Nov 21, 2009

Too Many Cooks Spoil the Pot?

Listen closely this time of year and you'll hear the buzz with talk of Thanksgiving Day fair, menus, recipes, and family traditions and heritage brought to America from all parts of the world. Soon, the buzz will turn into a loud chatter, as new aged cooks and the like comb  recipe and foodie sites searching for yet another "new" way to make a "sweet potato soufflĂ©", or perhaps, an alternative to Aunt so and so's "green bean casserole". Sadly, there will also be talk of "shortcuts" and how to make the quickest and easiest no bake dessert. Finally, it will grow into a panicked roar, as new cooks are smacked in the face with the reality that they've "volunteered" for the first time to host the biggest American meal of the year. Oh sure, they'll have done their homework and undoubtedly will be clenching a fistful of printed off recipes for pan dressing, only to realize the night before the big event, they haven't a clue as to how to cook the star of the show..."Big Bird". Well thank the stars above for turkey hotlines and internet search engines. Better yet, thank God if you're lucky enough to still have a "go-to" family member or person to call.....or even best yet..... to cook with you in the kitchen.

The older I get the more I come to realize how many wasted years that I took Thanksgiving Day, or any family meal preparations for that matter, for granted. You see, I come from a long line of wonderfully talented southern cooks and I grew up in a time when traditional family meals were a given. I've come to realize however, that they were...they are... a gift.  I was lucky enough that for a period in my life my maternal grandma and grandpa lived with us. So I have lots of childhood memories, the night before the big feast, side by side with my mom and grandma in the kitchen. Of course, when you're "knee high to a grasshopper", and forced to "pitch in" and peel what seems like an endless pile of potatoes, being grateful is the last thing that's on your mind......child slavery is more like it. [insert eyeroll] The pic on the right is my mom (in white), our neighbor Jean (to the left), and me with my back turned (rolling my eyes no doubt). Can't remember the guy's name next to me, but I had a crush on him LOL. We had volunteered to cook dinner at the local Boy's Club.

Being the only girl raised with three brothers I was a bit of a tomboy, to say the least. I wanted to be outside playing tackle football with the boys, certainly not in the kitchen with mom and grandma tearing stupid pieces of stale bread for grandma's "famous" stuffing. [insert eyeroll AND tongue click] "Now I have to chop celery?...and onions too? But they make my eyes buuuuuuurn", I'd squeal in disgust. My grandma (pic on the left) would tell me to hush up, then she'd throw all of the gooey "stuff" into the bowl, never measuring a thing mind you, and I had to mix it with my hands. YUCK! I hated this job. I wanted to do something of importance. I wanted to cook something....on my own. Not knowing all the while that I was learning how to cook grandma's stuffing.

As I grew up and actually became more interested in cooking than football, I was given more seemingly important tasks. The first thing I can remember is being in charge of the sweet potatoes. I just about fell completely over when my mom, with her back to me while she cooked at the stove, gave me step by step instructions; drain the potatoes, sprinkle with brown sugar, ground cloves, cinnamon and nutmeg, then dot with butter. Dot? huh? Butwhatabout the marshmallows? "Those come later", she'd say. It wasn't long before I graduated to going solo on the deviled eggs....oh, not just the peeling and stuffing them after grandma's magic hand, mind you, but the whole nine yards from start to finish. Wow, what an honor. "Well, how much mayo and mustard grandma? a pinch of sugar AND salt?". Grandma carefully monitored my progress, tasting after each addition of tiny grains of salt, until it "passed the test". Confirmation was a solid nod and a "oh yes, that's it.....gooooood". There's a pic of me on the right, my hot self, all decked out in my Home Ec, apron and scarf.....thinkin' I'm all that. LOL

My mom and grandma used to say, "too many cooks in the kitchen spoil the pot", and yet, they made room for me alongside them in the tiny kitchen. Everyone had a job, a specialty, a "their" dish. While grandma was in charge of the stuffing and now I the sweet potatoes and deviled eggs, my mom was always in charge of orchestrating, timing, and of course, the "Big Bird". I watched in amazement (ok, I was completely grossed out) as she wrestled the 24lb alien creature, patting it dry and slathering under and over the skin with just plain ol' butter, salt and pepper. Then, as an intricate part of the ritual, she'd stuff it with grandma's freshly made goo until it was overflowing. Without a spoken word between the two of them, grandma would then hand her a buttered dish, to be used for the extra "stuffing" and baked later. Now once it was in the pan, it was referred to as "dressing", whatever was in the bird was the "stuffing". (yeah, took me awhile to get all that straight LOL)

Strangely enough, in spite of all efforts to remind my mom, she would inevitably "forget" to remove the giblet bag that wouldn't be discovered until the climatic time of the meal- the carving of the bird. Everyone would laugh hysterically and say, "Jo forgot the bag again". As I grew up and became a prominent member of the kitchen, I was eventually entrusted with some of the family secrets, including the story of my mom's first big holiday turkey. How she  didn't know to remove the giblet bag and was totally embarrassed but still just laughed it off as "oh, I forgot".  As I grew older, and a little wiser, I came to realize every year thereafter that it had been lovingly left in place on purpose. A family joke. A family tradition.

My mom and my grandma weren't the only culinary mentors I had growing up. I gained a wealth of information from my beloved paternal grandmother as well.  My "granny" lived here in Indiana also, but was originally from southern Kentucky. Although I spent most holidays at my mom's, I spent countless summers with my granny. There I learned how to can 'maters, shell peas, snap beans, fry "up" chicken and cook fried green 'maters in an iron skillet. I shucked corn, milked the cow, fed the chickens and gathered eggs. I learned that you don't name the cute little pig "Wilbur" because come fall, he's gonna eventually end up on the dinner table. Granny would drive my cousins and me to church every Sunday morning with her slices of apples laid out on a sheet across the back window of her old powder blue buick, where they could dry in the hot sun.  Later in the fall, I would watch all wide eyed and bewildered when she would turn the brown leathery pieces of fruit into delicious fried apple pies. mmmm. mmmm. mmmm.

