Sunday, March 25, 2007

A scribble from the kitchen

Watching her cook with her grandmother, I couldn’t help but smile. At 4 she was ready to prepare a four-course meal, or so she thought. Whenever she can, my daughter loves to help in the kitchen: setting the table, pulling ingredients from the shelves, stirring, counting, clearing the dishes after dinner.
But when she’s with Grandma, that’s a special thing. Firstly, Grandma lets her do much more than I do. Secondly, that time in the kitchen is a gift that will last her entire life.

I still can see the curtains fluttering in the rural Illinois breeze. It’s 5:30 in the morning, and Grandpa is having his obligatory bowl of cereal. He sits at the two-ton table, which stands center in Grandma’s kitchen.
When I think of her, that’s where I see her. Standing over the stove, standing over the sink, on the phone with the cord stretched across the room. Usually it was unbearably hot in there, no air conditioning and we always visited in the heart of the Midwestern summers. Sometimes she chuckles, sometimes she talks back, but mostly she just listens to the Polish radio station out of Chicago.
My grandparents got out of the city, leaving the South Side during the White Flight of the 1960s. But getting the city out of my grandparents was impossible. First generation Americans, children of Polish immigrants, they were as Chicago as you can get.

“OK, Peanut, I’m ready for you,” my mother-in-law says one July afternoon. The two had gone with the rest of the family to pick peaches earlier that day in the oppressive heat and humidity that is St. Louis in the summer. Now that the peaches were peeled and sliced, the cooking was pre-schooler friendly.
“I need your big footstool, Grandma,” Peanut says, having done this before.
Once in place, she’s giddy with anticipation. Grandma explains what they’re going to do and Peanut listens intently. She follows instructions to the letter.
Grandma started baking with them when they were about 2 years old. She kept it simple, ready made dough she sliced and they helped her place on cookie sheets. Grandma doesn’t limit the cooking to the girls, either. Her grandsons are more than welcome when willing.

It’s Thanksgiving, and the tiny house in farm country is filled with South Suburban Chicagoans, each with that trademark accent, all of them Bears fans. Ditka’s in charge and hopes are high, but not as high as the expectations for dinner. It would just be a few hours before Grandma’s stuffing hit the table.
The kitchen is the heart of the home and it’s rare to find Grandma anywhere else. She sits at that formica table to do just about everything: read the paper, write letters or lists, clip coupons, play cards with family or friends, have a cup of coffee.
Like most homes built in the 1940s or 1960s, the kitchen is a self-contained room, not open to other areas like so many kitchens built today. And Grandma’s is big. With the right number of tables and chairs, she easily seated about 15 for Thanksgiving dinner.
The stuffing pan is all but picked clean. All that remains is a mountain of dishes … and no dishwasher. Grandma, my mom and my aunt start cleaning up. I grab a towel.

Peanut’s at the opposite end of the house when she hears the timer beep. She starts off at full speed, until she’s reminded to walk in the house. She watches as Grandma removes seven individual peach cobblers from the oven, and checks on them periodically as they cool.
“We’ll scoop out a hole and fill it with ice cream,” Grandma says. “How does that sound?”
A beaming smile is her only response.
Unfortunately for Peanut, Grandpa grilled steak and there was fresh corn and tomatoes for dinner. She’s too full to eat much cobbler.
Ah, late July in the Midwest.

Grandma usually found something for me to do, even if it was just to sit and watch. I remember helping her with a Polish pastry cookie. I had to keep my distance during the frying, but when it came time to sift the powdered sugar, the job was all mine.
I loved those cookies.
The kitchen was the heart of her home. From there all good things came: food, family, traditions, memories.

Family treasures come in all shapes and sizes. Many are those memories… sifting powdered sugar, my daughter’s cobbler.

When I was in Chicago for Grandma’s memorial service I took time to flip through her recipe boxes. I could see her hands … the wear and tear of a life in the kitchen, the solitary sparkle of her wedding diamond.

The hours those hands spent perusing the boxes were evident. Tabs are missing or nearly broken off the dividers. Some cards are stained, a few sport her fingerprints. By far the majority of the recipes are methodically typed onto the cards, but many are clippings glued with trusty Rubber Cement. Inside each lid is glued a series of tips and shortcuts.

She had two recipes for those Polish pastries and four for poppy seed roll, but there’s no trace of a recipe for her stuffing.

“Please don’t tell me you cook dinner for three kids every night,” a co-worker of my husband’s said to me shortly before Grandma died. Her statement made me a bit uncomfortable, but I answered truthfully.
“I do.”
I’m a stay-at-home mom on a budget. Less nutritious fast foods are more expensive than what I cook.

It’s rare when I let the kids do too much. Usually they get to put away ingredients or set the table. But they see me cooking … and they learn.

Cooking with your kids doesn’t have to be complicated. It doesn’t have to be planned. Let them pull stuff off the shelves. Let them set or clear the table. Let them get messy. Let them cleanup. Let them decide the menu. Let them watch … and they will remember.

This is such a great reminds me of my childhood at my grandmother's house. One of my granddaughters, Amber, always helps when I bake and she learned measurements using the measuring cups and halfs and quarters and such were no problem for her in math class!

Thanks for the memories!
I loved this post - the changes in time and place to tell the full story of family and the deep connection to the kitchen. Thanks for sharing this.
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