"We follow in the steps of our ancestry, and that cannot be broken." ~Midnight Oil
“Both of our grandmother's were terrific cooks with polar opposite styles. Two prominent women in our gene pool could not be more different, and both have left indelible impressions upon us on how we cook and live our lives.
Our dad's mother, Grandma Elsie was the queen of her kitchen domain (and probably everything else for that matter) easily turning out country delights: fried chicken, biscuits, pies, ice creams, you name it. On one notable occasion, our cousin Larry ate so much that he actually cried from being too full.
Grandma Elsie worked her magic in the tiniest of kitchens in a house "built" during the depression by placing two railroad boxcars together, adding a roof and veneering the outside to resemble a typical residential house in Yucaipa, California. Grandma could also produce fantastic meals on a large scale. She directed the volunteer staff at her church's kitchen where she and her friends turned out amazing congregational dinners and meals for fundraising purposes.
Grandma Elsie was not only a wonder in the kitchen, but she also sewed beautifully and had a green thumb. She made almost all of her own clothes, outfitted her best friend, Harriet, and sewed extensively for our cousins with a few special things for us, too. She dressed plainly and I do not remember her ever applying makeup.
As children, we sisters were all rather intimidated by Grandma Elsie. I remember finding an old black and white photo of a couple obviously enjoying each other’s company - arms around each other, wide smiles, faces radiating happiness. I immediately recognized the man as my Grandpa. The woman, who I was not entirely sure was my Grandma, wore a drop-waist flapper dress and one heel kicked away as if she had just leapt in joy. Mom confirmed that the effervescent woman in the aging photo was indeed Grandma. By her demeanor as an elderly woman, I could not fathom that Grandma once upon a time had been that happy... ever!
A family friend once commented on how Grandma loved to dance when she was young. I had to clarify, my Grandmother? Yes, YOUR Grandmother. After all these years, I still can’t quite believe Grandma danced anywhere, at any age. I recall her regularly watching The 700 Club and Lawrence Welk, attending church and not allowing appetizers before dinner. Mom would keep crackers in the car, so if we were dying from hunger we could sneak out of the house for a snack. Grandma would have flipped her wig if she had discovered us. When we finally sat down to dinner, we gorged ourselves to the point of being stuffed, and then we would try to beat each other to the couch so we could lie down and unbutton our pants for a little relief. The looming threat of further discomfort never stopped us from eating dessert.
Grandma’s vegetable garden was lovely, lined with a “wall” of sweet peas, green beans climbed poles, sweet corn, juicy tomatoes, varieties of squash (among other vegetables), and plants like aloe to relieve burns and skin problems. The neighbors had a peach orchard and in season, Grandma loved to make peach ice cream. Grandma traded vegetables for eggs with another neighbor. They all helped take care of each other during the hardest of times.”
When I sent the post to my mom, dad and sisters to check the facts, I found out that I had some wrong. Mom wrote, “As a child I was not that fond of my mother’s cooking. Most of her dishes you never had at our house. I was glad to leave them behind. I had no weight problems in those days. Everything Grandma Elsie made was DELICIOUS.”
Mom continued with the corrections: “Grandma catered all of the Woman’s Club Luncheons for years in Yucaipa. Her reputation was noted to Nana when I first started seeing your dad. Actually Grandma Elsie and Grandpa Charlie were not active in church until he was retired and able to attend with her. I imagine she did cook for church affairs, but her fame was the Woman's Club of Yucaipa.”
Corrections number three, from my dad, “No doubt Mom was crabby in her later years, but I believe the change in personality was directly related to diabetes and chronic neck stiffness and pain and frayed nerves. My guess is that if you polled your cousins, you would get a different slant on the subject because when they were kids, Mom was younger and didn't have as many problems.”
At the time I was growing up, I didn't know any different so I took what my mom did for granted. Looking back on it from a totally different perspective, I honestly don't know how she did it. Tiny kitchen, one refrigerator, and no freezer (although they did add a large freezer when I was probably 12 or so)."
