or sweet potatoes. Cured pork products were available most of the year, and it was surprising how often we ate seafood that Daddy bought from two local men who made regular truck trips from Plains to the Gulf and brought back mullet, mackerel, shrimp, and oysters. Canned salmon, which sold for either a nickel or a dime depending on the quality or size of the can, was usually transformed into fried croquettes and eaten with gobs of catsup. Another staple was kit fish, which was dried mackerel packed with salt in small wooden kegs. We soaked the pieces in clear water overnight to reduce the saltiness, and fried them for breakfast to go with our grits and biscuits.


I still have vivid memories of the home place where I spent my boyhood. There was a dirt tennis court next to our house, unknown on any other farm in our area, which Daddy laid out as soon as we moved there and kept clean and relatively smooth with a piece of angle iron nailed to a pine log that a mule could drag over it every week or so. Next was my father's commissary store, with the windmill in back, and then a large fenced-in garden. A two-rut wagon road ran from our back yard to the barn, which would become the center of my life as I matured and eagerly assumed increasing responsibilities for the work of a man.

Copyright © 2001 by Jimmy Carter

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