Grandma’s Best Recipe
When I am in the kitchen, my grandmother is in my mind. I was lucky enough to inherit her metal measuring cups and her set of well-used pots and pans.
Her voice is always there when I cook, but especially when I do something old-fashioned like bake from scratch, wear an apron, or “put up” fruits, vegetables, or jams for the winter. I only do a few things, strawberry jam, canned peaches, canned tomatoes, but it is enough to keep her present with me.
This Christmas I finally approximated her delicious yeast rolls after quite a bit of trial and error. Eating them on Christmas Day with my family was like having a bit of her with us again.
Take a 1/2 Cup of Time
Mom taught for a few years after I was born and until my little brother, Mike, arrived. During those years, my two grandmothers kept me, alternating every two weeks. Unfortunately, my maternal grandmother passed away when I was four. Our story is for another day. Besides Grandma babysitting me during the school year, I always went to stay with her during the summer for a week. This was a family tradition that was much watered down by the time it got to me. My dad used to travel from Akron (well, I guess someone drove him) from the ages of 7 to 11, to stay with HIS grandparents on their farm on Carroll-Eastern Road. In the 40’s, this would have been a long trip—not just a couple of hours. He would then stay for as much as 6 weeks. He was driving a tractor by the age of 8, although he was scared to death to do it. After the age of 11, his folks, my grandparents, moved down to the Baltimore area again and he was over at his grandparents all the time, working and helping out on the farm. The tradition of dedicating time to go stay with grandparents had been put in place. This is all a long way to say that I treasured those weeks in the summer with Grandma when we wouldn’t do anything special except be. There was no planning of special activities; I just went along with whatever Grandma had planned for her day. And that was okay.
As a little girl, I was often perched on the kitchen counter next to her as she cooked three meals a day. The breakfasts were smaller during my time with her, but lunch and dinner were both full, hot meals. To eat at a restaurant was a special treat; to eat at a restaurant like we do today was unheard of. When my dad was growing up on the farm, he famously ate a half dozen eggs, a rasher of bacon, and a mixing bowl full of cereal—with fresh, whole milk, of course–every day for breakfast. I can only assume there was also toast involved. This was during the time that he had to milk the cows before school, played sports after school, and was growing like and into a 6’4” weed.
Dad, Mom, Grandma and me, 1966. She is a few years younger here than I am now.
As I kept her company during her work in the kitchen and elsewhere, she would tell me tales of the family. Grandma’s mother, Martha, was the “saving-est” person ever was. This was said with great reverence as she described my great-grandma not even using a match to light the stove (this would have been in the 1920’s and 30’s), but rather rolling a piece of newspaper into a cone, lighting it by the kerosene lamp, and then transferring the fire to the stove. During the Great Depression, Great-Grandma made 9 quilts to sell to help keep the family afloat. Nine! By hand!
Another person she loved to talk about, of course, was my dad. He grew so much one summer, they didn’t know him when he went back to school in the fall! To my little girl mind, I believed this very literally and imagined my dad having to introduce himself to classmates and teachers that he had known his entire life.
Another summer he was sick with chicken pox or something and was in bed with a fever. There was an incident with Beauty, the prize Holstein who gave the richest milk, and who had a white blaze in the shape of the state of Ohio on her forehead (see below). One day during Dad’s illness, she had fallen in the creek, and Grandma couldn’t get her out; Grandpa was at work.
Dad with Beauty, early 50’s
Cows are naturally not the most nimble of animals, and Beauty had managed to go down on her forelegs in water up to her chest. Keeping her head above the water was imperative and nearly impossible. I don’t know if he heard Grandma yelling or what, but Dad had to rise from his sickbed to rescue the foundering heifer from the creek. Good thing he ate all those huge breakfasts!
Another bit of lore was how he got a cherry pit stuck under his tongue, it swelled up, and he almost swallowed it! (His tongue, not the cherry pit). Apparently, my dad is allergic to certain cherries—THAT’S what caused the swelling, etc—but how dramatic! *Correction: It wasn’t a cherry pit that got stuck under his tongue, but rather a splinter! When they removed it, it left a hole. He must have eaten tart cherries right after that which caused his tongue to swell. Are the two things really related? Well, surely if you know my dad, you are shaking your head about now. He IS still allergic and I’M not going to argue with him about the “splinter-hole”. What we do know for sure is that Grandma’s stories never lacked flair.
1/3 Cup of Frugality
I can still see Grandma measuring batter from the 1/3 measuring cup into a muffin tin and cleaning out the cup with her sturdy square-tipped fingers. There was very little waste in Grandma’s kitchen. When cooking, one scraped every last drop out of the bowl before putting it in the sink to be washed by hand.
Even table scraps—those that couldn’t be composted—were saved for Great-Aunt Dorothy’s cats. Aunt Dorothy lived on a sheep farm at that time and had quite a few barn cats. I don’t know how it worked exactly, but Grandma would fill up a cardboard milk container with table scraps piled willy-nilly in it and take it over to Aunt Dorothy’s farm on Bickel-Church Road.
There was a compost pile, of course, for fruit and vegetable waste. Grandma also put coffee grounds around her trees for their nutrition. Just another reason to stop using a Keurig!
1 Heaping Cup of Industry
Back in the 40’s, with her Victory Garden, there was a summer when she preserved over 200 quarts of foodstuffs that she kept in the fruit cellar at the farm. I wish I had written down how much of each thing she had done when she recounted that season to me. In her words, she was “very workative” that summer. I’ll say.
There was a china cup that sat by the sink from which she drank coffee; she drank so much coffee for so many years, that the kitchen counter had a permanent coffee stain ring on it that no amount of scrubbing could remove. We found out later that she used to drink 16 cups of coffee a day. With a note of wonder in her voice, she recalled, “I used to get so much done!”
Sprinkle Liberally with Perseverance
When I was a young mother, I was, of course, interested in providing nutritious fare for my little ones. Grandma loved to help out with things in this vein. So one summer, I went to her house to freeze apples for applesauce, apple pie, apple crisp, etc. She had a couple of apple trees in her backyard which had a bumper crop of apples every year. As we started peeling and slicing a bushel or two of apples, she said, “You have to be like an old-fashioned woman today and stick with it until the job is done.” I had intended to do that, of course, but how often do folks today NOT stick with something until it’s done? The very fact that she felt she needed to mention it still sits there, hard in my mind. I haven’t forgotten that lesson. As I use Grandma’s measuring cups and pots and pans daily, a piece of her is with me. When I feel tired sometimes, I think, “Freeda wouldn’t quit because she was tired.” And she wouldn’t have.
Mix Well and Serve with Love
Those humble measuring cups and sturdy pots provide a daily reminder of the precious lessons learned from Grandma: homemade is best, time is a priceless gift, waste not, work hard and often, finish what you start. What a legacy she gave to me.
Grandma and me at a holiday dinner, 1972
She is buttering one of her famous rolls.