by Carrie Hagen
My younger brothers and I didn’t eat much fast food as children, but it was one of the treats that my parents could afford. We lived in West Palm Beach then, a few hours away from my mother’s hometown in Lakeland, Florida. That’s where Grandma became known for her cooking. Only her dishes tasted better than Happy Meals.
Don and Dot Kelso, my grandparents, moved to central Florida after World War Two, when Grandpa left the Navy and became an agency manager for State Farm Insurance. As his territory expanded, Grandma raised four children and served with her “ladies” in the Garden Club and the local Methodist church. The ladies – Foxie and Beulah, Betty and Elmyra – catered for one another frequently, displaying their specialties on teacarts and buffets. I have these recipes now, on loan from my mother. Decades ago, Grandma assembled four spiral-bound cookbooks for her children’s families. In every one, she hand-copied her 47 favorite dishes, attributing each to the appropriate cook. Society recognized these ladies as dedicated housewives, but in their recipe exchanges, they preserved one another as artisans.
The pages of “Mom Kelso’s” cookbook, now stained with burns and drippings, are as full of childhood memories as is any family photo album. The first dish I remember savoring at Grandma’s table was her take on JoAnne Strauble’s broccoli casserole. The memory is almost thirty years old, but I can still taste my first bite of that smooth and crunchy blend: mayonnaise, cream of mushroom and grated cheddar melted around eggs and broccoli. Never before or since has a vegetable dish impressed me so much. Grandma’s cooking catered to every palate of every age. Her ten grandchildren ate the same food on the same china at the same table as the adults; if an overflow of guests called for a second eating area, then children and adults sat together in both places. I didn’t know it then, but the dining experience at Grandma’s was my first lesson in refinement.
The courses changed a bit when my grandfather left his insurance business and retired to upstate New York, where he acted as the overseas director for a missionary organization. Soon, travelers from around the globe sat around Grandma’s dinner table as they discussed their countries and needs. She didn’t blend as much of Dot Tumey’s Frozen Strawberry Salad up north, and she stopped making watermelon pickles – Grandma said the rinds north of the Mason-Dixon line were no good. But she still served Aunt Elmyra’s cornbread with turnip greens that Grandpa plucked from his garden. International guests loved Grandma’s cooking as much as her Florida friends. I didn’t speak their native languages, but I could tell by their smiles and sighs, the pleased groans that greeted dessert plates.
I regret now that I didn’t spend more time with Grandma in the kitchen during all of the vacations that I spent with her. Instead of playing tag with my cousins in the Lakeland orange grove, or hiking with my brothers in the Adirondack woods, I wish I had watched her hands and learned her techniques. I like to think that she knew my questions would outlive her, and that’s why she sprinkled her handmade cookbook with notes for a novice.
She lists many ingredients but few instructions for Vegetable Beef Soup, a hearty meal that welcomed night travelers. At the bottom of the page, Grandma reassures my attempt with an asterisk. Just “stir every now and then,” I hear her say. When I wondered why my take on Carol Smith’s Squash Casserole tasted a bit off, I found Grandma’s answer under her recipe for Colache: “I stopped peeling the squash.” And when I wasn’t sure how many cuts I needed for Grandma’s Sweet and Sour Pork Chops, she had anticipated that question too. “Number of pork chops depends on how many people are to eat,” she writes as an afterthought, instead of the appropriate “Duh.”
I can hear her soft Southern drawl as she assures me that Ruth Windham’s Orange Balls will first “form a sticky mess,” and recommends a topping for Betty Bisplinghoff’s Pound Cake: “Cook dried apricots with a cup of sugar, mash them with a fork, and scatter over whipped cream.” Elizabeth Child’s Fruit Cake Cookies need an extra teaspoon of vanilla and rum, she writes, and if I want to attempt Mom Kelso’s Best White Fruit Cake, I need to cut a brown grocery bag to fit a tube pan and then grease both.
I wonder what connected Grandma to the particular flavors that she prepared for us, what impressions from her childhood connected to the ones she made on mine. I never asked her these questions, not directly – perhaps because expert craftsmanship is beguiling, embodying an artist’s maturity so well that its seeming simplicity awes amateurs. All a novice can do is study what a masterpiece articulates, and hope it will conjure sensory memories that connect her to the artist. This is why a handwritten recipe is such a gift: it is a copy of an imprint that one craftsperson made on another’s memory.
I value Grandma’s handmade cookbook as much as I do her dining room table; the gathering place that fed so many cultures now occupies much of my small urban apartment. More than anything else, I appreciate what the recipes teach me about Grandma and her friends. We – their families – respected them for the simple pleasures and safe places that they nurtured for us. Their selflessness made it easy for others to assume that they were simple people, content in their roles as comfortable 20th century American housewives. But Grandma and her ladies were anything but simple. Their tastes were too robust, and the memories they created too redolent for them to have been anything other than passionate women, satisfied through the sensual creations they crafted in their kitchens.
Vegetable Beef Soup
from the Kitchen of Mom Kelso
Cook small chuck roast in 10 cups of water combined with 1 tablespoon of apple cider vinegar. When roast is done, take meat out and strain broth. Cut meat in small pieces. Add to broth and heat to medium high (do not boil). Add 1 can of diced tomatoes, a few celery leaves, 1 cup diced celery, 2 small onions (diced), 3 small diced potatoes, 4 diced okra pods and 2 hands full of noodles. Cook until vegetables are done. Season to taste with pepper, seasoned salt, Tabasco sauce, Worcestershire sauce and some dill pickle juice.
Stir now and then.
Photo Credit: Cakes by Wayne Thiebaud courtesy of cliff1066 from Flickr Creative Commons.
Carrie Hagen‘s first book, we is got him, was published in 2011 by The Overlook Press and is a narrative nonfiction account of the first recorded ransom kidnapping in American history. Her essays and commentary have appeared on Nerve.com, NewsWorks.org, Phi