Rural Missouri Magazine

Past and Present
Lifelong Oregon County native
sees little reason to change

by Jeff Joiner

Verble Mauldin has lived within a few miles of where she was born in Oregon County her entire life. For the 89-year-old life is busy with chores including gathering wood to start a fire to render pork fat into lard.

Verble Mauldin has never lived more than a mile from where she was born in Oregon County. In fact she's only left the state one time and that was to visit relatives in Kansas last year. She was glad to get home.

Hers is a story of family, neighbors and loving a place so much you never want to leave.

Miss Verble, as her friends call her, is 89 years old and still lives on her own in the house her late husband, Therman, built for her in 1946 just a mile from the Eleven Point River. She cooks and cleans and gardens though she has family and neighbors nearby that look after her (the neighbors insist that Verble looks after them more than they do her).

For Verble life has changed little in nearly a century. She still cooks pretty much the same things and the same way her mother taught her when she was child.

"It's how I growed up. I've never known nothin' else."

And just as she's done since she was old enough to help her mother, Verble still renders lard by heating pork fat over an outdoor fire in an old kettle used by her mother for just that purpose.

The fat is slowly melted over a couple of hours until it's reduced to a liquid along with the "cracklins" or pieces that won't render. The cracklins dry to a consistency of pork rinds and are a favorite treat of many people who grew up in the country when lard was the only cooking oil available.

"When I was a kid you didn't use nothin' else. You couldn't have found oil to save your life."

Verble still lives on her own and cooks and gardens much as she's done.

Of course Verble could have used store bought cooking oils any time after the Second World War. But cooking with lard, and making and washing with lye soap (which Verble did until recently when lye was no longer available) was just the way she did things. She sees no reason to change.

Besides things like pie crusts and biscuits just taste better cooked using lard, she says.

Even when she doesn't need to render she's still outdoors working a garden patch in the spring and summer or collecting black walnuts in the fall and hulling them herself. "I enjoy getting outside. I get tired of the house."

Though she does have a satellite TV dish given to her by her son-in-law Wayne Johnson and her daughter Bonnie she says she doesn't have much time to watch. She's in the middle of making two quilts now. She does enjoy watching a gospel music show but, "I wouldn't give you dime for the rest of it," she says laughing.

Verble has been on her own since 1995 when her husband died after developing Parkinson's disease. He raised cattle and hogs and worked for 30 years driving a road grader for Oregon County. Before they had refrigeration the family butchered hogs in the winter and smoked the meat to preserve it. That's when they rendered fat from the freshly killed hogs. It was an annual tradition.

"That was important to Therman. He wanted us to have meat every day."

They were pretty much self sufficient, she says. Then Howell-Oregon Electric Cooperative came through their area and began setting poles in 1944.

"It was exciting. It sure was," Verble recalls. "I remember the crews coming through the yard with the line and hooking things up. We had electric lights in the house. Before that we used coal-oil lamps. We didn't have refrigerators or deep freezers before that. Now we could freeze our meat instead of smoking it."

Today, Verble is still a member of the co-op and her son-in-law, Wayne, is a director of the cooperative in West Plains. Verble doesn't look back on those early days as hard times, but just the way things were. She likes the best of modern appliances like washers and dryers, but still likes her old fashioned way of doing some things.

Of course only an outsider would question an 89-year-old lady about cooking with rendered pork fat.

Verble once had a neighbor from California who stopped by one day to watch her render. "He asked me, 'What do you do with that?' I said, 'You eat it.' He said, 'That'll kill you.' I just said, 'I'm going to die anyway and it might just as well be from one thing as another.'"

Much as it was in Verble's youth, the rendering kettle is also a place to socialize with family and neighbors.

For most of Verble's neighbors rendering brings back pleasant memories of childhood and watching their mothers make lard and waiting patiently for the cracklins. It also recalls memories of cracklin biscuits, a popular country treat made by mixing cracklins with the biscuit dough.

These days Verble renders as much for her neighbors as she does for herself. She shares nearly all that she has from the homemade quilts she makes to old fashioned bars of soap.

For her it's reason enough to have a few folks come by to watch the kettle and visit with one another. Inevitably stories turn to butchering hogs, deer hunting and family. For Verble it's a way to stay close to friends and family and recall the days when life was a little harder, but perhaps a little sweeter.

Rural Missouri | June 2020 Issue

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