You might think it strange to sit in the living room, away from the kitchen, and read a cookbook page by page. And yet, this is often what you can find me doing in those magical moments of quiet between 4-5 pm as children do homework, or relax in their own rooms when carpool is over and dinner preparations have yet to begin. Lately, I’ve been reading Mad, Hungry Family by Lucinda Scala Quinn. What I enjoy more than the incredible recipes are the boxed inserts teaching culinary basics including the different cuts of meat and how to use spices to enhance flavor. Interspersed throughout the cookbook are vignettes of Quinn’s life in New York City cooking for her family of hungry sons, as well as memories of her childhood in her Italian grandmother’s kitchen. I have tried many of the recipes found in this cookbook and my favorites so far are Caramelized Orange Pork Roast, Spicy-Sweet Ginger Pork Chops, and Spicy Chicken and Chickpeas. For Saturday morning breakfast we love her sweet and buttery Banana Baby.
Summer Lessons with my Grandmother
I too once thought it strange to read recipes outside of the kitchen. Sitting on my Grandmother’s mustard yellow couch in the summer of 1990 at the age of 10 years old, I watched my Grandmother with a magazine spread across her ample lap sitting in her leather recliner beside me. The magazine, most likely Better Homes and Gardens, Southern Living, or Martha Stewart, was turned to the final pages where the recipes resided. Grandmother’s silent reading was interrupted with an occasional hum of interest, “Mmmhmm,” as she worked her mouth in her characteristic way – pressing her lips together before rolling them inward between her teeth, then out again, then inward in deep concentration. I studied her lost in the glossy pages and wondered what could be so interesting about a list of ingredients and instructions for assembly. Recipes seemed so repetitive to my nine-year-old, inexperienced eyes.
I eventually turned my attention to the embroidery on my lap. I was at my Grandmother’s house for our afternoon embroidery lesson. These were scheduled every weekday afternoon in the summer months. My summer project was a pillowcase pre-printed with a simple, blue-lined pattern to be covered with Lazy Daisies, French Knots, and Backstitches by my novice hand. Without fail, I trekked from my house through the garage, outside to the pool that divided our houses, and to my Grandmother’s front door to sit on the couch for an hour receiving instruction on not just embroidery, but the small life lessons she managed to weave in between demonstrations with my thread.
How to Carry on a Conversation: “It’s like a tennis match Sarah. If someone asks you a question, they’ve hit the ball to your side of the court. It’s your job to hit the ball back by asking them a question too. So if I ask you ‘How was your morning?’ answer but then ask me in return, ‘And how was your morning, Grandmother?’”
As I worked on mastering the Lazy Daisy, the prettiest but most difficult stitch, Grandmother continued to ask questions encouraging the practice of conversational skills. Our verbal tennis match paused only when Grandmother had to repair the mass of thread I always managed to get tangled under the hoop. Towards the end of the hour, Grandmother wrapped up our “conversational etiquette” lesson and retreated into her magazine, still open on her lap, to read the savory and sweet recipes found there. The final few minutes of our lesson were silent save the pop of needle through tightly stretched cotton and the humming of a hymn from my Grandmother’s lips.
Later that evening, Grandmother will make my two older brothers and me dinner. It may be a recipe from one of the magazines but I’m hoping for one of her specialties, tomato-based Swiss steak over rice or Meatloaf covered with a sauce made by mixing ketchup with brown sugar then adding a dab of yellow mustard. My brothers and I will set the table in the proper, formal way she taught us, each utensil in its proper place. My mom will join us for dinner after a full day of teaching summer school at our local community college.
In addition to embroidery lessons that summer, Grandmother gave me baking lessons. During the first few sessions she taught me how to read a recipe’s abbreviations, the correct way to measure (leveling off the flour vs. packing the brown sugar), how to crack an egg, and how to separate the egg white from its yoke. The last lesson was how to clean up after yourself, an expectation she made quite clear.
After I showed some degree of mastery, my Grandmother handed her kitchen over for me to use as I pleased during the summer months. I baked crispy oatmeal cookies, savory Johnny Cake, and soft chocolate chip cookies. I served them to a table of imaginary homeless people, talking all the while as I busied myself with dropping the next batch of dough onto the cookie sheet. I used two spoons, one to scoop and one to scrape, creating a uniform cookie size as my Grandmother taught me to do.
My Grandmother taught me so many things that summer of 1990 when my mother worked two jobs. Now a mother myself, I wonder if because I was the youngest, and in need of some supervision, these lessons were Grandmother’s way of keeping tabs on me while my mother worked. Looking back, I am amazed by my Grandmother’s generosity and trust in giving a small girl her kitchen. I certainly broke a thing or two including a beautiful glass pitcher. Expecting a punishment, my little heart breathed a sigh of relief when she responded with, “These things happen. Glass breaks sometimes. Are you hurt?”
Now in mid-life with four children of my own, I rarely bake. Not because I do not know how or because I do not derive pleasure from the creaming of sugar and butter, flour and oats, but because I must focus on dinner proteins and those all-important veggies my kids only sometimes eat. Perhaps I’ll take up baking again when my kitchen counters are no longer littered with grease-soaked pans and cheese-coated casserole dishes. I tried to pick up embroidery after the birth of my fourth child. I managed to complete a small hedgehog on burlap cloth before that child grew to be three and emptied the contents of my embroidery bag in search of a pair of scissors. I’ll get back to that beautiful art form someday. As far as conversational skills, I can hold my own. I think of my Grandmother every time I’m at a gala or dinner with my husband in a room of medical doctors and their spouses. Despite my introverted nature, I know how to pick up the tennis ball and serve the first question.
I understand why my Grandmother, now 93 years of age, enjoys reading recipes. It’s like an interesting game of “connect the dots.” When you read a recipe for Crockpot Roast Beef, you mentally compare it to the recipe you made last week, noting the ingredient changes and even how the steps are written differently. You learn synonyms for cuts of meat. You discover new ways to enjoy a vegetable if slathered with salty bacon grease or tossed with tangy vinegar.
My Grandmother’s Legacy
I have more in common with my Grandmother than our affinity for recipes. I have chosen a similar life path as my Grandmother, becoming a homemaker, community volunteer, and active church member. Our husbands both built careers that required sacrifice on the part of their families. Every day I draw upon the many lessons my Grandmother taught me:
That time spent with children is never time wasted.
That being a homemaker requires artistry, skill, and a strong work ethic.
That mundane tasks can be performed with joy and praise; humming hymns a holy witness to all who hear.
That you do not have to sacrifice gentleness for firmness in the raising of children.
That supporting your husband’s career does not mean giving up your own dreams and pursuits.
That structure and order should allow for rest as well.
That a woman should be able to wear her hair however she pleases.
That spending time talking with someone is a way to show love.
That buying the entire outfit is a wise investment.
That the Bible is true and obedience to Jesus brings fulfillment in life.
Before I sat down to write, I pulled ground meat out of the deep freeze to defrost in the refrigerator for tonight’s dinner. I plan on making One-Pan Pakistani Kima from The Wellness Mama Cookbook by Katie Wells for dinner tonight. But perhaps instead I will make one of my Grandmother’s recipes. Maybe I will pull out the grease-stained recipe card containing my Grandmother’s Swiss Steak recipe. I’ll pull the recipe out even though I have it memorized just so I can see my Grandmother’s tiny, faded script and remember what it was like to be a young girl again standing at my Grandmother’s side, under the gentleness of her patient instruction.