Holiday music brings memories of food and family

Published 2:31 pm Tuesday, December 19, 2023

With a full slate of musical performances, Mona Jo & Friends are spreading joy with church families all over town. When performing, Mona Jo reminisces about her many friendships formed through church – and days past with her extended family.   

With another holiday season upon us – we’re reflecting on memories close to our hearts.  And Mona Jo has hers – ones so close that she vows to protect them.  Hoping never to forget, the singer/songwriter recently wrote a new song she hopes to play soon titled, “Please Don’t Let Me Lose the Memories.” The years have been good to Mona Jo – and she has lovely recollections that inspire her songwriting.

Raised Mona Jo Canupp in the town of Cooleemee with two sisters and a brother, she was the youngest of four children. Mona Jo now resides in Mocksville with David Paul Griffin, her husband of 55 years. The couple raised two children– a daughter named Jill and a son, Shea.

Listening to Mona Jo’s stories of growing up in a small town stirs the heart.

Back then, everybody knew everybody and helped one another – people were nice. Often folks visited in each other’s homes, bringing and sharing food – especially during holidays. And church played a big part in Mona Jo’s life. Many of us can relate to her reflection of not just attending church – but being “dragged” there. But we were all the better for it.

Later Mona Jo became fully indoctrinated when her daddy, Otis Canupp, retired from the cotton mill and became an ordained minister – truly bringing church home. When Otis was in his late 60s, he preached at East Side Baptist in Salisbury and also at Woodleaf Baptist for a while. She and David were married at North Cooleemee Baptist and later became members of Edgewood – where her daddy filled in sometimes. Memories of church are some of her most special. And we know that where there’s a church – there’s some good food.

Mona Jo remembers her mamma’s cooking – especially her baking.  Iona Canupp always baked – especially during the holidays. She’d start baking weeks ahead – mostly cakes and pies. To keep everything cool until Christmas, Iona kept confections on top of an old freezer in her utility room. One of Mona Jo’s favorite memories is when Iona’s friends would get together and bake cakes in the basement. Just like one big family – those ladies loved being together. Back then everyone got along. Even if folks had different opinions, they were still cordial – friendships remained intact. It was an age of hospitality – with folks visiting frequently in one another’s homes.

Looking back, Mona Jo thinks about all the desserts her mamma made. Her family enjoyed homemade Coconut, Red Velvet, Plum, and Pig Pickin’ cake. Her daddy, Otis, loved her mamma’s Banana Cake. Her mamma also made delicious Chocolate and Pound Cakes – and had perfected an assortment of sweet and delicious pies like Pumpkin, Sweet Potato, Chocolate, Coconut, Buttermilk, Chess, and Pecan Pies, to name a few.

But what Mona Jo remembers most is her mamma’s Turkey and Homemade Dressing that Iona served on Thanksgiving and Christmas.

“It was better than any I ever had,” claimed Mona Jo.

Even though Iona was a great baker, Mona Jo still says if she had to choose her last meal – surely, it would be her mother’s Dressing with Turkey.   And she especially loved her mamma’s Fried Chicken. With a garden in the yard – Mona Jo relished all the fresh vegetables grown on their land. She’s kept her mom’s cookbook collection and vintage recipes – including ones Iona made up.  Many of her favorite recipes come from her mom’s books and considers old church cookbooks the best.

A well-versed cook in the kitchen, Mona Jo doesn’t use canola or vegetable oils – she prefers olive oil which is just as good but better for you. She might add a little salt when it doesn’t call for it – making changes like these according to her “liking.”  And after adding a “little more of this or that,” she writes down her edits – making notations in her cookbooks.

“I never go exactly by a recipe – just like with rules or directions.”

Like her mamma, Mona Jo’s good at writing new recipes and heartfelt songs for the band. She’s a lady with her own way of doing things!  And meals and music go great together.

Even though Mona Jo grew up with a piano in her home and listening to music from the radio, it wasn’t until after leaving home that she began to play music. She got a guitar when she was 16 years old, started playing it at 19 – and later bought a banjo for $25 at a pawn shop in Winston-Salem.

“It was always my dream to play the banjo.”

She even took a few lessons from David Severt from Sheffield when in her 20s. And even though Mona Jo plays guitar and autoharp – she loves that banjo!  It was something meant to be – a God-given talent.

With both a grandmother and brother who played some piano and guitar – music ran in Mona Jo’s veins. When grown, she and her family would get together for Christmas supper. Before eating, Mona Jo and her brother, Gerald, dubbed “Sharp,” would play guitar and piano together.

“He sounded just like Floyd Kramer on the piano.”

All the family would be in the family room playing music while their mamma was preparing food in the kitchen. Mona Jo can still hear her mamma’s voice like it was yesterday.

“We could hear her singing in the kitchen.”

About her mother, Mona Jo tenderly spoke, saying, “Especially at the holidays, I miss her so much.”

