Sunday, December 18, 2011
Gramma’s house always smelled like pot roast and a little bit like cow manure. Spring and summer it was a little more fragrant that manure smell. She always threw open the windows when the snow melted and the first sunny days arrived. Spring cleaning, manure spreading, first cut then second cut of hay. Fall would come and the windows stayed open through canning and pickling, rain or shine, until Indian Summer had come and gone.
Gramma’s kitchen was always clean, clean to the point of sterile. The counter was worn, but immaculate. She was a tough product of the Depression and I think even dirt was afraid to cross my Gramma.
Her kitchen was her kingdom and we merely serfs. You did not cook, chop, slice, bake or skim without her permission. Most of my youth was spent fetching.
“Fetch me a spoon” she would order, with not so much as a glance in my direction.
“Fetch me the skimmer”.
Gramma never swore. She was a Catholic. Catholics don’t swear, or at least not that Catholic. But if some of the cream she just skimmed splashed on the counter – “oh sugartit!” – rang through the house. This was the all-purpose replacement for any invective.
She always wore a full apron, worn and clean and as the faded counters, always dusted with a trace of flour. From dawn to dusk she wore it, except to go to the barn. It caught puffs of flour when she made baking powder biscuits, carried tomatoes and cucumbers from the garden, and became a fan in late summer when the boiling waters of canning turned the kitchen into a sauna, no matter how many windows you opened.
My Gramma’s kitchen was a functional one, not a friendly one. She had lived through her father’s suicide, survived an alcoholic and abusive stepfather, and became a practical farmer’s wife. The kitchen was not a place to have fun or laugh, you were expected to sit quietly and color, making sure not to get any crayon marks on the table. It’s funny how a mother and daughter can be so different.
My mother went to a Catholic college for Home Economics. She was not going to be a practical farmer’s wife. It was during war years, when nylon was scarce. Stockings were mandatory and my mother and her girlfriends would draw seam lines down the backs of their legs with an eyebrow pencil, hoping the nuns wouldn’t notice. Mom was funny and vivacious – so different than my Gramma.
My mother’s kitchen was warm and welcoming. A mess was nothing. You could always find a little flour in the grain of the big wooden cutting board, or toast crumbs on the counter. My mother laughed and hugged me, telling me not to cry the day I found a dozen eggs on the table, and thinking they were bouncy balls, tried to bounce them off the floor. I was so sad when they didn’t jump back into my hand.
Cooking was a loving process for my mother. She was a teacher, and she did the bookkeeping for my father’s store, but she always seemed to be creating in the kitchen. Wonderful smells drifted through the house. Cookies, breads, desserts always seemed to be in progress. She always let me help. The first ‘cooking’ I remember was pouring chocolate chips into cookie dough. They seemed to taste better when I got to help. I was a big girl now, not a baby who bounced eggs, and when the mixing bowls and cookies sheets came out, I always looked to my mother hopefully.
My mother was a 4H leader, and by the time I was nine or ten she started a cooking club. We learned about the four food groups and good nutrition, and how to set a table in my mother’s kitchen. We made salads, fancy sandwiches, desserts, lunches and snacks in my mother’s wonderful kitchen.
As my Mom and I grew up together, her kitchen became the center of my universe. The formica-topped, stainless steel trimmed table was a place to do homework. When she taught me how to sew, I would lay out my fabric to pin patterns and cut pieces on that table. It was a repair shop for toys, a gardeners potting table, a first aid station and a storytellers bench.
Mom would tell me stories about cooking fiascos in college and when she and Dad were first married. The burn spot on the table was from the time she set a chafing dish up and the heat from the warmer melted the formica. Or when she and Dad were first married she’d made hash once every week for a month. She had taken such care in grinding the roast beef, potato and onion together with the old hand-crank grinder. She’d put it in a casserole dish, made divots in the top and carefully added eggs. The hash would look so pretty – the golden brown crispy meat mixture with the bright white and yellow of the egg on top – and my father was never really hungry.
“I had a snack before I came home”, he would say.
“I’m not too hungry tonight”, was another excuse.
It would be months before he told her they lived on hash at the farm when he was a boy and couldn’t stand it. He had worked so hard to not offend her. He loved her.
My mother wasn’t all about comfort food either. Her cordon bleu rivaled that English woman on PBS. We had governors and senators stay at our house, and she would create theses amazing works of art served on the good Blue Willow china. The piece de resistance was dessert. She would always make Cherries Jubilee a la flambé. Cherries were simmered, the juice sweetened and thickened to a sauce and brandy was added to finish. This was spooned over a meringue topped with vanilla ice cream, then lit tableside. It was all very impressive and she only scorched the ceiling once.
It’s funny how a mother and daughter can be so alike.
I lost my mother in the spring, and now her kitchen is mine. The formica-top table is on the front porch where I sit and pin patterns to fabric and cut pieces in nice weather. It had been replaced with a butcher-block table my father had made for her in his woodshop in the years before he died. You can find flour in the grain of the wooden cutting board, and toast crumbs on the counter. Sometimes it hurts so much when the cookies get too brown on the bottom or the cake doesn’t come out level. I can hear my mom say “don’t worry, we can fix it” and remember how she’s show me how to make it right so no one would notice. I miss her so much. Maybe I’ll make some hash.