I was never an imposition to her even with my endless chattering and questioning. She always gave me some job to do, but let me do the "fun stuff" too. I remember when I wanted to learn how to bake a pie. Now by this time, my 8th grade Home Ec. teacher had taught us to "always measure carefully and precisely" when it came to baking. So you can imagine my shock and horror when granny instructed me to make the pie crust using "two handfuls of flour, this much lard, butter to make it flaky, a pinch of salt, and just enough water to bring it together". It would take three decades of lots of practice, but I think I finally have a handle on it.

Time passes quickly and in the blink of an eye, I'm 45 years old and I have a family of my own with three (now grown) beautiful daughters. My grandma, mom, and granny had all passed when the girls were very young. My husband had lost both of his grandmothers before we met, and his mom a few years after we were married. My girls have never known the joy of cooking with a grandma in the kitchen, but they have spent many times by my side (rolling their eyes I might add LOL). Now that they're older, I've been working hard the last couple of years trying to figure out exact measurements and develop the written version of our family recipes. Some of which are things I've learned on my own that since have become our "new" traditions as well as the old family favorites that would otherwise be lost in time. They may not appreciate my efforts now or need them just yet, but soon they'll start families of their own and find themselves hosting their very own Thanksgiving dinner.

In the meantime, this Thanksgiving and for as long as I'm able, I'll continue to make my pie crusts and yeast dinner rolls from scratch. There WILL be a cheesy green bean casserole set out on the table, and you can bank on regular ol' sweet potatoes topped with toasted marshmallows. The girls will ask if I need any help and I'll gladly pass them the potato peeler, although, I'll wish I had taught them to use a pairing knife. Someone will make the deviled eggs (without my help) and I'll try to do grandma's dressing justice with just the right amount of sage, which no one will really notice but me. I won't leave the giblet bag in the turkey simply because that was mom's "schtick", but I'll be sure to pass down the story and maybe share a secret or two of my own.

At sometime or another, quietly and unnoticed, I'll get all misty eyed and for a brief moment feel as if I'm all alone. I'll miss my mom, grandma, and granny terribly. I'll miss my "go-to people". I'll wish that I hadn't been such a smart ass while growing up and rolled my eyes behind their backs every time they tried to teach me something. I'll be grateful for what I did learn and for the time I did have with them. I'll wish that I had spent more time with my girls and wonder if I taught them enough. I'll catch myself saying things like my mom used to say, "eat took 2 days to make it, I want it to take longer than 10 minutes to eat it". All the while being satisfied that we pulled it off and it was "fit 'nuff to eat", as my dear old granny would say. I'll wish they all could see me now, I'll wish they could be here in my kitchen. Then I'll come to realize that they are here with me, with me and my girls.

This Thanksgiving, here are my hopes and best wishes for you, good friends....

I hope you're lucky enough to still have "go-to people" that you can call upon for that special recipe. If you ARE lucky enough and they're there with you, hug 'em a little bit tighter this year, and for god's sake, pay attention. I hope that if you find yourself being the "go-to person", you'll teach, laugh, and share secrets. I hope that somebody brings the green bean casserole. I hope that if you search the net for recipes, you look for ones that remind you of old family favorites that have been lost, and that you write them down once they're found.

Above all else, I wish you too many cooks in the kitchen.

Have a Happy Thanksgiving!


tango's trash & treasures said...

Oh that is a beautiful story, you made me tear up/
Hugs back at ya

Cathy said...

Great story, DD. I miss my mother, too, and wish my daughter had known her. At any rate, I'll bet you make a beautiful Thanksgiving for your family. Those women taught you well.

Lids said...

DD what a great story. I had tears reading through it and how I wish I known my grandmothers (grandfathers) for a lot longer. You definitely are right that the things you do now with family (and friends) are the things that hold the most importance later in life. Thinking I need to spend more time taking notes with mom next time I am down there cooking with her.

Wishing you and your family a Happy and Blessed Thanksgiving. Thank you for sharing that wonderful story.

Patti T. said...

Man, DD, you talk about misty eyed! You sure made me tear up with your very heartfelt story. I too have no Mother, Mother-in-law, or grandmothers to join me in my kitchen. But I have such fond memories of all the great food cooked in their kitchens. I did make a family cookbook and gave one to each member of my family, and I think they all appreciated it. Too bad I didn't get more copies, I have had a lot of requests.

Joanna said...

*sniff* Add me to the teary list, too, DD! This is the sweetest post!

Donna-FFW said...

What a lovely sentimental post. Time does fly by if only we realized it as teens.

Michele said...

What a beautiful post DD! I really need to read this. It makes me happy and sad at the same time! I wish you and your family a very happy thanksgiving!

Danielle said...

you're making me cry!! I have my go-to peeps in Alabama, thank God, but I sure wish I had them in my kitchen. I remember endless peeled potatoes (i have scares to prove it) and always being in charge of making the salad..."tear the lettuce...don't cut it cuz the edges will turn brown"...(major eye rolling with that one).
Big hugs to you girlfriend!

Sweet and Savory said...

Can you imagine? This is the first time I have been visiting your blog and you wrote these beautiful inspiring post that brings out love and tears. Thank you for sharing and I am glad, I landed here.

I am the grandmother in my family and I love the role I play. I hope my children and grandchildren will have good memories.