A Sprinkle of This and a Dash of That…
Meals make memories. An important part of family life is food, so why not family history? Some of my fondest memories from childhood are the times I spent in my Grandma’s kitchen. Food and food traditions is an important ingredient in every family’s history. To me food is a connection. It is what connects us to people and places and where we came from. Memories are built around food.
I learned to cook from my Grandma. She cooked breakfast, lunch, and dinner every day, which I took for granted. Memories of making strawberry pie, jello and kekse are some of my happiest. Her yellow kitchen was small and compact with a large window above the stove which filled the space with natural light and vibrant colors which gave it a feeling of a happy place.
When we cooked with Grandma we donned hairnets and aprons with big pockets to match hers. There was a special drawer in the kitchen for them and my Grandma had made two pint sized aprons for my sister, Mary and I to wear.
Grandma made German beef roulade, kraut soup and beer brats to name a few ethnic recipes she got from her mother. Flour to knead, a pinch of salt, a sprinkle of baking soda, and sugar all characterize my Grandma’s recipes. Grandma’s generation (1887-1969) cooked largely from experience, not precise recipes. They needed no reminders to chop the onion, use a certain size pan, or pre-heat the oven. When sharing recipes with friends, they jotted down only the essentials.
I remember hearing a story about Mom sharing a 4th of July Dessert Salad recipe with a friend. Mom gave Helen the list of Grandma’s standard ingredients for her “24 Hour Dessert Salad”.
1 cup fruit cocktail
1 c pineapple
1 c coconut
1 c oranges
1 c marshmallows
1 c sour cream
2 c rice (about)
Mom heard no more about it. Weeks later Mom asked Helen how her salad turned out. Helen hesitated and then blurted out, “Yeah, I used it but you didn’t tell me I had to cook the rice and chill the salad over night.” As I said, they shared recipes by just jotting down the essentials. I too have fond memories centered around the kitchen and my family. Our family still laughs in jest over my first cake. I’ll never forget my first cake. The recipe said to mix by hand…and that’s exactly what I did. Mom walked into the kitchen to see me with both hands right in the cake mix batter, mixing away. Of course I cried at my "big" blunder. Now I can look back and laugh laugh at my memory of making my first cake.
I love Grandma’s cookbook. It has a special place in my cupboard. I use it a lot. In it are some of her best recipes, mock chicken legs, fried potatoes, homemade bread, and Christmas Kekse (cookies), German shortbreads and hazelnut macaroons. Her personal notes align the margins. “Too much salt”, use only ½ teaspoon” underlined or “add more sugar”. Grandma’s strawberry shortcake and pie were renowned. My sister and I watched Grandma make strawberry shortcake. She poured flour into a mixing bowl, added sugar, and a pinch of salt, some baking soda, warm milk and melted butter. Then, she stirred it with a fork. When finished, she gave it the finger test, running her index finger around the edge of the bowl and licking the mixture. If it was not quite ready she added more flour or more melted butter or a pinch of salt. She never used a recipe, just mixed up the ingredients. She then picked up the shortcake dough and rolled it around in the palms of her hands making small balls. When ready, to her liking she placed them on the baking sheet. She gently punched the center of each one with her thumb making a slight indentation ready to pop in the oven after dinner. I can make shortcake without a recipe and mine turn out melt in your mouth delicious, just like Grandma’s.
Fried chicken was a specialty in Grandma’s kitchen. She poured flour into a paper bag with salt and pepper and dried herbs from her garden. She dropped in the legs, thighs, breasts, and wings. Closing the bag, she shook it vigorously. It was fun for Mary and me to take turns shaking the bag. Picking the chicken, out of the bag with her hands she placed the evenly coated chicken in the frying pans filled with Crisco. Grandma sprinkled paprika on the chicken and then browned the chicken on both sides. After browning she placed them in the roaster and put the chicken in the oven to finish cooking. We’ve never been able to duplicate the exact flavor of Grandma’s coating for her chicken. It’s not written down anywhere in her cookbook or recipe cards. I guess she kept it a secret just like Colonel Sanders.
Custard was another specialty. Grandma scalded milk on top the stove, while beating up eggs, sugar, a pinch of salt, and some vanilla in another bowl. She added the scalded milk to the mixture and stirred it with a spoon to melt the sugar. She gave it the finger test and if it needed more eggs she added them or added more sugar if not sweet enough. Then, she poured the custard into a large baking pan. She inserted the baking pan into another larger baking pan filled with hot water and popped them into the oven for an hour. When finished she sprinkled grated nutmeg over the top.
I have a Cranberry Fluff Mold recipe of Grandma’s where she wrote along the margin. In the recipe she wrote and underlined, “add 1 pt of cream whipped and folded in.” Underlined “don’t beat anymore fold in”. When the mold was finished and ready to turn out on the platter she wrote “to remove set on platter over mold and turn upside down and decorate with leaves, lemon or Galex 35 ¢ at the florist shop and put canned peaches and pears over leaves and put some red coloring on the peaches and pears”. Along the margin of this recipe she wrote, “Dab just a spot of coloring on peaches and pears with your fingertip o”. I assumed the “o” meant the size of the spot. I am not sure what Galex is.
When Grandma finished baking or serving her dishes, her large brown eyes sparkled as she looked at her creations. She always said, “Das ist gut. Ja. Das ist gut“. These are just a few of Grandma’s recipes I was fortunate to preserve for my family history. No fast food for Grandma. Everything was made from scratch.