Monday, May 2, 2011

Motherly/Grandmotherly Cooking Memories

Because this is the week before Mother’s Day, I thought I would write about memories from my grandmothers and my mother. And also because food seems to play such a big part in many of my writings, it’s only fitting that I pay homage to those who inspired me.

Just as my grandfathers were different, one, a country farmer, and the other, a city man, my grandmothers were quite different also. I knew my grandmother Amy, who died when I was fourteen, but I never knew my grandmother Daisy, who died while my mother was in college. My great-grandmother Sarah died when I was fifteen.

My grandmothers didn’t use recipes very much. They weren’t expected to prepare elaborate meals. They just fixed whatever they raised or grew and had pretty much the same thing day after day. That was especially true of my grandmother Amy and her mother-in-law, my great-grandmother Sarah. In fact, Sarah churned butter and made a pot of beans everyday. At the end of the day, she threw anything out that had not been eaten and the next day would start all over again.

My country grandmother Amy cooked breakfast for my grandfather, my father and his brothers early in the morning when they came in from their chores. After they went out to work in the fields, she would begin preparations for the noon meal. After that meal was over, she would leave the leftovers on the table and cover it with a tablecloth and it would be ready for the evening meal. There was no electricity or refrigeration in those days but as far as I know, no one got sick from spoiled food. And summers in Oklahoma could get very hot.

After my parents were married and lived on a farm near my grandparents, my mother learned to make chicken and dumplings from watching Amy who did not have a recipe for them. She used a pinch of this and a hand full of that. I don’t remember my grandmother’s dumplings but I do remember my mother’s, which were very rich and delicious. (At one time I made them from scratch also but these days, I’m sorry to say that I use Bisquick and a fat-free chicken broth.) After we moved to town, the meals my mother fixed when I was growing up seem elaborate now because everything was made from scratch. My father was a meat and potatoes man and my mother became quite creative with all the ways she fixed potatoes. And she insisted that we have at least one green vegetable with the noon and evening meals. And we always had a homemade dessert!

My city grandmother Daisy cooked mainly from canned goods from the department store that my grandfather and his brothers owned. Although for most of her youth, my mother’s family had a real electric refrigerator, they did at one time have an icebox when she was a child. It had a well next to the partition that held the ice. Water was poured into the well and because of its proximity to the ice it stayed very cold. The well had a faucet so the family could have cold water. Under the ice was a drip pan that had to be emptied as the ice melted.

When my mother was young she and her siblings fixed their own breakfast, which usually consisted of cocoa and toast. Then they would fight over who should wash the dishes. My mother’s usual excuse for not washing them was that she said she had to go to the bathroom.

Daisy brewed coffee in a large kettle by wrapping coffee grounds in a bag and dropping it into the kettle. When my mother came home from school on the days that Daisy gave a party the aroma of coffee brewing was divine.

I asked my mother what kind of parties Daisy gave and she said, “Old lady parties.” They called themselves the Hyacinth group and as far as Mother knew they just ate, drank coffee, and talked. Since Daisy died in her early 50s, I said that she was never really an old lady. Mother said, “But she always looked like an old lady.”

A few years ago, while Mother and I were eating an English-style beef stew with drop dumplings that I had made, Mother said, “These are the kind of dumplings that my mother added to vegetable soup.”

“Was the soup homemade?” I asked.

“No,” she said, “but the dumplings were. Your dumplings look like hers but I can’t remember what they tasted like.”

But the most delicious recipe handed down from Daisy was her Strawberry Shortcake. And that was a recipe that she actually wrote down. My mother refined it and the memories of hot shortcake from the oven, covered with defrosted frozen, sweetened strawberries and strawberry juice seeping into the shortcake and topped with real whipped cream conjure up a time when homemade desserts were the norm, at least when I was growing up. It has been years since I made it and I wonder if I did so today, would I use Bisquick and Cool Whip?

In closing, the following is a humorous tidbit about my mother:

During prohibition my grandfather bought his liquor at the police station—liquor that the police had confiscated. They always kept a brand of whiskey called Four Roses in the refrigerator. When no one was looking, my mother, who would have been a pre-teen or young teenager, would sneak a sip, feeling very brazen. Never mind that it tasted awful!

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