By Heather Nice
My grandmother (“Mommom”) believed in the importance of food in bringing a family together. Working side by side, three generations strong, we prepared meals and served them on a dining room table, formally set, around which we shared our stories, engaged in topics of the day, and encouraged each other in moments of struggle and triumph. On days when a formal table seemed too much, we crammed ourselves, six strong, around the small, round table tucked away in Mommom’s kitchen nook, immersed in the sights and smells of the kitchen as we ate.
My family understood, without the interaction of loved ones around the dinner table, food is, as Alton Brown so eloquently points out during his Incredible Edible tour, “just [waste] in the making.”
It should come as a surprise to no one, then, that I love food. Growing up in a family of bakers and cooks, my personal memories are inextricably tied to laughter in the kitchen, moments shared with friends and family around meals, the delightful (and sometimes disastrous) creations we made, and to the sense of love and community these moments inspired.
Nice in the kitchen
I once read an article that referenced food as the “vocabulary of our life.” For me, this holds true. When any family member got a promotion or new job, we celebrated with their favorite dinner. We consoled broken hearts with ice cream sundaes or homemade chocolate chip cookies. Neighbors who lost jobs were surprised with bags of groceries on their door steps. Soldiers overseas and away from loved ones at Christmas got care packages full of cookies. And food, in the instance of loss, was lovingly prepared to lend a bit of comfort to a grieving soul. Food became a common language when words could never be enough.
Within the context of a family, the language of food cannot be separated from memory. I’ll never forget the summer I walked into Mommom’s kitchen to find her sitting in her “jitney” (what she called her red mobility scooter), ripping the pages out of her beloved, well-worn, handwritten cookbook and throwing them away. In the midst of an archives program in Grad School, I gasped at the tangible loss I felt seeing those pages in the trash. Knowing she had a reason, although what I couldn’t fathom, I made coffee and grabbed cookies and we talked. In the words that poured out, I felt her frustration in realizing her days in the kitchen, nurturing the family, were gone. As her mobility grew more limited, her inability to do the things she loved increased. Hoping to ease her frustration and, selfishly, not wanting to lose the treasures in those pages, I proposed a summer project. If she was willing, I would type each recipe, along with any stories she wanted to tell, to create a cookbook for all of the members of our family.
The project that followed wasn’t the breeze I anticipated. Contrary to the wisdom of today, when we compare recipes to the precision of a chemistry experiment, there was nothing precise about Mommom’s cookbook. Recipes contained terms that needed explanation, and the explanation almost always felt woefully inadequate. “Moderate ovens” were ovens “heated to about 350°, give or take a few degrees,” “a dash” might happen between your fingers or in your palm with no real consistency, while “to taste” meant putting things in your mouth that science dictates you likely shouldn’t (recipes with raw eggs, I’m looking at you!). Perhaps even more baffling were the recipes based on smell and feel. Her Thanksgiving stuffing recipe consisted of dried bread, onions, celery, butter, salt, “a bit” of milk, and ZERO measurements. Having made it with her before, I knew it should have a damp to wet (but not soggy) feel, and smell like a colder version of the finished product (buttery, a bit salty, with just the right mix of celery and onion) — but how to communicate that to relatives on the pages of a cookbook?!?
Aside from the lack of measurements, many recipes required creative translation. For instance, my Great Aunts Lucy and Cora made the most amazing chicken pot pie and had shared the recipe with Mommom. When we tried to transcribe the recipe, however, the directions lacked specificity— and a few steps! Clever notations peppered the cookbook. These included:
- “*Additional milk may be needed. There was a note in the recipe we weren’t sure of, but our best guess was ¾ cup. Just be aware you may need additional milk to finish the dumplings.”
- “**The recipe just said to remove the chicken with no further instructions. We decided that it was probably cut and layered back in at the end since we don’t remember broth with a big hunk of chicken being the end result.”
- "*Yes, it says 20 and it means 20 … don’t think it’s a typo for 2!”
Some recipes had as many as four asterisks (****) after them with notes for the unsuspecting family member who expected straightforward recipes. Other recipes contained notes from family members who’d tried to replicate her magic over the years and failed miserably. After all, how do you replicate a cook who uses all five of her senses, relying on memory over measured ingredients?
Challenges aside, what I most remember from that summer were the stories and laughter we shared. Each recipe was indelibly tied to her memories of either the recipe’s creator/sharer or a time when she’d made the recipe for a specific event or with a certain individual. For instance, as I transcribed her pie crust recipe, she told me a story about how she and her three sisters tried to make pies for a church gathering and botched the dough. Rather than admitting to their father that they’d wasted the flour, they decided to hide the evidence. Each sister took a spot in the yard leading from the door to the drainage ditch and they threw pieces of dough from sister to sister until the evidence ended up down the drain. Unfortunately for them, however, a nosey neighbor saw the process and reported to my great-grandfather that “his girls were fighting and throwing dough at each other.” Trouble, in this instance, was not avoided.
Mommom in her 20s.
As each new story unfolded, I learned more about my grandmother as an impetuous girl, a spunky teenager, a playful and loving sister, a young married woman determined to live life by her standards, a fiercely loyal friend, the matriarch of our family, the Mommom I dearly loved, and the woman who helped shape the woman I’ve become.
It was a summer I’ll never forget.
She passed away the following year, but I still have the cookbooks — both the one we created together and the one she unceremoniously dumped in the trashcan. Even though I have the polished, bound version full of her stories that we shared with family members, I can’t bear to part with the recipes of my childhood written by her loving hand.
Mommom’s Pound Cake
- 5 eggs
- 3/4 lb. butter or margarine (Mommom uses 1 stick of butter and 2 of margarine)
- 3 cups sugar
- 3 cups flour
- 1/2 tsp. baking powder
- 1 tsp. vanilla
- 1 cup milk
Beat shortening and sugar for 20 minutes*; add eggs and vanilla. Sift flour and baking powder. Add flour mixture and milk to the sugar mixture. Bake in a greased**, decorative Bundt pan at 325° for about an hour***.
*Yes, it says 20 and it means 20 … don’t think it’s a typo for 2!
**Mommom thinks she greased it, but isn’t 100% positive.
***FYI: Dad made a note on one of the Pound Cake recipes to cook it at 350° for an hour or until done.
A fun way to serve the cake…
Mommom said that she likes to cut a slice of pound cake, place a half a canned peach in the center of it and cover it with lightly sweetened whipped cream so it looks like a fried egg on toast. She said it always gave her a good laugh when her guests thought she was serving them fried eggs for dessert.
Heather Nice is education director at the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum.