A decade passed, I made my own life, found someone to share my life with and got married. It was our honeymoon and there we were sitting in a restaurant on Frenchman’s Street in New Orleans on a cold December night. I kept hearing my grandmother’s voice saying baby and sugar from the passing waitresses. I scanned the menu and asked our waitress if the cornbread was sweet and indeed she said it was. It arrived warm, a 2”x2” slab of yellow cornbread. The smell. It was my grandmother’s and I knew it the minute it hit the table.
The day of the wedding I asked her to come visit me. It would not be in a dream as I had hoped. It would be right there in a very public way as a young street band played their hearts out on the corner outside. It would be in the shape of the most simple of foods. It made sense; In my wedding vows I sang The Rainbow Connection, a song that summed up my childhood dream of someday finding belonging. In a loving and trickster fashion, she had led us that night onto Frenchman St. and into the Praline Connection.
I took a bite of the sweet, buttered cornbread and tears flooded my eyes, ran down my face and into the cornbread. I could not breathe. The cornbread crumbled between my lips as my childhood rushed back. I remembered her movement in the kitchen, stories of her old days singing in a jazz band, telling me grab this and this from the fridge, eye and toss it in the bowl, that’s right, baby. A cup, a cup, a cup, one, one, one. I remember the recipe like a song. I remember her, that kitchen witch showing me her potions, now don’t tell nobody, bent over flame and cauldron, how to taste when something was just right and how to figure out what something was missing. And there I sat in the restaurant, a compete mess gasping for breath between sobs, knowing that all along I had been missing my grandmother. I had been missing a piece of my own soul. Our love, like that yellow bread, was simple, true and sweet.
As I left the restaurant I told my grandmother that when I miss her, I would make soul food. I came home and made the cornbread and as I did, I heard her over my left shoulder saying, a cup, a cup, a cup, one, one, one and a bit more salt, baby.
Patsy Ann’s Cornbread
1 Cup Flour
1 Cup Yellow Cornmeal
1 Cup Sugar
1 teaspoon salt
1 cup milk
3 teaspoon baking powder
1/3 cup vegetable oil
Mix together. Bake at 400 degrees for 20min or until a knife, once inserted into the center, comes out clean.
My mother hailed from a Jewish American family and was raised in the East Bronx. The story of how my parents met is one that immediately orients one to their personality types. My father, who had recently returned to New York City after working at NASA in Texas, was invited to a friend’s party. My mother, who was trying desperately to be a hermit that evening, was dragged out to the same party by her younger brother who insisted she needed a night out. At the party, my mother noticed a slim, geeky-looking man with a group of people around him, engaged in conversation. Being the Bronx girl she was, she marched right over after the crowd dispersed and said her first few words to him: “So, what makes you such a big shot?” And that was how my parents began their journey. . .My mother was a registered nurse who happily validated every stereotype of being a Jewish mother, including being neurotic, maternal, having a big mouth, and cooking well. Growing up, quite often the smell of baked chicken permeated the house stirring my senses as well as the dog’s. My mother wasn’t stingy and she was a huge animal lover. I recall, on occasion, that she would bake her chicken and reserve part of it for our Lhasa Apso, Cricket.
As I grew up (boo hoo!) and had a home of my own, I longed for the days when I would come home from school and smell the garlic and baked chicken wafting from the kitchen as I opened the door. It made me salivate instantly. So, one day, standing in my little galley kitchen, I picked up the phone to once and for all get that recipe I’d been craving.
When she answered the phone, my mother seemed baffled as to why I would be so interested in the recipe and said “I really don’t do anything to it,” when I inquired as to how she made her amazing chicken. I begged her to just tell me the ingredients, time and temperature, so I could recreate it and hastily scribbled it all down on a piece of scrap paper as she rattled it off:
-6 lbs. of chicken legs
-salt & pepper
Put the chicken coated in the above listed ingredients for 90 minutes at 350 degrees.
That was it? Really, Mom? That’s it? “That’s all I do. . . see? Nothing.”
I began baking the chicken for myself, then my family, then many of my friends that I have met over the years. I could have never known how many people I would assist in satiating their appetites with my mom’s chicken recipe for so many years after I had first eaten it as a child. I kept the piece of scrap paper I wrote it on and still reference it as a source of comfort.
When I was seven months pregnant with my younger son, my mother died as the result of being given a medication which caused her known adverse respiratory effects. This medication was administered in a rehabilitation center just days before she was scheduled to go home after major heart surgery. She survived the surgery, which she wasn’t expecting, and was then essentially killed by a resident who wasn’t listening to me during her intake. It was the most horrendous experience of my life and I miss her tremendously.
