357 Days of Mary Nell

by Debbie Butler Tate

My mother, Mary Nell Butler, and dad, Harold Butler, were both born and raised in Gibson County, Tennessee. She was from the “Gum Woods” area, outside Trenton, and he was from Brazil. Our family moved to Union City, Tennessee, when Dad graduated from medical school in Memphis. He was a general practitioner at The Doctors Clinic for over 40 years. 

My name is Debbie Butler Tate, and I was born in 1955, the oldest of their three children. I have a sister, Terry Walker, and a brother, Craig Butler. Mother was a homemaker, keeper of the peace, cook, chief bottle washer, laundress, accountant, taxi driver, yard maintenance worker, interior designer, comedian, storyteller, and many other things, but most of all, a wonderful Mother. She passed away in April of 2011, after a lengthy and hard-fought battle against ovarian cancer, inspiring many.

Mother’s birthday would have been January 8, and she would have cooked a big Sunday dinner for everyone, never thinking to take a rest as cooking was what she truly loved. I have been going through her handwritten recipe cards over the past two months, laughing and crying at the same time. These treasures are recipes written on bits of paper and some are notes from the kids – just about everything.

In honor of her, I thought it would be fun to do a “357 Days of Mary Nell,” posting her recipes at random each day on Facebook. The following two stories are a sampling of others I have posted. I am planning to write a book compiling the many true stories, recipes and pictures of our family.

Day # 312

Duck, Extra Crispy and Pot Roast

We, like many children, had many pets through the years, including goldfish, dogs (one of which wore a helmet due to a skull defect), rabbits, turtles, lambs and a duck named Quacky. I know, so original, right?

As the story goes, one afternoon the week before Easter, Pappy, our granddaddy, brought the tiny little yellow duck home to Craig, who was five at the time.

To say that Mother was not happy with the new arrival is an understatement, but being the good mother that she was, she swallowed hard and fixed a nice big box for Quacky. She knew, of course, that she would be his main caretaker as Craig, a few months before, had “taken care of” his first two pets, a goldfish named Hamburger and another named Hotdog. The fish survived for a few weeks, until Craig decided they had “dirty faces” and needed a bath. He proceeded to scoop them out of the water (They may have been dead by this point as he had a death grip on them.), marched to the bathroom sink, and washed their little faces with a large bar of Camay soap.

Quacky, however, was more resilient. He was a tiny, adorable little bit of fluff, who would follow Craig, Terry and I around and around the kitchen floor and all through the house. Mother was not impressed. It was pretty impossible to house train a tiny duck after all. Therefore, whenever we were not able to watch him like a hawk, he was confined to his cardboard box with water and food.

One early spring day, we all had spring fever, I suppose, and were running around getting our duck all stirred up. He was flapping his wings and quacking like crazy. Mother was cooking for company coming and was about to become “unglued” with all the noise and confusion in the kitchen.

Quacky ran under the refrigerator and became stuck. Now mother had to get on her hands and knees and use the end of a broom to sweep him out. This rescue took quite awhile. When she finally retrieved him, she was at her wit’s end. She put him in his box, placed it outside on our patio, and ordered us to go upstairs and play.

As usually happened, Mother got busy cooking. It started to rain. It was cold outside. It rained for probably two or three hours before we all realized Quacky was still outside! She ran out to get him but it was too late. Quacky was floating in the water on his pitiful, little side, cold and dead.

It was almost time for the company to arrive. Mother had food still cooking, and we all stood in the middle of the kitchen and wailed, “You killed Quacky!”

The flood of tears continued until Mother couldn’t take it anymore. In a very “I Love Lucy” fashion and, as a last ditch effort, she said, “Why, we will just pop him in the oven and maybe that will dry him out!”

Now Daddy would probably not have thought this a sound medical practice (nor anyone else), but it seemed like a fantastic idea at the time. We picked up our little duck and laid him out on a blue dishtowel, then placed him on a cookie sheet. Mother pulled the pot roast out of the 300 degree oven and foregoing last rites, popped Quacky into the oven. We four stood at attention in front of the oven door … waiting and watching. The kitchen was silent except for the oven making its usual popping sounds, heating. Mother, by this time, was wringing her hands on the front of her floured apron.

Suddenly a small sound came from inside the oven, then another. We peeked inside. Quacky (or Lazarus, a much more appropriate name now) was up and standing on his two very hot feet.

He was scooped out of the oven that day and was back to normal before the company arrived. He grew to be a very large duck and eventually was taken to live on the pond at the Reelfoot Packing Company on Reelfoot Avenue.

Pot Roast (Barbecue Style)

1/2 c. chopped onion

1/2 c. red or white wine

1 tsp. salt

5 lb. beef roast

1/4 c. ketchup

1 Tbs. Worcestershire Sauce

1/4 tsp. garlic powder

1 (8 oz.) can tomato sauce

1/2 tsp. paprika

2 Tbs. shortening 

1/4 c. wine vinegar

1 tsp. mustard

Combine all ingredients and pour over roast in large bowl. Marinate, covered, overnight in refrigerator. Next day, heat shortening in heavy skillet or Dutch oven. Remove meat from marinade and brown in fat. Pour marinade over meat and cover and simmer until meat is tender, about 2 to 2 1/2 hours. Gravy may be thickened with flour if desired.