By: Ron Whitehead & Greta Render
Mama gave me a tin cup when I was a boy. Til I left home, when I was 17, I wore a thin rope, to hold my pants up. I’ve always been skinny. I kept my tin cup, and a knife with a bottle opener, on my rope. They both came in handy many times including, and especially, my last visit with Moxley and Eirene.
I was 16, a year away from leaving home, leaving home for good, leaving home forever. I’d come to visit Moxley and Eirene, travelin by boat, alone. I didn’t know how many more times I’d have this opportunity. It was a crisp clear day in early September. The sad and glad of early fall filled me up. It felt good but it ached with loneliness too.
Some of you know that several miles southwest of Centertown, 27 miles from Owensboro, Owensboro, the self-proclaimed burgoo capitol of the world, deep, and I mean deep, in the bottoms where the bobcats still live, on an island on a tight curve of Green River, the deepest river in the world, with catfish that have swallowed children whole, the Green River, with nests of water moccasins in every cove, on a tight curve of Green River lived, in a wicked, crooked dirt hut old Moxley and his wife Eirene.
The island, called Toad’s Island, rose, peaking with a small hill, above the Green. It had flooded only once, back in ’37. Unlike most of the Irish and Scots in Ohio County, the fifth largest county, and one of the poorest, in Kentucky, home of Bill Monroe, the father of Bluegrass music, resting across the Green River from Muhlenberg County and Paradise, unlike most of the Irish and Scots Moxley’s parents had come from Hungary and Eirene’s from Greece back in the 1800’s.
When I was a boy I visited Moxley and Eirene with Daddy or Grandaddy Dick. We stopped by after runnin trot lines. Some city people might call them trout lines but we never caught no trout on them: we caught catfish, snappin’ turtles, snakes and eels all of which occasionally found their way into Eirene’s burgoo, the best, and most peculiar, unlike any other, burgoo in the world. Eirene was the burgoo queen. Although few will admit it, folks from miles away, including all the way from Owensboro, eventually found their way to Toad’s Island, down on the Green River, and borrowed the recipes, which continue to be used on rare, private, and special occasions, for Eirene’s burgoo and Moxley’s moonshine whiskey. Moxley was the moonshine king.
Moxley and Eirene had an orchard and a garden but Moxley always said he lived on snake, snappin’ turtle, possum, and moonshine whiskey. By the time I was 16 I’d seen him eatin’ and drinkin’ all of them more than once and with his big red and purple nose I figured he was tellin’ the truth. He kept his moonshine still right in front of their hut. They had a one-eyed black cat with no tail called Spit and a three-legged dog called Tick. Eirene, I guessed, was probably a witch but a decent one and by the time I first met her, when I was a boy, she may have fogotten most of what she once knew.
But she had remembered how to make burgoo, the most unusual and distinctively flavored burgoo I’ve ever tasted. Same was true of Moxley’s moonshine. I can barely even approximate their magic recipes. I was a poor witness especially once Moxley began offerin pourin’ his moonshine, God’s Tears, into my tin cup. It was the smoothest hard liquor I’ve ever, in my entire life, tasted. My vision blurred as I watched Moxley on my left and Eirene on my right. Sometimes they became one, not too pretty, person. But, despite their strangeness, I always liked both of them so no matter how ugly they looked as one person it didn’t matter, I didn’t care, I just sat there watchin’ and grinnin’ and smellin’ while they brewed the burgoo and the moonshine.
Moxley poured in spring water which he collected runnin’ directly out of the side of their Toad’s Island hill. He added pure cane sugar, cracked corn and malt. He always cut the first gallon with water cause it was so strong. It kicked harder than a mule or an udder sore milk cow. Sometimes he added burnt sugar and water to change the colorin’. He did that for variety. While Moxley was cookin up his strange brew my attention wandered back and forth so I watched Eirene cook her burgoo too. I watched her make burgoo several times, over the years, and it was always different dependin’ on what she had available.
This particular time, the last time I saw her make it, when I was 16, she killed a chicken, snuck up behind it and cut its head off before it knew what happened, then she plucked it and tossed it in, then instead of beef or pork, she added chunks of snappin’ turtle, possum, water moccasin, and eel. Even though fish isn’t common to burgoo I’m pretty sure, despite the moonshine I’d drunk, that she threw in several pieces of catfish. I’d brought her two rabbits I killed huntin’ with Daddy. I helped her skin them then she threw them in, bones and all, didn’t even cut off their heads. Of course the pot, which was on an open fire in front of the hut, was filled with water from the river. She also mixed in some dirty dish water. For some reason I never discovered, before addin’ the water she first placed river rocks in the bottom of the pot.
Once the water was ready she tossed in tomatoes, potatoes, onions, garlic, cabbage, peppers, carrots, corn, beans, peas, ketchup, salt, pepper, thyme, vinegar, sauces, homemade red wine, plenty of Moxley’s moonshine, pinches of a variety of herbs, then she said words I didn’t understand, maybe Greek, the language of her ancestors, and she said them like she was castin’ a spell. It was spooky the way she chanted those words gettin’ a glazed faraway look in her dark eyes. Good Lord I knew it was gonna be good. It always was. She cooked it for hours. I’m not sure how many hours cause I passed out.
When I woke up the sun had set. It was a beautiful starry night. The full moon was risin. A pack of wild dogs was barkin way off in the distance, up river. Crickets, katydids, frogs, and lightnin’ bugs brightened the night providing a brilliant sound and light show. Eirene and Moxley handed me food and drink, burgoo and moonshine, best food in the world, bar none. We stayed up late, into the night, sharin’ stories, listenin’ close to each other, to the bobcat’s mournful wail, listenin’ to the spirits walkin’ the earth late, late at night when the vail tween worlds disappears.
The next mornin’, just after daybreak, a buzzin’ fly woke me up. All three of us had fallen asleep on the ground, up close to the fire which had fallen to a dull ember, almost out. The sun was crackin’ the sky over the trees east of the Green. I rose, walked silently to my boat and glided away. It was my final visit, the last time I saw my dear ancient friends Moxley and Eiren, moonshine king burgoo queen.
from a poet’s heart in a kentucky girl, mama
a work in progress by greta render & ron whitehead
Copyright (c) 2014 Greta Render & Ron Whitehead