While her memory is an enduring blessing and lives on in my life and the lives of her grandsons, I’m sure she would be tickled to know that I have used her recipe to feed many hungry tummies and told them what an amazing Yiddishe, ball-busting, bad-ass mama (Jewish mother) I had. The apple doesn’t fall far from the tree, Mommy..
My mother was not much of a cook. Raised some time between the first and second waves of feminism (I get confused), I think she associated cooking with housewives, and she was pretty clear about not wanting to become a housewife. (Actually, she wanted to be a dancer, but that’s another story. She became an English professor). My dad was cool with this not-such-a-great cook thing, and knew that about her when they married (even if he didn’t know a lot of other things; I promise I won’t use any more parentheses). Most nights for dinner, my dad would stop at Safeway on the way home and buy steaks or pork chops or whatever was in the sale bin — meat that was about to expire. He would come home, pour himself a gin and tonic, and virtually no matter the weather he would stand on the back porch and grill meat while sipping a G&T and watching the sun set over the Severn River behind our house. He says he did that largely to get a break from my mother. It was his quiet time.
Inside, my mother would rinse three potatoes, poke them with a fork, and throw them in the oven. She would chop iceburg lettuce and maybe a tomato. Salad dressing: bottled blue cheese. Always. When I was about 11, salad making become my domain. We would eat on the couch with TV trays and watch primetime television.
Once in awhile, my mom had a hankering for cabbage rolls. She would dust off her pressure cooker, saute ground beef with tomato sauce and some spices, roll the beef-tomato mixture into cabbage leaves, and layer them somewhat carefully into the pressure cooker. Then the pot went on the stove, and she waited. She never consulted a recipe. In fact, I don’t have even one memory of her ever looking at any recipe, ever. I don’t know who taught her to make cabbage rolls, but they weren’t bad. They were okay. More than the taste though, I miss the smell. I haven’t tasted or smelled a cabbage roll since she died. Maybe it’s a lost art.
I have had her spiced cider since her death 13 years ago, though. I make it in the fall, during the fresh apple harvest when you can buy freshly pressed cider:
1 gallon apple cider
handlful of whole cloves
3 cinnamon sticks
a rough tablespoon of allspice berries (optional)
In the morning, or at night before you go to bed, put the cider and apple and cinnamon sticks and allspice in the crockpot. Then take the orange and zest about half the rind, all around the orange, like making stripes in the orange with your zester. Then take the cloves and punch them into the rind so that the stem part goes into the rind and the flower-ish part sits on top — this was my job as a kid and I loved it. Put the orange zest and clove-covered orange in the crockpot. Turn it on low. Wait 4-8 hours. Drink.
It’s a delicious spiced cider and she would always make it the day after Thanksgiving as we set up and decorated our artificial Christmas tree (one more parentheses; she claimed to be allergic to real Christmas trees; I don’t think I believe her anymore). The cider made the house smell wonderful, festive and warm — all attributes that my mother shared, on the rare occasion when she wasn’t drunk. My mother was also generous, at least she was when she was sober. And she could talk to anyone, which combined with her generosity and adventurous spirit allowed her to make friends with virtually anyone. But I think I loved her adventurous spirit the best. She could just be downright fun. I think I miss that the most about her.
My mother died when I was 21 in a car accident. She was drunk. She was driving. Luckily, no one else died; her passenger was seriously injured, but nothing life threatening. I think it was a suicide of sorts. I think she was living dangerously on purpose. She bought a new convertible, and was driving it drunk down a notoriously dangerous, curvy road, way over the speed limit, without her seat belt on. When her car flipped, she was tossed a good 25 feet from it, or so I’m told. She had been in emotional pain for so many decades, was feeling tired and alone, and was so vain she couldn’t handle turning 55 in a month.
It’s been more than 13 years since her death. That day is obviously not my happiest memory of my mother. However, the vision of cloves dotting the outside of an orange always turns the edges of my mouth up a bit. Now that I have kids, I find myself treasuring these happy traditions from my childhood even more. I hope that my children, too, when they get a whiff of hot spiced cider, they think of warmth, family, and happy mama love.
“These are fun, don’t you think?” Mom said, holding up a set of dainty gold-rimmed Asian style bowls. The kind of bowls you might eat egg drop soup out of at a Chinese restaurant. I can still see Mom’s eyes twinkling that morning at the yard sale where she bought the set for fifty cents. It was 1993 and they would become our chip dip bowls for many years to come.
