Thursday, November 29, 2007
The Preacher’s Corner
What do you wear to cook in the kitchen?
Yesterday I saw a TV commercial for software that will turn your laptop PC into a fully-equipped cookbook and kitchen guide. “Just right for the holidays!” It is obviously designed for folk like me who are clueless in culinary affairs. Now, I will confess that I have “Googled” a recipe or two, and am aware of the array of recipes and other cooking helps now available via the Internet.
Still, one had better be careful about putting the computer too close to the stove. For one thing it could melt, and for another, one could “gum up” the works by frantically typing in questions with grease on the hands and flour on the fingers. And have you noticed how the hosts of the cooking shows (Emeril excepted) all appear without aprons, dressed in pretty clothes, with rings on their fingers? I cannot believe anybody could do serious cooking without an apron.
Watching that commercial for the computerized cookbook made me think of my grandmother’s cookbook. I cannot imagine either my mother or her mother thinking a computer could help them cook. So I got out grandmother’s cookbook and leafed through it.
It is one of the things I saved to remind me of my grandmother, and it has a sort of iconic place in my collection of family memorabilia. Not that I use Grandmother’s cookbook particularly often. In fact, I sometimes go to the grocery and buy some things to put in my refrigerator just in case somebody happened to look. I would not want them to think I actually exist on little more than Diet Coke, whole wheat bread, and “I Can’t Believe It’s Not Butter!” (Well, Wendy’s and Cap’n D’s help.)
Paging through Grandmother’s cookbook brings back lots of memories. Really, it is a stretch to call it a “book.” Actually it is a loose-leaf binder to which sheets can be added by snapping the metal rings open and closed. The hardback covers have long-ago worn out and disappeared. And at some point, all the pages were filled, and so the ensemble is more like a “package” of miscellaneous index cards, letters from friends and family containing recipes, items torn out of Good Housekeeping and the like, secured with rubber bands. One has to handle it carefully, or the treasured memories of great dinners gone by will go flying in all directions.
Here in the handwriting of Mama and her mother, my favorite aunts and cousins, and old family friends, are the formulas for good times, Mississippi-style. There is not a word from Julia Child, or any exponent of haute cuisine. Just good old-fashioned Southern cooking in the era before Paula Dean brought such things out into the mainstream. (Well, maybe Grandmother did use a little less butter than Paula Dean.)
Many of the recipes were for desserts grandmother served to her canasta club. The ladies outdid one another to have a colorful and inviting plate. Once, at about age four, I got into the bottle of maraschino cherries for one of Grandmother’s pear salads with a cream cheese and walnut filling that was to be served to her early evening card party. I did not have to be punished, for — no thank you — after eating that entire bottle, I’ll never even look at a maraschino cherry again!
I wish I had a photo of Grandmother in her kitchen. But she would have run to hide at the very thought of having her picture taken in her apron. Nowadays, people build their houses so all the party guests can gather in the kitchen.
When Grandmother cooked, there was a firm wall of partition between that work and the company gathered up in the front room. The swinging door to the kitchen was closed and children had to have a very good reason to intrude upon that part of the house. Of course, in that era, a man never thought of venturing into a kitchen.
My cousins and I were reared in the era when children sat at the table and waited to eat until everyone was served, with plates passed around the long table and with helpings from various steaming bowls and dishes added as the plates passed the place where these items were located.
And because we were reared in that long-ago age before children’s dietary intake was restricted to chicken strips and pizza, we actually sampled, even if we did not like, such delicacies as eggplant, turnips, Brussels sprouts, okra, and greens of every kind. As a result, many of these, as an adult, I now actually enjoy!
We also said the blessing. Grandmother’s was not especially unique, but she taught me to say it as my own, and I record it here simply because if your house is like mine, it is not repeated as often as it should be said: “Our most gracious heavenly Father: we thank thee for these and all thy blessings. Bless this food to our nourishment, and us to thy service, and make us mindful of the wants and needs of others; for Jesus’ sake. Amen.”
The same grace was said for great feasts as well as for leftovers. And the last part was quite definitely attached to the requirement that little boys must “clean their plates!” Food was never wasted in our house. That was as particular a definition of “sin” as my childhood theology could have produced.
Grandmother’s recipes are only marginally useful now. For one thing, she seldom actually followed a recipe. She improved as she went along, and by the time I was born she was so confident in her kitchen that I am sure she seldom consulted a book. So most of the recipes are things other people gave her. There is no record, for example, of how she made her wonderful turkey dressing, peach pickle, or coconut layer cake without which no great dinner in our house was complete.
Grandmother kept her cookbook in a top drawer of the counter second to the left of the kitchen sink. The book was at the ready, right there with a ball of string, rubber bands, the fish scaler, a device to open stubborn jar lids, and all those other odds and ends one keeps in a kitchen but has no particular place to put.
When she did write down a recipe, many details were assumed. Bob Bowen and I found this out when reminiscing about Delta cooking, I mentioned grandmother had a recipe for “Hebrew cookies,” about which there is nothing more Jewish than a splash of Mogen David wine. All the ingredients are listed. But then the recipe merely says “Bake until lightly browned.” How long, and at what temperature? Grandmother knew.
I went through and moved all the recipes I remembered to the front of the book. Some day I may feel adventurous enough to try and cook a few of them, but for now, while I am on my diet, just reading through makes me feel like I have dined as a king. I dare any computer software to make you so happy as that!
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