Wanda Key Turner | Corn Muffins

A share from Wanda’s yard.
Pray for a good harvest but continue to hoe. Ida Morgan Key

She was my catalog of can do. Craning my neck as a child I watched her diminutive body, topped with an elegant french twist, commandeer the pipe organ at the First Presbyterian Church USA, Columbia, Tennessee. And to make matters more fabulous, every spring she adorned her hairdo with a single blossom from her yard.

Even then I recognized her personal style as one of pervading grit, a mixture of curiosity and commitment to carpe diem. These qualities were offshoots, driven by a sense of survival, that were concocted when as a little girl, her mother ritually locked her in a closet for behaving badly. Tiny Wanda was terrified by the way her mother managed her, and her father turned his head.

As she grew up, the unresolved pain not only drew out the good in her but, occasionally cast her as possessor of absolute truth. This sometimes resulted in a fracas with her beloveds. She immediately would have regrets only to turn things over in her mind until the story became legend of how she was wronged.

Fools would not be suffered gladly. All to say that righteousness could be her undoing. And it takes one to know one.

Still those who crossed her path and struck her fancy could bask in her delight. She celebrated them with the gifts of her labors: bouquets from her yard or pans from her oven.

After my mother’s death, I felt the object of her respect. A sort of relief took me over when she called me by name.

In a poetic sense, Wanda was reborn at ten years old after her mother’s death when her father remarried the Food Specialist for the State of Mississippi, Ida Morgan. Her new mother along with best friend Quida Midkiff, the Mississippi state clothing specialist, delivered enough attention and affection to resonate into Wanda’s ninth decade.

No time to waste, there was canning, sewing, painting and flower arranging to be mastered. A beloved domestic and mentor named Annie taught her to clean, cook and iron in a manner for legacy. Wanda said that people went “wild” for Annie’s food – biscuits, corn muffins, roasts, fried chicken, greens, vegetable soup, cakes and pies.

One summer Wanda took the Panama Limited from Jackson, Mississippi to Chicago. Her destination was organ class at Northwestern University. She got more prompting than she bargained for as she gazed from a car window.

The world was at war and as the train approached the city, she saw one victory garden after another in each and every front yard. “It captivated me,” she was fond of saying. Later she would plant immense vegetable gardens in various locations across town and sell the produce to friends, donating the money to Piney Woods School in Mississippi.

From that moment forward, she was never without a yard tool. “Entertain yourself by digging,” she counseled many a grief stricken friend.

Her egress from Philadelphia, Mississippi to Columbia, Tennessee is sacred record for me…..
Making her way with a young son after a divorce, Wanda was working as the manager of the parts department in her father’s Chevrolet dealership. She made best of friends with a woman who invited her on a road trip to Pulaski, Tennessee where they would visit the friend’s parents. One day they drove over to nearby Columbia.

Her friend pulled up to First Presbyterian Church on South High Street and said “Get out and ask them if they need an organist.” Wanda posed the question to the church secretary who in so many words said that the music committee met the night before and the Lord would have to bring one because they had been unsuccessful in their search.

As the hymn by Dan Schutte says “Here I Am, Lord”, Wanda’s subsequent move to Tennessee would be rewarded a few years later by a gorgeous life with her beloved husband Dr. Meredith Turner (head of that music committee) and his young daughter Mac.

I pulled in all I could from her old lady wisdom. She was generous with her time and material goods. Often she would say, “Take this, I’m done; now you can do it.” Some late afternoons we would sit by her fire with a glass of wine. In melancholia she once repeated timely advice from Ida Morgan – “It’s up to an individual to keep their lives going because the tragedy in life is not what dies at death, but what dies while one is alive.”

And Wanda lived by that. She never spared a minute. She was a legendary hard nosed piano teacher and community church organist, a caner of chairs, a knitter of intricate garments, a sewer of advanced patterns, a hostess par excellent, a nurturer of wandering souls, a voracious reader, a critic of church music and always and most generously, a gardener.

Once when Meredith came home he found her in the midst of mixing cement while constructing her first raised vegetable bed. She told him that it wasn’t plumb, but it would hold dirt. And with that defining statement, I give the glory to Wanda and pray that particular lesson blooms eternal in my heart.

Corn Muffins for Twelve or a Hungry Six

Wanda derived this corn muffin from her childhood mentor Annie. Tennessee Wanda often made a batch of these sweet and crusty muffins to serve with vegetable soup. Freezing extras was a plus.

Late in life she reminded all who gathered round that these muffins were best crumbled into the pot likker from the tender greens cooked earlier in the day. “And you know,” Wanda would say, “the best greens to plant are a mixture of rape, kale, purple top and broadleaf. Betty Harlan told me how to do it.”

1 1/4 cup yellow stone ground cornmeal
1/2 cup flour
3 heaping tablespoons wheat germ
2 teaspoons miller’s bran
1 1/2 tablespoons sugar
1 1/2 teaspoons baking powder
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 egg
1/3 cup canola oil
Enough buttermilk – 1 1/2 cup plus

Preheat oven to 400 degrees.
Mix dry ingredients.
Mix egg and oil and pour into dry ingredients.
Add buttermilk until the texture is on the juicy side.
Season a muffin pan well; and place on the middle rack for 10 to 15 minutes.