I grew up on processed, packaged food for the most part, so when Mom made her signature recipe it was cause for celebration because it was the closest she ever got to actually cooking. Everybody else was celebrating New Years or someone’s birthday, but I was secretly celebrating the chip dip. I always felt like she made it especially for me. When she made it, I felt loved.
The secret ingredient? Buttermilk. We would drink the leftover buttermilk with a sprinkling of pepper on top in a tall glass. My great-grandma let Mom in on the secret of the buttermilk in the chip dip recipe. Gave it that pretty white color she’d said.
After whatever celebration she’d made the dip for, we’d have the leftovers for lunch the following day. Only in Indiana is it normal, accepted even, to have a meal consisting only of chips and dip. And it was such a fun experience to eat it with Mom. We’d situate ourselves in our little cracker-box house on the sofa, a little Chinese bowl of dip propped up on each arm, each of us with our own bag of Ruffles, and watch episode after episode of The Golden Girls until the chips in the bag got too small to dip.
Mom died unexpectedly in the summer of 2010. When Dad made her chip dip over Christmas, our first Christmas without her, I cozied up on the sofa with him the next day and we had lunch together – two plates piled high with Ruffles, and two little Chinese bowls propped up on each arm of the couch. There were no laugh tracks or snarky old-lady jokes that day. We just ate and remembered. It was that trip home when I decided the little bowls belonged at my house. I think of her every time I use them, and I feel loved.
I’m not sure the measurements but it’s basically just:
Lipton’s onion soup mix
1 container of sour cream
1 big ol’ dollop or three of buttermilk
1 big ol’ bag of Ruffles (with ridges)
You have to let it sit in the fridge for a while for the delicate (ha!) flavors to marry and for it to thicken. Go to town.
I never knew my Dad healthy. No one in our nuclear family did. My Mom and Dad met on a blind date. After 6 weeks, my father proposed and 6 weeks later my parents were married. May 1st 1981. My mother married a dying man.
My father was supposed to be sterile and they took my mom off birth control because my Dad was getting chemo and radiation. When my mother told my father she was pregnant with me, he was so ecstatic he bought a Christmas tree on November 11th. My mom wanted to cry, not only could they not afford the meds and the children they already had, but another mouth to feed, and here he was spending money!
What I remember is playing catch in the yard on the side of the house with my Dad and my brother, sitting on his shoulders to dunk the basketball, driving the car while sitting on his lap, stealing his pillow in the morning while I watched cartoons, the Sawyer Brown concert, listening to the Beach Boys, falling asleep with his pillow and somehow waking up with out it! His jokes! Fire crackers, Disney, Boone, grabbing a towel to sit on during time-out because we all knew dad would fall asleep and you would be in the corner for more than 10 minutes, watching baseball, sitting on the couch with my Dad’s legs on me watching TV while he napped, having to wash the car twice because I didn’t do it right the first time, Dad buying me a bike for not sucking my thumb and not pulling my hair out, visiting him in the hospital. Taking turns laying in his hospital bed with him, bringing him my favorite stuffed animals to keep him company at the hospital, getting my tummy rubbed and my back scratched every night by both our parents (once he died, my Mom did it twice), and watching him die.
There are a lot of food memories. My Dad walking me to the bus stop, putting my hands on his coffee cup to keep warm while waiting for the bus, drinking coffee with Dad just the way he liked it, being the last one at the table with Dad, Pimento cheese sandwiches, being Dad’s helper at the grocery store and unloading the car for him, Dad taking me out for ice cream, monster-face meatloaf. But, my Dad ate tomato soup all the time with chunks of white bread right from the pot and I would sit on his lap at the table and have a bowl with him. My dad would even eat tomato soup during chemo and radiation because he said it made him feel better.
My great-great aunt was the best cook. She emigrated from Sweden when she was a teenager with her brother, my grandmother’s father, after World War I. He had immigrated to the US to avoid having to serve in WWI, but then was drafted shortly after becoming a citizen. While in Europe, he visited his family outside of Malmo and asked his favorite sister, his oldest sister, to come to the States with him. She refused. So, instead, his youngest sister asked if she could go. He begrudgingly agreed, and they made their way across the ocean and halfway across the country to the Midwest. When the brother married and had his children, including my grandmother, his wife died. He died when my grandmother was 17, and so my great-great aunt took over maternal duties for my grandmother. She lived to be 108 years old, and cooked for most of those years, so there are many recipes I could choose that make me think of her, but the one that I loved best was her rolls and coffeecake. We have always called them Swedish Buns.
