Grandmothers are getting good press these days—whether in cookbooks, in childrens’ books about grandparents, or in memoirs written by loving grandchildren. I typed “grandmothers” into Google and was rewarded with hundreds of hits, divided into other grandmother categories..
Why are our grandmothers’ recipes taking center stage? Didn’t most past generations applaud anything “just like mama used to make?” Have we skipped past our mothers cooking to focus on that of our grandmothers and, if so, why?
Actually, there are a number of cookbooks devoted to our mothers’ favorite recipes but just between you and I, my own mother was not what you’d call the world’s greatest cook. My mother never heard of al dente, – she’d boil a pan of canned vegetables for an hour…and when mom cooked cabbage, she’d put the pot of cabbage onto the stove to start cooking at 9 O’clock in the morning. My mother’s rice was like a lump of library paste – I didn’t discover that I liked cabbage or rice until I was an adult, and realized that it wasn’t the food I disliked, just the way my mother cooked it.
What mom was good at was stretching a dollar to feed a family of seven for a week during depression and wartime years. We grew up on mostly one-pot meals of stew, chili or soup, made with very little meat or soup bones. (Little did anyone guess how healthy these meals would turn out to be!)
My paternal grandmother, Grandma Schmidt, was the acknowledged cook in the family. Grandma made her own noodles – sometimes all of the backs of chairs would be filled with noodles laid out to dry. She made strudels of cherries or apples or (my favorite) spicy pumpkin, whatever fruit was in season. None of this frozen Filo dough! Grandma made her strudel dough from scratch. She also made an incredibly decadent Dobos Torte, a dozen or so thin spongy layers of cake interspersed with semi sweet chocolate frosting.
My sister, Barbara recalled that applesauce making was a family project in which everyone was put to work. Even small children could help peel the apples—although the actual cooking of the sauce was left to grandma and her daughter and daughters in law. (When there were too many apples or maybe Grandma had her fill of making applesauce, a grandson would be sent down the street with a wagonload of apples to give to the nuns at St. Leo’s, our parish church). What I do remember about the canned applesauce is that, during the War years, it was made sans sugar. We had jars and jars of applesauce in the cellar, long after World War II was over, all of it made with sour cooking apples, none of it sweetened. You sprinkled a little sugar and cinnamon on the applesauce as you were eating it.
My grandmother’s cooking was a hodge-podge of German, Hungarian and Jewish cuisine. (Grandma was German; Grandpa was Hungarian and Grandma worked for a Jewish family when she first came to America. No matter; as children, we referred to it all as “German food”. Many years later, I would discover that what we called “German pancakes” were actually Hungarian Palacsinta, a kind of cousin to the French crepes. We grew up on, (and took for granted) Hungarian Gulyas (goulash) and chicken paprikas, Sauerbraten and Hasenpfeffer (not my favorite recipe; we won’t go there…) a cheese strudel (remarkably similar to Jewish Blintzes), Blutwurst (which translates, literally, as blood sausage) which was utterly delicious with chunks of freshly baked hot salt bread. Grandma made a chicken broth in which were sprinkled rivels—a kind of tiny egg dumpling, which was pretty good eating along with fried wurst (sausages) and hot freshly baked salt bread.
My grandfather enjoyed, I recall, a dish made up of cooked potatoes, noodles and eggs—but I have never seen a recipe and have never quite duplicated it. It might have been something thrown together with leftovers…or maybe you needed homemade noodles to make it right.
Grandma also made wonderful doughnuts—and on the Feast of the Three Kings—you could expect to find a coin, either a nickel or a dime—in your doughnut. I don’t have many memories of my grandfather, a professional tailor who died when I was nine years old. I do remember sitting on his lap, in a rocking chair in the kitchen, while we watched Grandma remove doughnuts from the hot oil and lay them on paper bags to drain before she sprinkled them with sugar. I also have fond memories of running down to the corner, where the streetcar route ended, to meet him when he came home from work, and carrying his black metal lunchbox back to their house on Baltimore Street.
My Aunt Dolly was the only smart one amongst us. Aunt Dolly was only about 15 years old when she married Uncle Hans, Grandma’s middle child. Aunt Dolly didn’t know how to cook but recognized good cooking when she tasted it. As a young bride, Aunt Dolly stood at her mother in law’s elbow and learned how to make everything Grandma made. Aunt Dolly was our last living link with Grandma’s recipes, since none of them were ever written down. Grandma’s recipes were all in her head; she mixed a pinch of this or a dab of that, ‘enough flour’ so the dough wasn’t too sticky and enough salt in the soup so that it tasted ‘just right’—but not salty!
American writer Linda Henley wrote, “If God had intended us to follow recipes, He wouldn’t have given us grandmothers” (from “IN PRAISE OF GRANDMOTHERS”. Isn’t that the truth!
It was only in later years that my siblings and I, along with our cousins, realized that one of Grandma’s greatest gifts to all of us wasn’t in her cooking – delicious though it was – but rather, in her ability to make each and every grandchild feel special. We each of us grew up believing WE were grandma’s favorite. It wasn’t something she ever said – it was something each of us felt.
She was our anchor; she went to bat for you. She’d stop whatever she was doing to make you a chicken-and-lettuce sandwich, first going out to her garden to pick some fresh leaf lettuce…she would take you downtown with her, to see a movie and maybe get a grape juice drink and a hot dog afterwards. She’d make hot tea with lemon, and you’d have that as a bedtime snack, along with butter and crackers (real butter—Grandma didn’t believe in oleomargarine). She loved to travel, to see things—whether it meant traveling to Niagara Falls with a carload of grandchildren or getting on a streetcar and making a Sunday trip to the Cincinnati Zoo. (My brother Jim thinks we must have gypsy ancestry, since we all love to travel and move around to different parts of the country).
Erma Bombeck once wrote, “Grandmas…can shed the yoke of responsibility, relax, and enjoy their grandchildren in a way that was not possible when they were raising their own children. And they can glow in the realization that here is their seed of life that will harvest generations to come.” (from “IN PRAISE OF GRANDMOTHERS”).
My brother Bill tells a hilarious story of the time he and our cousin Johnny, one hot summer day, found a tool in Grandma’s basement that Johnny figured would turn on the water faucets at the Junior High school up the street. The two boys went up to the school and turned on all the outside water faucets. They were having a wonderful time dancing in the spray of water as it flooded the parking lot, when they noticed police cars and fire trucks ascending the hill to the school. The two boys quickly turned off the water and taking a back trail, hurried back to Grandma’s, where they sat (completely drenched) on a side step. Of course, the police and firemen arrived, having been advised by other children that Billy and Johnny were the culprits. When the authorities approached Grandma, she would have none of it. Brandishing her broom, she insisted “her boys” (although dripping wet and looking mighty sheepish) hadn’t left the property all day. After the police and fire department left, Grandma shook a finger at the two boys. “Don’t either of you DARE to leave this yard for the rest of the day” she warned.
Joyce Brothers wrote “Becoming a grandparent is a second chance for you have a chance to put to use all the things you learned the first time around and may have made mistakes on. It’s all love and no discipline. There’s no thorn in this rose”. (From “A TRIBUTE TO GRANDMOTHERS”.
And now, being a grandmother, I know this is true.
–Sandra Lee Smith