My brothers, sisters and I were born in a little settlement known as Freetown, founded in the Virginia countryside by a group of freed slaves, including my grandfather, after the Civil War. I grew up there in the 1920s, living in unity and cooperation with seven other families. We farmed, hunted and often prepared food jointly, and whatever we did in early spring and throughout the growing season was geared toward winter and Christmas, the most memorable of holidays.

In spring, we gathered the first dandelion blossoms for making dandelion wine. Next, we collected wild strawberries for preserving and making strawberry short cake -- topped with our own delicious whipped cream. We would be busy until late summer planting and cultivating our crops, enjoying the first fruits and vegetables, and canning and drying the rest. Thank goodness we had a detached kitchen to avoid heating the house with our cooking and canning! We worked hard, yet found time to make ice cream, feast on watermelon and enjoy our friends and relatives from the city.

The fall season meant more gathering of wild fruits and berries and more canning, the aromas always tempting us to eat and spoil our supper. The smell of wild grapes and plums led us to the streams near where they grew, along with the tiny, dark purple elderberries that hung on slender stalks. Then there were the chestnuts grown in Grandfather's grove, which were picked and stored for later roasting.

Fall was demanding; making apple butter, fruitcakes and mince meat pies. After school, we'd feed the hogs to prepare them for butchering, looking forward to wonderful homemade sausages, liver pudding, fresh bacon, spare ribs, souse, boiled and sauteed pigs feet, and crackling bread, made from the defatted pieces from rendering lard.

With the arrival of hunting season came rabbits, squirrels, wild birds such as quail, and a few rare birds such as woodcock. They were dressed and left in feather to age and become part of our Christmas dinner.

Soon Christmas would approach. It was an exciting time. We'd bring in holly branches from outside and put running cedar vines around the house to decorate the windows, pictures and the mantelpiece. Some oak trees had mistletoe growing on them and we were thrilled if we found some. Beautiful red tissue papers that opened into bell shapes or balls were pinned to the ceiling and a fire roared in our huge fireplace. We were ready for Christmas. All that was left was the last minute baking of pound cakes, coconut layer cakes, homemade caramel fudge, peanut brittle and divinity cream.

Christmas Eve was the first time in the season when oysters appeared. They were the biggest treat on Christmas Eve and throughout the holiday season. We had fried oysters for breakfast on Christmas morning with homemade sausage, liver pudding, biscuits, great coffee and batter bread.

Father would rise before the break of day, go outside and set off very powerful Roman candles, awakening the settlement. We would quickly dress and rush down the stairs, meeting the aroma of oranges from our stockings hanging on the mantel. We rushed out to light our sparklers before daylight to enjoy their effect.

Afterward we opened our gifts and sat down to a Christmas breakfast of crispy fried oysters, scrambled eggs and brains from the fresh-butchered hogs, liver pudding, sausage and fresh crisp bacon. There were biscuits, batter bread, hominy, homemade butter, preserves or jelly, coffee and cocoa, and dandelion wine.

Then we went on to prepare Christmas dinner! The meal consisted of many of the foods and drinks that we had prepared during spring, summer and fall. Among them were yeast bread rolls, corn batter bread, biscuits, crackling bread, homemade butter, preserves, jelly, pickles, relish, roast chicken, spare ribs, baked rabbit, stewed squirrel, baked wild birds, wild watercress, baked sweet potatoes, whipped white potatoes, creamed turnips, home-canned green beans, baked tomatoes, corn pudding. Desserts were too much -- fruit cake, pound cake, apple pie, mince pie, bowls of fruit jelly with whipped cream, cookies, more dandelion wine and, sometimes, a big bowl of snow cream. This didn't even include the continuous exchange of food from the neighbors.

After dinner, Father, his brother and two white farmer friends -- all of whom had beautiful voices -- were invited to go out caroling around the countryside into the homes of families in the area. It was a very happy holiday.

PAN-FRIED OYSTERS

(4 to 5 servings)

4 eggs, beaten

1 teaspoon salt

2 tablespoons peanut oil

2 cups plain cracker meal

1 quart drained oysters

1/2 cup fresh lard (or substitute vegetable oil)

Place the eggs in a bowl, add salt, beat well with a fork, then add the peanut oil. Place a cup of cracker meal on a sheet of wax paper. With a fork, pick up each oyster, dip it into the egg mixture, and place it on the cracker meal. To bread the oyster shift the wax paper. Place each breaded oyster on a second plain sheet of wax paper and let stand a few minutes before frying.