And this from my sister, Juliette: “I would like to say that I never felt intimidated by Elsie. Perhaps it is because this apple did not fall far from that particular tree. That is increasingly clear as time goes by. In my youth - when I was in trouble (and I was in trouble a lot of the time), I comforted myself by imagining I was adopted. No one understood me, and why would they - there was surely a mix up at Kaiser Steel Hospital, and I had been bundled home with the wrong family.
But in hindsight it would seem that the Smith blood runs true blue in my veins. I have realized that for at least the past three decades, and each passing year I feel a bit more "Elsiefied". Always, when I have been taxed beyond my already short fuse, I channel Elsie. When the angry or impatient words are spewing out of my mouth, I can hear her voice and mine meld. Elsie wouldn't have used the "F Word" like I do (with reckless abandon), but the tone and message are the same. I get you Elsie, and I get you more with each passing day.
Grandma Elsie was always fair, extraordinarily skilled in gardening, cooking, and sewing. All things I admired, or was at least interested in. I did not enjoy wearing her dresses. Beautiful yes, but they were scratchy and uncomfortable to wear. Compounded by the fact that I have never been a "frilly" kind of girl, and do not prefer lace & tulle in the garment department. Fortunately I did not spend more than a couple of days a year in them, but I remember complaining the entire time.
I found it interesting that you made no mention of the Hollyhocks and Snapdragons that were abundant in her garden. I would spend hours wandering among the Hollyhocks that towered over my head, and break the seed pods open to inspect the spool of black seeds wound tightly inside. I would often hold a orange snapdragon blossom in one hand and a yellow in the other and mime long conversations between them - I can't remember what was said, or took place entirely in my imagination, but I know it made me happy, and kept me occupied for hours.
I have Hollyhocks in my yard. Right this moment. They are tough. They have to be. Between my neglect and the arid environment, you've got to be a tough cookie to bloom in Bisbee! But bloom they do, and in towering splendor. Each fall, I break the seed pods off, and peel them open one by one, just like I did in Yucaipa many, many years ago. I think about Elsie as I scatter them in the yard.
I have a bowl of Elsie's. It is a wide and shallow fiberglassish (yes I'm making words up!) pale and translucent bowl, with dried flowers embedded in it. Bowls are not given their due respect in my household, and serve many functions; mixing papier mache, thinning paint, storing sourdough starter, pet feeding, sorting of seeds, shells, beads, and scrabble pieces. Not limited to, and not necessarily in that order. If you've ever eaten at my house - I apologize! I do wash things with very hot water and soap!
This particular bowl only has one function, and that is the serving of family recipes. This bowl is sacred to me, and given by my mother when I moved to Bisbee. I figure it has about the same expiration date as I do - it has seen many years of duty, without the added weight of sin and regret, so perhaps it will fare better in the long run.
Elsie taught me many things. When I was 11 or 12 she taught me to sew. She taught without tears or judgment. I remember making my own dresses in high school, and Linda and I sewing up my maternity clothes when I was pregnant with Paul (my eldest), thanks to Elsie's expert instruction. She taught me to serve dinner at least an hour late. When you are ravenous, anything coming out of the kitchen that is good or better will taste like the best thing you ever ate!
I learned that there is not much better in life than a bowl of frosty lemon ice cream, eaten in a microscopic box-car of a kitchen, with your Grandmother in a cotton house dress with her remaining wisps of silver hair blowing in the breeze of the huge wall fan in the bedroom on a hot summer afternoon.
She taught me the art of the TV tray. Many evenings spent dining with our black and gold trays in front of the T.V. with Lawrence Welk, Hee Haw, or the evening news. The food was great, the 7-up or Root Beer floats even better, but the TV selection sucked! The sheer novelty of watching TV was the saving grace for me. I still get the horrid shiver down my spine when I happen across re-runs of those shows while desperately seeking entertainment on random evenings with my remote in hand! It also makes me crave a Root Beer float!
She taught me how to set a good table. Joyful and full of food. Her dishes didn't match (at least that is my recollection), brightly colored tablecloths, lanterns glowing in the tree branches, and a longggggg table set with the promise of food. Lots of food! The hum of the ice cream maker and the laughter of the family while we waited anxiously for the food to be served is embedded in my DNA. Well, that is all I have to say about that. For now.”
