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Under the Apron Strings: Fourth of July, Family Reunions, and the Best Pasta Salad

This year the 4th of July weekend happens to coincide with one of my favorite family traditions - The Johnson Family Reunion.

On the first Sunday in July, all the descendants of William Newton Johnson and Martha Florence Boatright Johnson gather to reminisce about the old days, speak of the future and enjoy dinner on the grounds.

Granddaddy James Flenoy, being the youngest boy of 11 children, looked forward to that special day deep into summertime. It was the day that he could “show off ” his children, new in-laws, grandbabies, and great-grands alike. Our reunions first began in July 1957 in honor of my great-grandparents, Ma and Pa Johnson, who passed away in 1945 and 1948, respectively. It was Great Aunt Gradie Long who said, “We must get together or the children will never know each other.”

The old home place in Cate’s Hollow of Giles County was cleaned and cleared for the first reunion. Aunt Gradie lived only long enough to enjoy the first two years of reunions, as she passed away in August 1958.

As employment was hard to find at that time in our part of Tennessee, many of the grandsons moved to Peoria, Illinois, to work for Caterpillar Inc. It was decided that the first Sunday in July would be the perfect time, as Caterpillar Inc. shut down the first two weeks of July for vacation. This would allow them all the opportunity to return to Tennessee for the reunion.

My first remembrance involves gathering at David Crockett State Park in Lawrenceburg, Tennessee, beginning in 1970.

After dinner, we played in a branch, waded in Shoal Creek, or swam in the pool. Horseshoes, volleyball, and softball were often played as the old folks told tall tales and took pleasure in the annual visit.

Hot in July, but unpredictable in the rain department, a decision was made to change the venue and hold the reunion in the fellowship hall of Choates Creek United Methodist Church, where the children could wade in the nearby and ever-popular Choates Creek. We have been there each year to date.

There being nine branches to the Johnson family tree (2 of the 11 children died as infants), it became ever so difficult for each generation to know who belonged to whom. In the early 1980s, cousin Denise from Illinois had the great idea to have each child’s family wear a particular color to distinguish the branches. She determined the colors without thinking about Southern traditions or the SEC. She gave orange to our Alabama cousins, and the huge group of Tennesseans were given red. One particular die-hard fan and Alabama cousin (maybe more than one) dares not don his orange shirt until he crosses the Tennessee state line. On the other hand, Granddaddy became very fond of his “redbirds,” as he loving referred to us.

An auction to raise money for the subsequent year’s supplies consists of handmade items: canned beet pickles, homemade bread, paintings, and hand-stitched crafts, just to name a few.

Food is the center of the day-long festivity. The Johnson descendants are some of the best cooks spread across the globe, from Alabama to Illinois and Missouri to Mississippi.

Four six-foot tables extend the length of the room and are always covered in homemade sides from beans, peas, casseroles, salads (fresh and congealed), slaws, potatoes, pasta, sliced tomatoes, pickles, and of course, macaroni and cheese, homemade bread and rolls. My brother Ritchie always provides his specialty of pulled pork barbecue and fried chicken tenders. Then there is the dessert table loaded with chocolate pie, cookies, caramel cake, and blackberry cobbler; I could go on and on describing for the love of it.

The event is a true privilege of living under the apron strings of people who know their way around the kitchen.

After telling y'all this story, I would be remiss not to include a family recipe in this blog post. Without further ado, I want to share with everyone my dear cousin Yvonda's pasta salad.

Cousin Yvonda's Pasta Salad


1 package of bow tie pasta (16 ounces) 1/4 cup vegetable oil

1/4 cup olive oil

1/2 cup sugar

1 1/2 cups white vinegar

2 tablespoons yellow mustard

1 teaspoon salt

1 teaspoon pepper

1/2 teaspoon garlic powder

1 tablespoon celery seed

1 medium purple onion, chopped

1 green bell pepper, chopped

1 cucumber, seeded and chopped

1/2 cup black olives, sliced

2 1/2 cups cherry tomatoes cut in half

(Tommy Toe is Mama’s garden favorite) 1 lemon

1 bunch of fresh parsley, finely chopped


  • Cook the pasta according to directions. Drain thoroughly.

  • Place pasta in a large bowl and stir in the oils. If you use only one oil, choose vegetable. One hundred percent olive oil will clump while refrigerated. Leave to cool.

  • Stir other ingredients together in a separate bowl and then add to the pasta and swirl to combine.

  • Refrigerate the entire shebang for 24 hours in a tightly covered bowl.

  • At some point, swirl together again so the flavors can mix and mingle.

  • Be sure to take the salad from the refrigerator in time for a room temperature state of well-being.

  • Before serving, squeeze a lemon over the top and sprinkle with parsley.

The acidity from the vinegar combined with the sugar allows for a refrigerated situation that will keep for a week to 10 days. What a summertime help. Thanks, Vondie Joe.

Have a safe and Happy 4th of July!!!


You can find this story and many others in Servin’ Up Summer available for purchase here. It’s my newest collection of recipes. Servin’ Up Summer includes my favorite summer dishes, cocktails, and desserts. It’s a taste of summer in the South on every page. Available now for only $29.95.

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