To fry, heat an aluminum skillet with 1/2 cup lard; when it reaches the smoking point, put oysters in and fry them until they turn a golden brown, about 2 minutes on each side. Drain the oysters on a piece of a brown paper and serve while hot and crispy.

Per serving: 662 calories, 31 gm protein, 63 gm carbohydrates, 27 gm fat, 9 gm saturated fat, 166 mg cholesterol, 1490 mg sodium

From "The Taste of Country Cooking" by Edna Lewis (Knopf, 1982)

ROAST CHICKEN WITH DRESSING

(6 servings)

The fresh onion and celery make a very aromatic stuffing.

FOR THE DRESSING:

6 cups finely cubed bread crumbs, cut from dry bread

2/3 cup finely cubed celery

2 tablespoons finely cut celery leaves

1/2 cup finely cubed onion

1 teaspoon salt

1 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper

1/2 teaspoon fresh or dried thyme, rubbed to powder

2 teaspoons crushed, fresh sage leaves

6 ounces (1 1/2 sticks) melted butter

TO FINISH:

1 roasting hen, or capon, 6 to 8 pounds

Soft butter

Combine well the dressing ingredients, except butter, in a large mixing bowl. Pour over the melted butter and mix well again. I find it better not to moisten the crumbs, as the juice from the celery and onion plus the liquid from the hen will be just enough to moisten the stuffing.

To prepare for roasting, wash the chicken well under cold water, but don't soak it. After washing, wipe dry inside and out with a damp cloth and fill with the bread crumb dressing. Stitch the opening with a needle and white thread, tie the legs in place, and rub the chicken all over with soft butter. Set into a preheated 425-degree oven, close the door, and reduce temperature to 375 degrees. After 40 minutes of cooking there should be quite a bit of liquid in the roasting pan (and even more so when roasting a chicken without stuffing). Remove the chicken from the oven, baste it, and then pour the liquid contents from the pan into a bowl. Return it to the oven and continue roasting, basting every 20 minutes with a bit of soft butter. Continue to transfer any rendered drippings from the roasting pan to the bowl (add a little water back to pan to prevent clinging particles from scorching). In the meantime, while the chicken is still cooking, skim off all of the fat from the top of the liquid in the bowl. When the chicken is done -- it should be well-cooked and crisp in about 1 1/2 hours -- remove it from the pan.

Pour in the liquid from the bowl, heat the pan over the burner, running a spoon around the pan to dislodge all particles. Let the sauce boil quickly and briefly to thicken, and pour through a strainer into a sauce boat. See that it is kept hot until served. I caution against adding water; it too often spoils the flavor. If water is used, it shouldn't be more than a tablespoonful.

The reason for pouring away the liquid from the chicken while it is roasting is to save the very fine essence that is being extracted from the chicken as it cooks. Otherwise it will quickly evaporate because of the heat, and all that will be left will be fat.

Per serving: 1,506 calories, 101 gm protein, 75 gm carbohydrates, 88 gm fat, 40 gm saturated fat, 389 mg cholesterol, 1,735 mg sodium

From "The Taste of Country Cooking" by Edna Lewis (Knopf, 1982)

DIVINTY CREAM

(2 1/2 cups or 16 to 20 pieces)

1/2 cup light (clear) corn syrup

2 cups sugar

2 eggs whites, beaten stiff

1 teaspoon vanilla

1 cup walnut meats

Boil the syrup and sugar together with 1/2 cup water without stirring and, when it has thickened, test to see if it spins a thread: Place a spoon in the pan of boiling syrup, lift it above the pan, and tilt it so the syrup will quickly run off the spoon -- the remainder will fall into a threadlike string when it spins a definite thread. Pour the syrup right away into a bowl of stiff-beaten egg whites. Continue to beat until the mixture becomes thick. When thick, add vanilla and chopped walnut meats, shape into ovals (about 2 tablespoons each) and press half a walnut into top.

Per piece: 169 calories, 2 gm protein, 32 gm carbohydrates, 4 gm fat, 0 gm saturated fat, 0 mg cholesterol, 14 mg sodium

From "The Taste of Country Cooking" by Edna Lewis (Knopf, 1982)

Edna Lewis, 76, often called the "dean of Southern cooks," is a part-time chef at Gage & Tollner restaurant in Brooklyn, and is currently working on her fourth cookbook.