Thanksgiving in my family was the most important holiday. The older generations loved the story of the pilgrims and identified with them as immigrants themselves. So once a year, we gathered at my great-great aunt’s farmhouse in rural Iowa to share an all-day feast. We would all arrive in the morning to warm braided loaves of what we called “coffee bread,” heavy cardamom dough rich with sugar and cinnamon. This was accompanied by coffee, even for the children, though it was diluted with lots of cream and sugar. Then we were released to play while the adults congregated in the living room to watch football, if they were men, or the kitchen, for the women, to fuss over homemade sausage, mashed potatoes, turkey, ham, and a whole host of Swedish dishes.
The taste of the coffee bread followed us to dinner, this time sans sugar and cinnamon, and molded into dinner rolls instead. The recipe was never written down, but passed from woman to woman. My grandmother refuses to pass the recipe on, so the bread becomes even more precious. One year, my elementary school was making a cookbook for a fundraiser. We were supposed to contribute our favorite recipe. My mother still cooks from this book, and it is a testament to Midwestern culinary idiosyncrasies. Jello salad, Pepsi chicken, potato chip cookies. But since the recipe was a family secret, my grandmother didn’t give us the correct recipe. If you make what is printed in that book, you get disgusting, flat, lumps of limp dough that do not even come close to the delicious bread my great-great aunt was known for.
After her funeral, for which my grandmother had made the Swedish coffee cake, I had to board a plane to go back to my PhD program. My grandfather had just died a month before and my SIL had miscarried. Grief hung heavy in all of our hearts. My grandmother had secretly saved an entire coffeecake to send home with me, and as I sat on the plane flying over nondescript fields with the occasional puffy cloud I shoved roll after roll into my mouth, eventually making my stomach as heavy as my heart. It was the last time I ate that bread, but whenever I smell cardamom I remember.
Here I am eating a cinnamon roll from 7-11 and wishing it were one of my great-great-aunt’s Swedish buns. My hair is in two braids, just like she used to wear her hair as a girl, in true Viking stereotype. She used to love to style my hair the same way. I never learned to braid as a child, so I loved to sit on the floor in front of her on the couch while she braided my hair.
Growing up, my dad was in charge of buying junk food in our house. He taught me about circus peanuts and pork rinds. He could eat a whole pizza in one sitting; his van was littered with king-sized Snicker’s wrappers. When he got sober, he went gaga for juicing and fish oil. Bookshelf after bookshelf was lined with title after title about healthy eating. Looking back, my dad probably used food like he used drugs: overly. But as a kid, nothing was better than eating ice cream with my dad.
It would start with the decision to get the ice cream, an iresistable delicacy that we couldnt, as a family, just keep laying around the freezer. This decision was usually made late at night and because my dad said so. Sometimes, I would get to come along. Once we got the gallon into the house, me, him and my mom would all pile in the kitchen, getting out the bowls and spoons, tripping over the dogs. My dad was in charge, mostly because he wanted to eat first and required the most ice cream. To start, he would tear each corner of the box down, exposing the sides of the big creamy brick. Then, he took a ten inch chef’s knife and cut the gallon into three slices. Then, he would take his slice and plop it into a Tupperware mixing bowl, pre-lined with slices of pound cake. On top went the chocolate syrup and slices of banana. He would then retreat to him and my mom’s bedroom with anywhere from 2-3 dogs in hot pursuit. My mom and I were left to make our own bowls. We would meet him in the bedroom where we all sat in front of the TV, along with the dull tapping and scraping of spoons against plastic. When we were done, the dogs would chase the dishes around the floor, licking bowls and noses coated in good whiteness. On the best nights, I would fall asleep to sounds of the dishwasher shushing.
Last month, on the three year anniversary of his death, I went out and got a gallon of ice cream, a bottle of chocolate syrup, a banana and remembered. After I made a Facebook post of all the things my friends could eat in honor of his death, my friend, Bianca, folded a slice of pizza in half, like my dad used to do, shoved it into her mouth and posted a picture of the manuver on my wall. The same week, my friend Sarah posted an entry on her blog, Feed Me Like You Love Me, about grief and eating. She said, “Eating a meal when you feel the wound of what was ripped from inside you is the very act of one day after another, one step in front of the other, one bite back to life.”
My dad’s death was sudden, sad and drug-related. Since it happened, I’ve been looking for ways to keep him close, do him justice, and to heal. The next step on that journey is to sit down every year and eat some ice cream. I’ve also decided to create a place for all of us to collect our stories — about food and remembering.