Sunday, May 31, 2009

My Grandmother's Kitchen

My friend Kim recently had a post titled "Grow Some of Your Own Food" that asks questions beyond just food to general self-sufficiency. It echoes to some extent the principles of the Transition movement that encourages a focus on community resiliency, partly based on supplying needs at the community level. All this started me thinking about how just a couple of generations ago, this would have been taken for granted. It made me think of my paternal grandmother and her life.

The generations ran long in my family. My father was born 13 years after my grandmother, Alice Victoria Young Nix, was married, and he was in his mid-30s before I was born. So I have some memories of a woman, born in 1879, who was married before the turn of the 20th century (1897) and how she organized her kitchen and garden.

I was too young to notice much about how things were done when my grandparents lived on a little farm near Comanche, Oklahoma. I remember that they had a cow and chickens. I think the farm was only for their own subsistence; my grandfather ran a furniture store in town. By the time I spent a couple of summers in Comanche, my grandmother was widowed. They had moved into town, where she had a fairly small plot of land (using my memory and my mature estimation, I'd say about 3/4 acre or less).

Grandmother had worked much of her life outside the home as well as in it. My grandparents were married in Texas and moved into Indian Territory before Oklahoma statehood; she once told me that they drove a covered wagon in the move. She mentioned to me that she had worked in the post office, and also that she and my grandfather had been the distributors for government commodities. I would guess that that was during the New Deal. My grandfather always seemed to have operated small businesses like furniture stores or general stores. But I think that their livelihood was relatively precarious and that what food they could grow for themselves was important.

The house I visited in the town sat roughly in the center of its lot. On one side (just outside the kitchen door) was a chicken yard and coop. The chickens roamed around that part of the yard, scratching and pecking, and were fed cracked corn (I enjoyed throwing it on the ground for them). There was a rooster. Grandmother collected a lot of eggs and may have sold a few of them; from my memory, I'd estimate she had a couple dozen chickens. The chickens were also for eating. When my grandfather was still alive, he cut one's head off, using a hatchet and a wood block. I remember seeing the decapitated chicken running around frantically (that metaphor has always had real meaning for me). Then she plucked and cleaned it. It was probably fried chicken, since that was a specialty of hers.

On the other side of the house, there was a substantial vegetable garden. What I remember most about that was the two rows of strawberries, which I found to be messy, with runners everywhere and needing weeding. She had a few flowers near the house, like four-o'clocks and hollyhocks, and some lilac bushes, but most of the property was given over to food production.

I was too young to take in much of the operation of the kitchen. But I remember that they had a real icebox. Once a week someone delivered a block of ice from the icehouse, and there was a little tube near the bottom where melted water had to be captured. I think the stove was some kind of gas, certainly not wood-burning. To the end of her life (when she had a kitchen of her own), Grandmother kept a flour drawer. Instead of keeping flour in a canister, it was in a drawer of the kitchen cabinet. She didn't have one of those fancy Hoosier cabinets, but you get the idea.

I'm sure that one reason for the drawer was that baking was an important part of daily routine. She made mostly short breads (namely, biscuits and cornbread). When she spoke of yeast-risen bread, it was as "light bread", with the emphasis on "light": LIGHT-bread. It wasn't so usual on the menu. She bought white flour in large sacks (25 lbs or more). The sacks were made of a flowered calico fabric which was then recycled into aprons, tea towels, and even quilts.

When they had their own cow, they made butter, but there was a local creamery and I think she bought her dairy goods there once they moved into town. She rendered her own lard, though, producing wonderful pork cracklin's from the skin. I'm pretty sure that was used for the biscuits.

She moved into a small apartment of my parents' house in her 80s and cooked rarely after that, except some things for herself (I was horrified by her love for brains and eggs). I didn't learn many recipes from her. But her special cornbread dressing (lots of sage) lives on in our own Thanksgiving tradition. Another thing she made for every Thanksgiving was "ambrosia". I recall that as thinly sliced oranges layered with lots of sugar and coconut. We didn't make it after she stopped cooking altogether. I did love her sugar cookies. They were light and pillowy, not heavy and fatty. When I was a teenager I once asked her for the recipe and she took me into her kitchen and "commenced" (as she would have said) to pull fistfulls of flour out of the drawer, and measured sugar by handfulls and salt by pinches. I quit in disgust. Wish I could tell that impatient teenager to go back and try to measure those amounts, because I've never been able to find an equivalent recipe.

I don't think my grandmother thought of herself as a special cook, or of her garden and chickens as a special hobby or avocation. She simply made her own domestic food industry that supplied a high percentage of their needs. It was modest, ordinary, and taken for granted as the way one lived.

Southern-style Cornbread Dressing

1 recipe cornbread (NOT corn muffins!) - extra credit for using bacon fat or lard to make it
1 cup stale light bread, cubed and dried
1 medium onion
1-2 stalks celery
2 eggs
turkey drippings and broth from boiling the neck
(I now supplement this with homemade chicken broth from my freezer.)
Dried sage, rubbed just before use
salt, pepper

With hands, reduce the cornbread to crumbs and mix in the dried light bread, also reducing that to crumbs. Chop onion and celery and add, along with sage, salt, and pepper. Mix in the two eggs. Stir in as much turkey drippings as you can spare and the broth from the neck. Add more boiling water (or homemade broth) if the mixture seems too dry. You are making something like a savory bread pudding and it should be quite moist but with no free liquid standing.

This may be used to stuff the turkey but we always baked it in a greased pan on a rack under the bird. It should cook for at least an hour (contains raw eggs).


Cornbread comes in many varieties.  Some make a very dry cornbread that is almost nothing but cornmeal, leavening,  and fat.  Some make a sweet concoction that is almost more like breakfast muffins.  My family has always used a middle path.  This recipe was originally published in Ann Pillsbury's Baking Book (Penguin edition, 1961) and is our standard.

Perfect Corn Bread


1 cup all-purpose flour
1 cup corn meal
1/4 cup granulated sugar
4 teaspoons baking powder
3/4 teaspoon salt


2 eggs
1 cup milk         and mix with a spoon until well combined.

Add 1/4 cup oil.  OR  melt about 1/3 cup bacon fat or lard in a 9" iron skillet. (Or use a kitchen balance to weigh out 2 oz of nonhydrogenated lard (your own rendering or a local source).

Mix the fat into the batter, make sure the skillet is well oiled, and pour into the skillet.  If not using a skillet, grease a baking pan.  (The iron skillet is both the most authentic and the best functional choice.)

Bake at 425° F for 25 minutes and decant from the pan to cool.

(The bacon fat or lard will yield the richest and most authentic cornbread for this dressing.)


Kim said...

This is a fascinating peek at our past level of self-sufficiency and sustainability. And at the kinds of things people then took for granted that we can't take for granted. Even though no one wants that level of back-breaking labor to return.

Spending summers with my grandparents had a big effect on me that I certainly didn't realize at the time. But that's where I learned what food from the earth really tastes like. And I'm happy now to have spent those hours shelling peas, weeding beans and helping my grandmother freeze it all.

One of my favorite books is Donald Hall's "String Too Short To Be Saved" - about spending summers with his grandparents.

Thank you for this beautiful post!

Buttercup said...

Thanks, Kim!

Now, my mother was the string saver. We always had a ball of string made up of pieces and it was indeed a problem when the string was too short to tie onto the ball. The string used to come with meat - it was used to tie up the butcher paper instead of the tape used now.

I don't remember my grandmother ever complaining about the work.