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Sunday, June 26, 2011

My Grandma's Cookbook

So as you know, I've spent the past week at home recovering.  The side effects from one of the medications due to some minor complications pretty much laid me out for most of the week.  It's also kept me on the couch watching way too much TV, in particular the Food Network.  Today we watched an episode of "The Barefoot Contessa" and she made Italian Wedding Soup.

While it looked delicious, it did not look anything like my grandmother's Italian Wedding Soup.  I don't make it often because it truly is for special occasions.  You cook a whole chicken, make the meatballs from scratch- it's a process.  And it tastes insanely delicious.

Anyhow, as we watched the show, I grabbed my cookbook that my grandmother had written for me to compare to what Ina was doing.  I flipped through and saw Banana Sour Cream Cake.  I had some old bananas and thought, rather than make my usual muffins, I'd make the cake.  So I read through the recipes....

What, you asked?  Your grandmother handwrote a cookbook?

Yes. In 1989, before even word processors, my grandmother had enough foresight to write down all our family recipes.  And not just for me, for all 11 of the cousins.  She included some words of wisdom, her favorite poems, comments on the recipes- who gave it to her (usually just a first name, as if I would know to whom she was referring), the year, if it was from a magazine, if was "Joe's favorite" etc.  I love a particular spice cake from 1920.  It's a great compilation of my family history.

Now before you get all nostalgic and start "Wow, that Mama Bean has a perfect life.  What a wonderful grandma!"  I should point out that my grandmother and I did not have a huggy, touchy kind of relationship.

My grandmother had a life very typical of first generation Americans.  Her family lost their grocery store during the Depression.  All of her brothers (she was one of 12) fought in every branch of the military during WWII.  Her son served in Vietnam.  She didn't wear pants until after my grandfather passed away in the early 70's.  She scrubbed her walls (I've never done this).  Her house smelled fresh.  She had an amazing garden.  And she cooked.

She also was not a huge fan of me as a child.  I had a bit of a speech problem, so that probably set the stage.  I was also, quite honestly, a strange kid.  I was fairly quiet and shy (try not to laugh), lived in my books and kept to myself somewhat.  Particularly during our large family gatherings.  Let's face it, she thought I was a little weird.  How do I know this, well, she wasn't a shy a woman...

But we spent a lot of time with her growing up.  I loved her stories about growing up, when she cleaned houses, how she learned to cook (our "family" lasagna recipe is off the back of the lasagna noodle box), and we spent a lot of time in her yellow kitchen.

Throughout my teen years, I came out of my shell and developed my more, um, how shall I say, opinionated personality.  We argued a bit.  My grandmother could be a touch dramatic and I would call her on it.  As a story teller, I sometime would fact check her.  I went from being a weird kid to an annoying teen.  But still, I hung out with her and bugged her.

And I think all of the grandkids, with the exception of my sister who was the favorite, had the same relationship.  She was a hard nut to please.  I always cringe because in my handwritten, beloved cookbook, there is a photo of me.  It is the WORST picture of me ever taken.  I think she did it on purpose to keep me humble.  If I get a chance, I will scan it and add it.  Maybe.  It's that bad.
Yes, I know.  I look like Sonny Bono and Roseanne Roseannadanna's love child. Thank God for braces.  And hair mousse.

She always saw herself as a teacher and I can honestly say my cousins- including the boys- are some of the best cooks I know.  And having worked in hospitality and living in Vegas, I know a lot of chefs- my cousins and I can hold our own.  We have a passion for food and cooking and it comes from that yellow kitchen.

Then, something funny happened.  Similar to this week, I found myself with some time on my hands about 9 years ago.  I gave birth to my son and was working from home, taking some time for maternity leave, etc.  I also was incredibly bored.  He slept.  I worked.  I hate day time TV.  So I started to call my grandma.  I think it started with a question on a recipe.  She tended to say things like "add a can of...." without anything.  She probably had had a phone call or someone drop in while she was working on the cookbook.

The following year, she became ill and my dad, who had just retired, starting to sit with her during the day.  Since I had always called my dad almost daily, this turned into nearly daily calls with my grandmother.  When I took Skip to meet her, she fell in love with him.  She, like me, was not a baby person, so we were both surprised by this.  Our conversations usually focused on her new favorite relative, Skip.  She even told me she thought I was a great mom.  Of course it was couched with "I wouldn't have expected that."  Sigh.  But then again, if I'm honest with myself, I didn't expect it either.

I went to visit her a few months before she passed away.  I knew it would be the last visit.  When I got to my parent's house, my aunt called me, almost frantic, saying Grandma was asking when I was coming over with my Chicken Parmesan and homemade sauce.


Well, she said you told her you found a great sauce recipe and she wants to try it.

I had.  I did.  I frantically called my husband, got the recipe, ran to the store and that night I took it to my grandma. 

She devoured it. 

My aunts were stunned.  Apparently, she hadn't been eating much.

Then she turned to me and said the words that every Italian granddaughter wants to hear from her grandmother.

"I like your sauce.  You used oregano.  I never did.... I like it better than mine."


A good mom and a good sauce.

My grandma and I were good to go.  Whatever disapproval she had shared with me during my life, it was all erased at that moment.

She passed away 3 months later.

So today, as I was making the Banana Cake, and I reduced the sugar, added some whole wheat flour, etc, I started to feel a little guilty.  It seemed sacrilegious modifying a family recipe.

And then I remembered the oregano.

The reason my grandma and I finally started to get along was because she had developed respect for me during her last two years.  She treated me like a peer.  I had always been the one to argue back and not cower from her.  I think, in the end, she liked it.

Just like she liked my sauce. 

As I added the new ingredients, made my own notes in the margins, I could almost hear my grandma in heaven saying "Hmmm... yogurt instead of sour cream... oh, toffee chips- I never thought of that."

Thanks, Grandma!


Anonymous said...

It has taken me four tries to leave a comment! Now I forget what I was going to say except that I love you and I'm a Grandma too!

Anonymous said...

It IS challenging to leave a comment! I gave up after trying on earlier posts - we'll see if this works. I don't love to cook, but reading your comments and stories of your Grandma it makes me want to get back in the kitchen. Also what about your Mom? Did she cook or influence you?

Anonymous said...

How ironic that you would write about this. I am sitting here watching the next food network star, and discussing what dish I will be taking to our work party next month. It is an international party since my friend is first generation Greek and loves to throw a party here and there and showcase her heritage.

Of course I greedily signed up with the mother land and put down my favorite grandma dish... Wedding Soup... Go figure. :). Nothing can compare to that dish... Nothing. Well ok so maybe the lemon drop cookies, or the fiadones, or the gnoochis.. Haha I'll stop... But you know what I mean!

Ever since I was a kid I have been cooking.. It too must have been those yellow walls! When I married Christy, she was truly a southern bell and had quite a collection of recipes in her bag... But when she got pregnant I began to take over the full time cooking... And well we haven't looked back yet... There is something zen like when I cook.. I am connecting with the food, with the recipe, and the story of where it came from or the creation process itself. My iPad notes are chalk full or recipes that we have tried or just dont want to forget. Half the time I improvise the flavors and it turns out wicked good and I forget to write I down....

I digress as you can see... I wanted to thank you for your post! Funny how a continent apart we can pull out that same book and feel that connection to an oddly complex past. And if you ever wanna pull the family together for a cook off with those Vegas chefs... Just let me know! And likewise when you wanna come down to the gulf shores and throw a pig in the sand or some fresh fish on the grill, hit me up! We were thirty miles put yesterday and scored some great red grouper.. Mercy!

Have a great restful evening and hope you are taking care!

Mama Bean said...

We definitely need to do a family reunion. I miss seeing everyone!! I'm all for Florida!! You had me at fresh fish.

That is crazy that you were thinking Wedding Soup. The first time I made it, my husband thought I was nuts, then he tasted it. I love it. I have never had anything that tasted similar to Grandma's- I think it's the romano cheese.

As for my mom (and I'm not sure who anonymous 2 is!), while she has many talents, she is not a passionate cook. She actually gets frustrated with me when she watches me cook and I don't measure anything or use the terms "just use enough" or "about that much." I also had the advantage of not just cooking with my grandmother, but working in a few restaurants. When I waited tables, I used to spend all my down time in the kitchen bugging the cooks.

As for me, cooking has always been about taking the time to take care of myself, and now my family. Even when I was single, I cooked and ate at my dining room table. I love that my kids always prefer to eat in. Breakfast and dinner time are nearly sacred at our house. And the travel nut in me loves trying new spices, learning about the food history- just like my cousin Joe above!

It's definitely fun to do and highly recommend it. Personally, I say, start with roasting something- like a chicken. It's super easy (remove the packet inside first!)- coat with a little olive oil, a little salt, a little pepper, stick a peeled onion in the middle, put it in a foil lined pan and roast for about an hour to an hour and fifteen at 350F (until the legs wobble). Then serve it with some frozen veggies. Something about roasting, filling the house with the smell of roasting food-- it'll get you hooked. ANYONE can roast a chicken, yet hardly anyone does it. And it tastes and smells so good.. then you can make broth, soup... and her I go....

Helen said...

What a lovely, lovely tribute to your grandma Lori! Fabulous. I am fairly sure that the person and cook you are today is because of the time you had with her.

P.S. That photo of you is not as bad as you think! All of us have at least one ackward stage photo like that.

Anonymous said...

Im not even sure how I found your BLOG...but Im so glad I did. YOU crack me up! and you brighten my day. Keep writing!

Lisa- reading from OHIO

Mama Bean said...

Thank you so much!!! That made my day!

And Helen, that's a bad picture. I would like to note that my appendix ruptured the next day... hence the lovely yellow hue of my skin.

Rita said...

As an italian granddaughter who also spent time in my grandmother's yellow kitchen, I'm in tears. I am so happy you had those special moments with your grandmother....and that stuffed french toast recipe you shared with me years ago (has it been years....why yes it has) is delicious!