"He Arose, He Arose," rang the bells of the New Ahoskie Baptist Church. It was Easter and the people in the prosperous southern town of 5,000 readied to embrace the day and soul-stirring celebration of Christ's Resurrection, as only black Americans of southern extraction can.
It's a celebration as cherished among southern blacks as by any other group -- whether Greek-Americans in their hushed candle-lit processions or New Yorkers gaily parading their finery on Fifth Avenue -- with its own set of rituals and rules deeply felt in the remembered past of practically all of them.
As a child, my Easter Sunday always began with mother rising at dawn to prepare a breakfast one dreams of -- homemade buttermilk biscuits, bacon fried oh-so-crisp, country sausage, hominy grits and scrambled eggs -- the aroma rousing her seven children from sleep to a festive and happy breakfast.
Then came clothes, the finest Easter outfits we could manage. Mamma slipped into the downtown Ahoskie Department Store a few days in advance to shop -- on credit readily offered and accepted in small town America -- and she always bought me a hat. It was not an ordinary hat but one with a white silky ribbon around the base and a rubberized string that always -- always -- broke before I could cross my front step toward church.
Like so many black women before me, I remember a certain dress, too, a long-sleeved emerald green dress with a small bow on the front. My stockings are white in my mind's eye, and like most young girls I wore black patent-leather shoes. The secret to keeping them shiny was to dip an old rag in a jar of vaseline to work up a gleam that would last all day no matter what mischief one encountered.
For the Ransome family, Easter also meant getting down to the church early enough to polish with oil cloth every surface, casting out every particle of dust, every cobweb, each and every possibility of dirt so that the church shone in beauty and luster for the great day's arrival. We worked the black mahogany balcony pews with torn towels, kneading the red English polish deeply into the grain of the wood, talking and laughing and singing the morning away.
And after the services, after the glorious gospel music of our choir, the tears of joy and satisfaction filling our hearts, after that and shaking hands to renew friendships within the congregation and checking out the boys our own age, the back-slapping among country people unseen all year, the sweet-smelling embrace of elderly ladies fussing over us girls, waved goodbyes and kisses -- why, then it was time to eat.
For our family, Easter was doubly blessed because Mamma was one of those women whose cooking is as natural as nodding daffodils. She was a superb technician who could -- literally -- prepare any dish. Moreover, she had a wonderful vision of cooking, knowing that the garden, dairy and barnyard needed harmony when interpreted for the table.
Of course, Mamma preferred actions to speak louder than words, and she spoke eloquently through her traditional ham and baked hen, huge bowls of collards with wild green onions, cornbread so light and brown nestled with beets and pickled watermelon rind. The potato salad always stood ringed with deviled eggs sprinkled with paprika, while tall glasses of iced tea guarded each place setting.
But the real thrill, in my memory, came when every head turned as Mamma brought in "slip bones," a Black Easter specialty dish no home would possibly be without. It's a funny name, certainly, but slip bones -- which are sometimes called "slit bones" -- are nothing more than the meaty bones three to four inches above the tail of a pig.
It's a seasonal meat, only prepared in the spring around Easter when quality butchers prepare their best pork for the so-called Smithfield ham cut. Most store-bought hams are quickly dressed at the factory, stubby bone-in hams quickly smoked before shipment to supermarkets.
But the Smithfield ham, which takes its name from the wholesale firm in Virginia of the same name, is a longer, leaner cut that is cured for nine months before shipment. To create that unusual ham, the Smithfield butcher cuts the meat where the ham intersects higher up along the loin, gouging out in the process a delightful rack of meat-laced bones called slip bones.
Because the cut is seasonal, most Washington supermarket meat buyers are unaware of it, never even offering city customers the chance to try what so many southerners have grown to love. Murray's Meats (546-8541) at D.C. Farmers Market takes special orders for Smithfield slip bones by the case, with prices running from 59 to 79 cents a pound, depending on supply.
Properly prepared, slip bones are so elemental and basic it's difficult to think of them as something special. Yet they are, especially when Mamma's came to the table, so tender the meat fell from the bone into its own gravy. The secret, as Mamma revealed to her daughters and anyone who asked, is to slowly roast the bones sealed in aluminum foil, well seasoned with salt, pepper and vinegar, and thickened with gravy before serving.
For many black people, slip bones and Easter are inseparable, a call to yesterday when uncounted generations of us lived within the southern experience. While those days seem long ago -- many southern blacks today having moved to all parts of the country -- the memory lingers and it is sweet and worth savoring.
They might be something other people would like, too. SLIP BONES (8 servings) 8 or more slip bones 4 to 6 cups of water 3 tablespoons vinegar 2 teaspoons salt 2 teaspoons pepper 2 teaspoons flour
Place slip bones with water, vinegar and spices in a deep roasting pan. Cover tightly in aluminum foil to seal in juices. Cook at 350 degrees for approximately 1 hour. After an hour, remove foil and cook for approximately 20 minutes to brown bones. Mix flour and enough water to make a gravy, adding to vinegary juices already settled in the pan. Naturally, slip bones should be accompanied by collards, cabbage, cornbread and potato salad, pickles and iced tea.