My grandmother, a farmer’s wife, was unbeatable in the kitchen. She could cook like no one I have ever known. I have no idea where she learned this skill, certainly not from a culinary school. Sadly, I never asked her, during all those hours sitting at the red formica table in her kitchen, watching her roll out biscuits and pastry, or ice one of her many 3-layer cakes! She had just the right touch and taste to prepare a mess of southern dishes, both savory and sweet. She was a natural behind the stove, but more importantly, she loved bringing pleasure through her cooking.
Not quite 5-feet tall, she had an abundance of energy, preparing three meals a day from scratch, keeping her house clean, orderly and welcoming, helping my grandfather on the farm at times, and tending to her precious violets. My grandparents met at a church social where she captured my grandfather’s heart with her cooking savvy. He bid on her food basket at an auction and he won of course, in more ways than one. It was the Match.com of their day, and they were together for 58 years.
Most everything she made was tasty, except for her liver dish, which sent me running to my cousins’ house down the road. I actually never tasted it, but I found the smell unforgettable and unforgiving. Even top chefs are allowed one blooper, but in no way did it mar my feelings about her cooking talent. She wasn’t an exotic cook. She was a southerner whose down home cooking had a certain finesse. Her dishes always seemed perfectly seasoned, and somehow, not heavy. She hit her stride when the holiday season came around, starting with Thanksgiving.
There was always a lot of discussion about the menu beforehand. Should we have ham as well as turkey? Which cake should she make? And more importantly, where should we get the collards? But, the menu was pretty much the same every year, which was never a problem. The Butterball turkey was a given. I am not sure why Butterball was so special to her. It was as if Butterball had a golden aura around it. We had to have that turkey, which I remember as being good, but not nearly as flavorful as her cornbread dressing and gravy. Her version of that southern dish was heavenly. It requires baking the cornbread first and then making the dressing, but it’s well worth the extra-work, or at least hers was. That was always my second helping dish.
There were a number of vegetable sides, like southern style green beans–meaning they were cooked a long time–sweet potato casserole topped with toasted marshmallows, collards—the family favorite—finely chopped, seasoned with smoked meat and cooked at a low temperature for hours. We would also have squash casserole, cranberry sauce and Parker House rolls, one of the few store-bought items.
The last course, the dessert, was Grandma’s specialty. She excelled as a baker, much to our delight. There was always at least one pecan pie–another favorite–made from the fruits of the three pecan trees in my grandparents’ yard. There would also be sweet potato pie as well as one of her famous 3-layer cakes, which could mean coconut pineapple cake, carrot cake, German Chocolate, Red Velvet or yellow cake with chocolate icing. They were all divine.
A lot more time was spent preparing this meal than actually eating it. There were only seven of us, and three were minors. It was far too much food for one sitting, but abundance is the theme of the holiday. Afterwards, relatives would often stop by for a visit, and the desserts would be brought out again. I often wondered if they had come by for my Grandmother’s confections. Whether or not that was the case, her sweets were seldom refused and that pleased her.
She was a true homemaker, and like many women of her day, she knew how to cook, can, clean, sew and garden. Being a farmer’s wife was no cakewalk. It was early to bed and rise, but I don’t remember her complaining about that. Yet, in her kitchen, she was in her element. She made it look so easy, and maybe to her it was. I miss her and her cooking, and wish I had told her more how much I enjoyed her dishes. Although I think she had a good idea as we frequently went to her with recipe requests, and she happily complied. Thinking about this holiday brings back memories of my grandmother and those festive family gatherings. Certainly one of the things I am thankful for today.