Sunday, June 27, 2010

Kitchen Memories

On today’s Lipstick Chronicles ( Elaine Viets’s reminiscence of watching her grandmother cook and trying to emulate her light touch has called up memories of my own grandmother’s kitchen . . . or rather, her sister-in-law’s kitchen.

The household that Nellie joined in 1903 included his invalid mother, two deaf-mute bachelor brothers and a nearly illiterate spinster sister who was a fabulous cook. The kitchen was Sue's province, so Nellie taught school, gardened, sewed, and tried to keep her husband’s unmarried siblings from spoiling their two daughters. When Sue died in 1927, Nellie took over the kitchen and even though she was never more than just an adequate cook, she jealously guarded the business side of that big room and seldom allowed anyone else to work there.

It’s too late to ask any of the players now, but I do find myself wondering if the sisters-in-law even liked each other. Sue probably felt inferior to my educated grandmother, who dropped enough uncharitable comments over the years to let me know that she resented never being able to cook for her new husband.

As a result, my mother learned to cook on a cast iron woodstove at Sue’s elbow and most of our family food stories come from Sue’s practices. (Imagine cooking on a woodstove in the summer!)

Sue’s pies and cakes were legendary and her specialty was a six-layer yellow cake with chocolate icing. She would bake it on a Saturday for Sunday “dinner” when the preacher or other church friends might be expected to come take potluck. Throughout her whole long life, Mother regretted that Sue would never cut the cake while it was so warm and fragrant.

Because of Sue’s inflexible rule, Mother swore that she would never torture her own children like that and my brother and I have lovely memories of digging into a freshly made chocolate cake that was so warm, the ice cream would melt down into the layers before we could eat it all.

Mother also picked up Sue’s finesse with pie crusts, but she never managed to pass that skill on to me. Whenever I’m forced to bake a pie, I use Mrs. Smith’s crusts, not Great-aunt Sue’s. But I make her biscuits, her cornbread, her smothered pork chops, and her fig preserves—a recipe passed down from Sue through Mother’s sister.

Now my older granddaughter comes out to the kitchen to watch me make gravy from the meat drippings. And she’s mentioned wanting to make biscuits.

And so Sue’s legacy continues.

Thanks for the good memories, Elaine.

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