These memories were the inspiration behind her song “Please Don’t Let Me Lose the Memories.”

In 2004, something especially fortuitous happened to Mona Jo. Her path intersected with another singer-songwriter who would become a best friend and musical mentor.  While at a Lewisville Arts Council event, Mona Jo met country crooner, Roni Stoneman, from the Hee Haw TV show.  The two took the stage together, and Mona Jo picked a song with Roni. That moment turned into a life-changing experience – they’ve been best friends ever since.

Since then, Mona Jo and Roni have played on stage together many times. The Stoneman Family was a well-known, musically blessed group – with Roni’s sister, Donna, playing mandolin and brother playing fiddle – on his back, through his legs, and every other way possible. That family had so much talent.  Roni is now 85 years old and lives outside Nashville in Donelson Tennessee.

Once. after praying and asking God what to do with her musical talents – Mona Jo received an answer right away. That very same week, she received phone calls with requests to play music from three different churches. And she’s been pickin’ and croonin’ ever since. She gives God the glory – still sharing her talents at church events, nursing homes, and civic clubs. A crowd favorite is her song, “My Bible and My Old Banjo.”   

Music keeps Mona Jo going.

“People say they don’t know how I go like I do, but the music keeps me going – I guess I’ll just keep going as long as He lets me.”

The book of Proverbs tells us that even though we might plan our course, it is the Lord who determines our steps.

MONA JO’S 3-LAYER BUTTER PECAN CAKE

2 2/3 cup chopped pecans

1 ¼ cup softened, salted butter, divided

2 cups sugar (1 ¼ granulated & ¾ light brown)

¾ cup sour cream (optional)

4 eggs

2 tsp. vanilla extract

3 cups all-purpose flour

2 tsp. baking powder

1 ½ tsp. salt

1 cup whole milk

Butter Pecan Frosting

1 cup softened, salted butter

8 cups confectioners sugar

1 can evaporated milk

2 tsp. vanilla extract

Remaining nuts

Toast pecans in ¼ cup butter for about 20 minutes and set aside. In a mixer bowl, cream the remaining butter (1 cup), granulated sugar, and brown sugar until fluffy. Add eggs one at a time, beating well after each addition. Stir in vanilla. Combine flour, baking powder, and salt. Add to creamed mixture while alternating with milk. Stir in 1 1/3 cup of the toasted nuts. Pour into 3 well-greased and floured cake pans. Bake in a preheated 350-degree oven for 20 minutes. Remove from oven to completely cool. Frost cake when cool. For the frosting, in a mixer bowl, combine softened butter, sugar, milk, vanilla, and remaining toasted nuts.

COW PIES

12 oz. milk chocolate chips

1 Tbsp. Crisco shortening

½ cup raisins

½ cup chopped slivered almonds

In a double boiler over simmering water, melt chocolate chips and shortening. Remove from heat and stir in raisins and almonds. Drop mixture by Tbsp. into waxed paper. Chill until ready to serve.

MONA JO’S CHERRY POUND CAKE

1 cup softened, salted butter

½ cup Crisco shortening

3 cups sugar

6 eggs

10 oz. Maraschino cherries (juice reserved)

3 ¾ cup sifted, all-purpose flour

2 cups chopped cherries

1 tsp. vanilla extract

½ tsp. baking powder

¾ cup whole milk

1 tsp. almond extract

½ cup pecans (optional)

Cherry Icing

1 stick softened salted butter

8 oz. cream cheese

1 box (3 ½ cups) powdered sugar

1 tsp. almond extract

5 oz or more Maraschino cherries

In a mixer bowl, cream butter and shortening until fluffy. Add eggs one at a time, mixing well between each addition. Reserve cherry juice and set cherries aside. Add flour, and baking powder to the butter mixture while alternating with milk and the reserved cherry juice. Add chopped cherries, extract, and nuts. Mix well. Bake in a well-greased and floured tube pan in a preheated 325-degree oven for 1 hour and 20 minutes or until cake tests done. Allow to completely cool and then frost. For the frosting, in a mixer bowl, combine the butter, cream cheese, sugar, almond extract, and cherries. Mix well. Spread over cooled cake. * No calories if you eat with friends!

MJ’s REESE’S BARS

2 sticks softened, salted butter

1 ½ cups graham cracker crumbs

1 ½ cups peanut butter

1 box confectioner’s sugar

½ tsp. salt

Topping

12 oz. semi-sweet chocolate chips

½ cup peanut butter

In a skillet, melt butter. Combine butter with cracker crumbs, peanut butter, confectioner’s sugar, and salt. Mix well, and press into the bottom of a 9 x 13 pan. Chill. For the topping, in a double boiler over simmering water, melt the chocolate chips with the peanut butter. Evenly pour over the cracker crumb mixture. Chill until firm. Cut when at room temperature.