Monday, July 13, 2009

Food Memories

We were invited to an Earth Day potluck dinner last year by a friend of ours, Ms. Earth-Mother, herself. We were requested to bring something organic. Richard said there would probably be lots of nuts and twigs. The Earth Day dinner was nice, no nuts and twigs. Well, there were nuts, but no twigs. At dinner we had some cards on the table with questions about our food memories. Julie led our discussion, and it was kind of fun.

A question during dinner was to name some recipe that has been passed down through the family. I mentioned Mama’s macaroni and tomato soup. This is probably my favorite soup. I make it frequently during cold weather because it is a very warming and filling dish. Richard and I both love it. I make it with stewed tomatoes, evaporated milk, basil, salt & pepper (plenty of pepper), and a smidgen of sugar. Oh, yes, and macaroni.

Macaroni and tomato soup reminds me of other things that Mama and Grandma used to make, like cornbread, gingerbread, chili soup, oatmeal cookies, boiled dinner, baking-powder biscuits, pies, and other stuff that I can’t think of right now. Grandma (from South Dakota) lived with us for about ten years before she died, so I got to eat a lot of her cooking.

Grandma made some tasty gingerbread. I haven’t had any in a long time. Recently I asked my sister Carla if she could lay her hands on Grandma’s old brown recipe notebook. I remember something about a lemon sauce, but Carla didn’t include that when she sent me the two gingerbread recipes she found in Grandma’s recipe book. I may have to seek custody of that recipe book for a while. I think it’s my turn. No telling what I could find in there that I have forgotten about.

I used to love boiled dinner. It was meaty ham hocks, cabbage, onions, carrots, and potatoes all boiled together (hence the name). The salty ham hocks were just the right seasoning. I would mash up my potatoes and carrots with my fork and then spoon some of the liquid (pot liquor) over them. I refused to eat the cabbage (hey, I was a kid!) and onions, but I learned to love such things later in life. Boiled dinner was a very economical meal.

I think my family went through a monetary dry spell for a while because I remember eating things that I now know cost very little. One meal that I hated (!) was corned beef hash and eggs. Mama would put the hash in a cast iron skillet and make four indentations in it. In each little well, she would break an egg, and then she would bake it until the eggs were done. It wasn’t the egg I objected to, but the canned corned beef. Another miserly meal she fixed was great northern beans and bacon. Mama would put the beans into a Pyrex pie plate and then place four strips of bacon on top. She would broil that in the oven until the bacon was cooked and the beans were hot. I actually liked that meal (What’s not to like? It had bacon in it). I don’t remember what we had to accompany those meals, but I don’t think it was much. There was always sweet tea, of course, but that was cheap.

Grandma and Mama always made savory cornbread, but after I tasted sweet cornbread when I was away at graduate school, I came back home and played around with Grandma’s cornbread recipe until I got the proportions right for the sweet stuff. Sweet cornbread goes well with Southwestern and Mexican food. I sometimes make Grandma’s chili soup. It is made with tomato juice as the base, and flavored with browned ground beef, kidney beans, and chili powder. It’s very good on a cold Saturday night with either some garlic bread or some sweet cornbread. I know there are those who think sweet cornbread is an abomination and a sin against Southern food, but I prefer to think of myself as open-minded and able to enjoy both kinds of cornbread. Don’t give me and my sweet tooth a hard time.

Grandma’s oatmeal cookies were soft and sort of cake-like with plenty of raisins. I remember sitting at Grandma’s kitchen table eating warm cookies right out of the oven. They really went down well with a glass of cold milk. Every time I make them, they come out crispy (yet not over baked), but I haven’t given up trying. One of these days I will get it right.

Another favorite treat is Mama’s mincemeat-filled cookies. They are wonderful. I’ve made them many times. They’re made with a soft sugar-cookie dough and mincemeat from a jar mixed with pecans. Mama almost always had them around from Thanksgiving through Christmas. We didn’t have these during all my formative years which leads me to believe she discovered the recipe when I was a little older, probably a teenager. When I would come home at holidays, there would be one or two big Tupperware containers full of the cookies. I loved those things and they were addictive. The only way I could stop eating them was to leave town.

My Aunt Nellie (Daddy’s older sister) could make some biscuits. She had one of those old-fashioned oval wooden bread bowls. Without measuring, she would put some flour, salt, and baking powder in the bowl. Then she would work in some shortening and after that would come the milk. She always put in more flour than she actually needed, and she would pull however much she needed into the mixture in the middle of the bowl. Then she would form each biscuit separately. This was all done by hand. She didn’t roll them out and cut them with a biscuit cutter. The unbaked biscuits would be lined up neatly in a large flat pan, baked, and served hot at the meal. They were always soft and tender and perfect.

I also make baking-powder biscuits, but I have to measure. Aunt Nellie’s biscuits had a cake-like texture, but mine are flakier (not that that’s any better, just different). When I make biscuits, it’s usually for breakfast on Sundays. I also mix up some softened butter and clover or Tupelo honey to spread on them. A favorite brunch meal (and I got this from Mama) is biscuits with butter and honey, accompanied by sliced cantaloupe. Sometimes when Richard and I have biscuits on Sunday we will also have bacon (how can you go wrong with bacon?).

I learned to make pie crust from Mama. She went through a phase where no matter what she did the crust came out tough. Through trial and error she finally figured out her technique, and that’s what I learned. In my early pie-making days I made a few tough crusts, but I think I have my technique down now, too. I use a recipe for the proportions but I never read the directions. Richard can attest to my pie-baking prowess. (Oh, am I bragging? Sorry.)

It seems all that food heritage was not lost on me. I paid attention and copied recipes. My mother and grandmother never hovered over me when I was in the kitchen, unless I asked for help, but I remember standing in the kitchen when Mama was cooking and watching her do things. I learned more from my family than I ever did in home economics class in high school. I think that’s how we all learn.


Theresa said...

Hey bacon lover,
I had a friend (okay, boyfriend) from upstate NY who loved boiled dinner. I didn't know what it was at the time, but I learned quickly. Mmmm, I love me some boiled dinner! We would eat breakfast for supper when we were broke, because eggs were cheap!

Bridget said...

What an enjoyable post! Though it did make me hungry ... :-)

faith said...

why did i read this when i was hungry???? canteen is closed so i'll have to wait it out til lunchtime. thanks a lot. :-D i'm a southerner who's a fan of sweet cornbread, too, but i'm lazy and use that stuff. i'm going to try your macaroni and tomato soup. it sounds wonderful!


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