All I have to do is saute some onions and celery in butter, and my husband salivates. Get a good meal cooking and baking, and I’m likely to hear, “Smells like my grandma’s house in here.” More often than not, I hear such a comment when I’m frying potatoes, okra, pancakes, or especially bacon.
While my husband’s sensory recall is triggered by smell, it’s the very act of preparing a meal itself that takes me to my grandmothers’ kitchens and mealtimes. On weekends when our whole schedule is determined by when and what our meals are, I realize why I associate mealtimes with my grandparents and why my husband also associates mealtime smells with his grandma’s house.
We both come from subtly matriarchies. Sure, our forefathers were the bread-winners, but it was and is the mothers who keep the home, prepare the meals, provide most of the childcare and tending, and encourage the religious traditions. Our foremothers have held the family together. As they’ve passed, so has the golden thread that tied our families together almost imperceptibly. Even gold over time wears thin. Time changes things. People change.
My husband and I are most fortunate to have the memories we do. Our grandmothers loved and love us unconditionally. They dedicated their days to make sure that when we were around, they nurtured us the best way they knew how — through our stomachs. What could best assure our survival than a full belly? These queens of the kitchen knew how to make the groceries last for their respectively large families, and I certainly never wanted for food.
I learned so much about cooking itself in the kitchen with my grandmothers, trying not to be in the way. How to pinch a pie crust. Learning how to make eight hamburgers at once in two cast-iron skillets on the stovetop. Shortcuts to make quick desserts for unexpected visitors. That there was enough time to bake a meatloaf while you were at church. Some lessons weren’t just about cooking. One grandmother still had dreams of things she wanted to do. One grandmother wanted so much for me to make choices that would help me lead a different, and somehow better, life. Such lessons are hard to understand without the experience behind them, but I honor these lessons still, even if I didn’t heed their wisdom and advice.
The next time I return home later in the day after a morning breakfast that included pancakes and bacon, I’ll try not to turn my nose in distate. It means we provided for our family. We are giving our children associations to their childhood that, when they reflect upon it later, will hopefully tell them we cared for them by nourishing them, not intentionally giving them heart disease. May I have the patience to welcome them into my kitchen and try to teach them as subtly as my grandmothers tried with me. May I pass on a cookbook to them of their favorites so that they won’t have to labor like my husband in trying to recreate family favorites. Is there more to taste than simple ingredients?
Our family dynamics have changed. We don’t always go to “Mother’s” or “Grandma’s” for Sunday dinner anymore. Our sense of family includes a wide range of friends. Still, though, our primary focus is our shared meals, the time we spend preparing, gathering and sharing in the kitchen and at the table.
Our grandmas were and are beautiful teachers.