Friday, January 28, 2011

Grandma's cooking

My grandmother was an excellent cook.

I might be a bit biased, but it's true.

Most of what I can remember of her cooking revolved around holiday meals. She would put together these elaborate, delicious, and filling meals, and she did it more or less by herself up until her health started to deteriorate.

My grandfather was no help in the kitchen, and to this day that is still true. My mother told me that Grandpa got this idea in his head to make himself a snack once when she was a young girl. Minutes later, there were flames licking the ceiling and my grandmother banned him from the kitchen forever. So that left Grandma to take care of business.

Perhaps the best credit I can give my grandmother is her transformation from a small town farm girl into an cultured, expert chef. My grandparents grew up in a small, rural farm town during the 1940s. Unlike most at the time, they both went to college and my grandfather went on to become a professor at a state university. This left my grandmother in charge of a lot of entertaining. Now, this is not to say that farm girls cannot cook. Rather, in that era, they had a much more limited variety of food available, and as such, much less experience with fine cuisine. Case in point: My grandmother didn't have an english muffin until she was in college (She hated it, by the way, because she was expecting a traditional muffin and got, well... an english muffin.).

At one point, my grandmother taught an international cooking class, so that should give some unbiased credibility to her cooking abilities. I recall my grandfather telling me that he especially enjoyed all of the new dishes she would try to make before showing them in class.

Now, to my knowledge, my grandmother never went to culinary school, and she didn't just whip these abilities to cook out of thin air. She had tools to teach her what to do.


My grandmother had tons of cookbooks. To this day, they are sitting in the buffet at my grandparents' house on three shelves each stacked two-deep. Since my grandfather obviously has no use for them, they sit there unloved for much of the year. My mom and her sister occasionally pull one out over the holidays to look for a particular recipe, and I have rifled through and borrowed a few now and then.

This cookbook collection is extensive, with books on all sorts of cuisines from over five decades. There is one from a 1948 PTA fundraiser. There is Julia Child's Mastering the Art of French Cooking. There are cookbooks on every type of international cuisine (likely from my grandmother's class). There are family cookbooks and church cookbooks and an entire encyclopedia of cooking. And then there are my grandmother's favorites. Her Better Homes and Gardens Cookbook, for example, was so worn that she took it out of its original binding and split it between two three-ring binders. Today, my edition of that cookbook is my go-to source for cooking questions, because I learned to trust that cookbook from my mother, who learned it from her mother.

The greatest treasures in those shelves, however, are my grandmother's handwritten recipes and file of clippings. She has an entire binder and a recipe box full of her family and friends' recipes. She has an accordion folder, so old and so full it won't collapse, filled with hundreds of clippings and notes. There's an empty cranberry bag in there with recipes for cranberry sauce that's easily as old as my sister.  She has recipes clipped from the newspaper older than my mother, and some from a few years before she died. Many of the recipes have notes scrawled all over them about my grandmother's opinion of how it turned out and changes she made to the recipe. She also wrote notes about accompanying recipes for sauces or sides and where to find them in other cookbooks.

I found a photocopy of a recipe for Waldorf Astoria Red Cake with a post-it reading "A copy of Grandma's 'legendary' & 'official' b'day cake (A+ least w/our family)." Now this gets interesting because my husband's family has a similar red cake birthday tradition with another recipe. We've decided to make both cakes soon and see which is better. This could get ugly.

A few days ago I decided to borrow a few cookbooks from the collection to inspire me to eat better. I selected the 1948 PTA cookbook, Mastering the Art of French Cooking, a Pomeranian cookbook (because much of my family is from there and my husband's a "meat and potatoes" kind of guy),  Crepes & Omelets (because I'm a fan of both), and my grandmother's binder of notes.

These cookbooks are going to be inspiring and challenging simultaneously. I love them because there is much more "real food" contained in these books than in some of the others I own. I hate them because they expect me to actually know how to cook without instructions. For example, my great grandmother's recipe for Hot Cross Buns looks like this:

1 c. scalded milk
1/2 c. sugar
1/4 c. butter or margarine
1/3 tsp. salt

Combine above and cool to lukewarm. Mix 1 tsp. sugar with 1 yeast cake, dissolve in 2 Tbsp. warm water. Add to above mixture, then add:

1 beaten egg
1/2 c. raisins
1 tsp. cinnamon
1/4 tsp. allspice
3 1/2 to 4 c. flour

Mix and knead as bread or rolls.

First of all, what is scalded milk? Second, what do you mean "Mix and knead as bread or rolls"?! What temperature is the oven? How long should I put it in there? How big should these rolls be? What size pan should I use? YOU CAN'T JUST STOP HALFWAY THROUGH THE RECIPE!

I think Crepes & Omelets will be the easiest to deal with because it is new-er (1976) and still holds true to the "real foods" concept. Probably the most difficult part will be figuring out how to fold everything.

I haven't made anything out of any of these cookbooks yet, but I definitely want to try. I'm going to set a goal to make one recipe from one of these books each week. This way, I can hold myself accountable. Next week, since it is my birthday, will be the red cake face-off.

I'm not sure what's going to happen to these cookbooks in the future. My grandfather made me check out the books I borrowed library-style and leave a note of what I took. I suppose it's so they're available for skimming around the holidays. I asked my mom if she knew and she said she figured they would be divvied up among the kids who wanted them when the time came. I not-so-subtly hinted that there are probably grandkids (aka me) who might want a share of them as well, so here's hopin' I guess. Meanwhile, I'll just enjoy what I've got and maybe copy some of my favorites into my recipe box.

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