For almost the entire time I knew her, my grandmother was never happy with her oven. It was, according to her, the culprit for all her failed culinary efforts. It inflicted her cakes with sad spots and a dry, crumbly texture. It burned her meringues. It produced underdone baked chicken and overdone baked ham. It was often the target of one of my sweet, mild-mannered Grandmother’s rarely uttered profanities. As far as we knew, and in accordance with the intense resentment she held towards it, that seemingly inanimate, innocent kitchen appliance was responsible for every tragedy and atrocity from the Great Depression to the drowning of little kittens.
Yet despite her ongoing struggle with her awful, evil oven, my grandmother was a wonderful cook. She’s been gone for almost 10 years, but I can still taste her fried chicken and her scrambled eggs. You may think there’s not an art to making scrambled eggs, but that’s because you never tasted hers.
My other grandmother, Gragile, was another wonderful cook I knew. ( I hope that compliment will allow her to forgive me for the possible misspelling of Gragile.) The lady was not afraid of sugar, fat or salt, which I admire greatly in a person. I always wanted one of her coconut cakes all to myself, and her pot roast and biscuits melted in my mouth.
My mother is another woman I know who makes assembling delicious food look effortless, and my not-at-all-wicked stepmother, Sally, has the unique ability bring a meal to the table that pleases everyone. As you can see, I come from a rich heritage of Southern cooks. Food is important in my family. The ability to cook that food well is even more important. It’s a rite of passage. A badge of honor.
I’m sure it’s this way in most Southern families. To Southerners, food represents more than just nourishment. To cook a meal for your family means that you love them, that you want to make them happy. Filling their bellies fills your heart. There’s nothing better than a loved one requesting a specific dish from you and then watching them truly enjoy it.
In the South, this love of cooking and family and food is passed down from mother to daughter like an heirloom. Recipe boxes and binders are scrapbooks, worn and food-stained, with ingredients crossed out and added and notes in the margins. To thumb through one is to pass through the owner’s life. Her recipes for lean times and times of plenty. The recipe for her daughter’s favorite birthday cake and her husband’s favorite casserole. Recipes clipped from magazines, the sides of boxes and church newsletters and stapled to index cards. Yellowed, handwritten cards with curled edges that are priceless. I swear to you, I have my grandmother’s diamond engagement ring in my jewelry box, but I would trade it in a second for her recipes.
But for all this rhapsodizing about her recipes, I never saw my Grandmother use one. Why should she have? She had cooked every dish in that box over and over again for years. She memorized every one. Or, if she hadn’t exactly memorized it, she simply added ingredients until it “looked right.” Looking back on it now, I wish I had spent as much time watching her cook as I did gobbling down what she made.
When Gill and I were first married, I could not cook. I could make grilled cheese sandwiches, and I had a vague notion of how to make spaghetti. My signature dish at that time involved a crockpot, a can of tomato sauce, some frozen mixed vegetables and whatever beef roast was on sale that week. Mmmmm….can’t you just taste it? Gill did taste it. Every week. And he stayed married to me. Wonders, they never cease.
I’ve learned so much in the seven years since then. I’ve read so many cookbooks, websites and magazines. I’ve watched a lot of Food Network. A LOT. And I’ve cooked A LOT. And I’ve made plenty of mistakes. The unfortunate time I tried to make country-style steak with soy flour comes to mind. But I’ve also come up with some pretty good dishes, too, if I do say so myself. You should come over sometime and try my Famous Figyah Ate Spaghetti Sauce or my Chicken Divan.
I love to cook. I love food. I love shopping for food and reading about food and watching TV shows and movies about food. An unfamiliar grocery store in a town I’m visiting is a tourist destination for me. My ideal date night is dinner at a new restaurant and long browse through Barnes and Noble’s cookbook section. Just between you and me, sometimes when I’m cooking in my kitchen, I pretend I have my own show. Don’t tell anyone!
Now, I don’t want you to think I’m some uber-sophisticated, uber-talented gourmet cook, although I would like to be. I tend to prefer simpler food, though, and simpler methods of preparing it. But, seriously, what is better than this: a perfectly red, ripe, juicy summer tomato, a slice of sharp cheddar cheese, a little mayo, salt and black pepper all between two pieces of fresh French bread?
Nothing. Nothing is better than that. And I learned that particular recipe from my grandmother.