Grandma's Delicious Whole Wheat Buttermilk Pancakes with Blueberries
Remberance from Linda, "One of my favorite memories of Grandma Elsie is of her cooking blueberry pancakes in an electric skillet set on a TV tray in the kitchen while we all sat around the little formica table. I remember that she beat the egg whites separately for her batter, which made the pancakes lighter. The pancakes for our family recipe are made entirely with whole wheat flour, but you would never know because they are light and fluffy."
The pancakes are especially delicious slathered with real butter, drizzled with maple syrup and served with Oven Fried Bacon on the side.
3 large eggs, separated
3 Tbsps sugar
3 cups buttermilk
6 Tbsps oil
1 Tbsp vanilla
3 cups whole wheat flour
1 Tbsp baking powder
2 tsps baking soda
1 package frozen blueberries
Blend egg yolks and then add liquid ingredients. Add dry ingredients. Beat egg whites until stiff. Fold into batter. Thin with additional buttermilk, if necessary. Serves 6.
I received the following e-mail from Dad, that I am sharing (with his permission):ReplyDelete
Hey, Michelle, I really enjoyed the post. All three of you write beautifully! I think most of what is contained in this historical note is correct. However, I have to comment on the following: "Grandma Elsie worked her magic in the tiniest of kitchens in a house "built" during the depression by placing two railroad boxcars together, adding a roof and veneering the outside to resemble a typical residential house in Yucaipa, California."
If Grandpa Charley were to read this sentence, he would roll over in his grave. Why you ask? Dad was always offended that anyone would call those rail cars "box cars". He always made it perfectly clear that those two rail cars were refrigerator cars, not box cars. That seems like a rather trivial distinction, doesn't it? Well, in fact, there is a significant difference. That difference was 12 inches of horse hair insulation which made the house easy to heat in the winter and easy to cool in the summer.
For many years there was an old Duotherm oil heater that sat proudly in the living room. To the north of the house was a wooden frame work that supported a 55 gallon oil drum about 6 or 7 feet off the ground. There was a copper pipe that ran from the oil drum to the Duotherm heater in the living room. Oil would flow by gravity from the drum to the heater. Simple setup and it worked very well and kept the house very cozy in the winter. They eventually replaced the oil heater with a natural gas floor furnace when natural gas was finally made available on Bryant Street. But, personally, I really hated to see the old oil heater go.
Funny the things I remember. They had a wall-to-wall wool carpet in the living room. We got on to the fact that if you shuffled your feet on the wool carpeting and then closely approached the oil heater, one could draw an electric arc up to 1/2 inch or longer. If you held a key, the arc could be appreciated without the associated pain. Dad got the biggest kick out of doing that (no pun intended). It worked best at night and on very dry days.
One incident I recall vividly when I was 9 or 10, was the "mouse flap". The living room had a flat ceiling that had been wallpapered but over time, the clue had failed and the wallpaper sagged a bit. On occasion, we could hear a mouse scurrying around on the sagging wallpaper. Well, as only Mom could do, she was giving Dad a hard time about not doing anything about the "mouse problem". Well, this went on for what must have been several weeks and Dad had finally reached his limit. One memorable evening, while the mouse was scurrying around, Mom said something like: "Charley! When in hell are you going to do something about that damn mouse?" Dad was standing just below where the sound was coming from that the mouse was making. In one unbelievably fast motion, Dad's right palm shot upward and he crushed the mouse between the wallpaper and the wooden ceiling behind it! Wham, problem solved. Mom was speechless (for once). I just stood there with my mouth agape not quite believing what I had just witnessed. So, end of story, right? Wrong! Since there was no way to remove the dead mouse, it remained in the gap between the wallpaper and the ceiling boards. This was okay for about a week until we started getting this horrible stench in the living room. What to do, right? This problem was finally solved by Dad using a pocket knife to slice a small opening in the wallpaper whereby the remains of the mouse could be removed. But the odor remained for weeks and Mom continued to bitch the entire time... LOL.