Reader asks about old black cast iron wash pot
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  • They remind me of Big Mama
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    Big mama’s old black wash pot

    I watched as two hefty men hauled the big black pot between them and sat it squat on the muddy ground in back of the auction house. As soon as I saw it, a very familiar childhood vision sprang into my head.

    It looked just like the old round-bellied cast iron pot that my grandmother heated up to clean her white clothes dizzyingly white. I grew up in a rural area outside Macon, GA, when washing machines for many people were a luxury. My grandmother washed clothes the way she had done it for years, and probably as her mother and her mother before that.

    A big black pot ready to be auctioned.

    I can still see her building a fire under the pot in the back yard with small kindling wood to get it started. She’d pour in her soap powder – or lye soap or whatever she used; I don’t’ recall what it was. Then she’d drop her white sheets and pillowcases into the scalding water with its white suds, and occasionally stir the clothes with a stick (like a washing machine agitator, I suppose) or replace burned-out firewood.

    It seemed like she never left that pot while the fire was going and the clothes were soaking. I’d watch her on hot summer mornings (I don’t recall what she did in the wintertime, but I’m sure it was the same routine. Winters were not as harsh as they are these days). A short distance away, my cousins and I, fresh from breakfast, would draw hopscotch squares on the ground, finding the perfect stone to throw in the boxes and hopping on one foot to the top of it.

    I don’t remember how involved we were in the washing, but knowing my grandmother we were expected to help out in some way by either replenishing the fire or adding water to the pot.

    Once the clothes were soaked a good long time, she used the stick to remove them dripping wet from the hot pot to cool water in tin tubs. I remember scrub boards (we called them ‘rub boards”), so she must’ve used them on some items (Did she use lye soap? I don’t remember). In fact, we all used the boards to wash clothes.

    Once used for scrubbing clothes, these rub boards now decorate my laundry room.

    Then, the clothes would be rinsed, squeezed to remove excess water and taken to a clothes line that stretched between a large pecan tree to smaller trees not far from the house. The clothes line seemed to go on forever to us children whose sight lines and sizes were short. I remember hanging clothes on the metal line with wooden clothespins like the ones I now come across at auction.

    Washing clothes in this way seemed like the most natural thing to do. But what seemed right at one point in time doesn’t make it right forever. Now, as I’m writing this, the washing machine and dryer in my basement are doing the drudgery work that Big Mama would do on those sweaty days. The heaviest thing I carry is a hamper of clothes from my second floor to the basement laundry room, where I have four small washboards decorating a countertop. They’ve never touched water in my house.

    We hung clothes with clothespins to dry on a metal line.

    This tradition of outdoor clothes-washing in a big black pot wasn’t just some singular memory of mine. I came across several essays by others who had some of the same recollections but with clearer details. Norris Chambers Old Timer’s Tales outlined the whole process for wash day, recalling that the pots were about 18 inches in diameter, held 20 gallons of water and had small legs to keep them off the ground.

    I found several other stories of big black pots used for washing by families in North Carolina, Texas and Tennessee. Other writers told of firing them up to boil water on hog-killing days, and using them to render fat from hog skin, thereby producing cracklins.

    Those of us who remember this decidedly southern ritual talk about them nostalgically. I’m sure those were not the “good old days” for my grandmother and the women who actually washed the clothes. It was hot hard work that they could not escape. Embedded in the pots, though, are all our good memories of them whom we have immortalized. Each time we see one, as a planter or depicted in a painting, we are taken back to them.

    This is an old black pot cookbook that I had to have.

    Some years ago, when I was driving from Florida to visit my family, I stopped by one of those pecan shops in south Georgia (pecans in the shell are one of my food loves) and was looking through the cookbooks. I came across a small one with crude illustrations and recipes that I remembered from my childhood. So I just had to buy it.

    What compelled me most to buy it was its title and cover: “big mama’s Old Black Pot,” with a woman standing over a black pot on an old stove. How could I resist?


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