Sunday, May 9, 2010

Happy Mother's Day!

Today we celebrate our mothers, grandmothers, and any special woman in our lives.  I thought it would be appropriate for me to take a few minutes to look back at the women in my life and what they gave to me in the way of physical and emotional nourishment. 

My paternal grandmother, Bertha, (Grandma B.) was a farmer’s wife who raised three children and cooked for her family and all of the farm hands that worked for them. In the small community where she lived, Grandma B. was well-known for her cooking. Anyone attending a potluck or bake sale sought out the goods that Grandma B. had made. She was quite modest about her ability and would tell me, “Even bread and butter tastes better when someone else makes it.” To this day, I still hold up her potato soup as the pinnacle of the potato soup experience. When I visited as a child, she would make me hamburgers or fried egg sandwiches. The fried egg sandwich is still one of my stand-bys, and I even had one last night (while thinking of Grandma B.). Although she had six grandchildren, two of them are much younger than the rest of us. When the four oldest of us were kids, Grandma B. had a dog named Taj. Taj was a farm dog and only allowed onto the back porch of the house or into the kitchen. Grandma B. usually had a full cookie jar, and we would call Taj into the kitchen to feed him cookies. In retrospect, I think she actually baked the cookies because she knew we liked giving them to the dog. And he liked eating them. All of her cats lived outdoors, next to and under the rosebushes, and she would get up in the mornings to make a pan of gravy to take out to the kittens. As great as Grandma B.’s cooking normally was, though, she seemed to struggle with the holiday meal. The family still jokes about the scorched mashed potatoes and dry turkey that we happily drowned in gravy and inhaled every Thanksgiving and Christmas. Towards the end of her life, I asked Grandma B. for her recipe for cinnamon rolls. She was in failing health and was losing her memory, so I wanted the recipe while I could still get it. She brought out a cookbook from 1943, a copy of which both she and my great-grandmother had purchased from a door-to-door salesman during the war. She gave me this cookbook, as well as a locally-produced cookbook, and said that all of her recipes were in them. I later flipped through both books, seeing several different recipes marked “Good” in my Grandma B.’s recognizable script. I did find one for meatloaf that she had marked “Tried”. Grandma B. had a wonderful sense of humor, and, every time I see “Tried” in that cookbook, I laugh and think that it was probably her polite way of saying that it was a miss. Needless to say, I doubt I will ever make that recipe.

Not a cook like Grandma B., my maternal grandmother, Blanche, (Grandma R.) still provided some great memories growing up. In reality, I don’t remember Grandma R. making much of anything. When my cousin, Kari, and I would visit our grandparents, we usually subsisted on toast. Or, we would hold out until early afternoon, at which point Grandpa would say, “You girls want a weenie?” We would enthusiastically answer in the affirmative and find ourselves in possession of a hot dog wrapped in a slice of white bread, slathered with ketchup. For her lack of cooking, though, Grandma R. often had the oven on, with a pan of eggs inside. Not to cook them, though. To incubate them. We would sit in front of the oven like expectant mothers, waiting for the first chick to poke his way out of the shell. “Hurray! We have chickens!” Along with a zoo of furry and feathered friends, my grandparents also had a large garden, full of rhubard, grapes, and raspberries. Kari and I would be sent to the garden with two bowls and the task of picking raspberries. The harvest typically went something like, “One for me, one for the bowl. Two for me, one for the bowl.” We would be purple and nearly sick by the time we took our half-full bowls of berries back in; me covered with mosquito bites while Kari would be hardly touched. Grandma R. would freeze our harvest in 1-quart bags. In the winter, she would take a bag of berries out of the freezer for Kari and me to share. When the berries had only just begun to thaw, we would dump them in a bowl, cover them with sugar, then begin chipping away at the raspberry-ice block with our spoons, too impatient to wait for them to defrost. After the raspberries were devoured, we would fight over the sugary syrup left in the bottom of the bowl. Grandma R. would also make grape jelly, using the grapes from her garden. The jelly with the piece of wax inside the jar that you had to break and pick out to get at the grapey goodness contained inside. I miss that grape jelly. Grandma R. cooks even less now that she lives alone. The last time she turned on her oven, she forgot that she was using it for storage and had to call the fire department when smoke started billowing out. Maybe it’s a good thing she’s not cooking anymore.

I saved the best for last: my mother, Carolyn. My mom enjoys baking, but admits that cooking isn’t her favorite task. It’s pretty obvious if you know her at all. Every Christmas, my mom makes up huge batches of anise-flavored pizzelles, Chex Mix, and banana bread. At a craft sale a few years ago, my mom spotted a vendor with all of her breads baked in small jars. Since that time, my mother always makes hers in mason jars, too. My mom’s jarred banana bread was one of the only things that Grandma B. would eat in her final months. The beauty of baking it in jars is that the bread is sealed and lasts indefinitely. Not that I know how long that is. The bread usually doesn’t make it until the end of the week before it’s gone. My friend Vince raves about it, and he hasn’t had any in several years. To make it, she simply makes up a batch of her favorite banana bread (or any quick bread recipe), then fills the jars half-full, bakes according to the recipe, then puts on the lids while they’re still hot from the oven. I make it this way now, as well. We lived on a farm while I was growing up, my mom worked, and we didn’t have a lot of money, so I learned to appreciate the humble casserole. If memory serves me, one that Mom would make was with ground beef, cream of mushroom soup, green beans or corn, and a layer of tater tots to top it. Just thinking of that now makes my mouth water. My mom’s real claim to fame, in my immediate family at least, is a casserole known as Creamed Tacos. Every naysayer who has taken just one bite has found it to be delicious, albeit a bit unappetizing in appearance. We have creamed tacos on Christmas Eve, birthdays, and any other day that my dad complains loudly that he never gets them. She then calls me to say, “I’m making creamed tacos for your father, since he says I never make them for him.” Don’t feel too sorry for my dad and his pitiful casserole deprivation, since I get the creamed taco phone call several times per year. If I were asked to come up with my best memory of my mom, it would probably be an incident that occurred when I was around nine years old. My mom was driving a tractor, and I was along for the ride. Our dog was running behind, barking, until we eventually stopped to pick him up and let him ride, too. If you know my mother, I’m sure you’ll get a laugh at the thought of her driving a tractor, especially with a kid and a dog as passengers. I know I still do. I love you, Mom!

Creamed Tacos
Serves 6-8, depending on the gluttony of the diners
Adapted from a recipe in the 1975 Karval Country Cookbook.

1-2 tbsp vegetable oil
1 small onion, diced
2 lbs. ground beef
1 14-oz can condensed low-sodium cream of chicken soup
1 14-oz can condensed low-sodium cream of mushroom soup
1 14-oz can green enchilada sauce
1 jar medium taco sauce
1 4-oz can diced green chiles
Non-stick cooking spray
8-10 corn tortillas, torn into pieces
1-2 cups shredded Cheddar cheese

Preheat the oven to 375°.

Heat the oil in a large skillet over medium-high heat. Add the onions and cook until soft. Add the ground beef, then continue to cook until the beef is no longer pink. Add the soups, enchilada sauce, taco sauce and green chiles to the pan. Stir until thoroughly combined.

Spray a 9”X13” baking pan with the cooking spray. Ladle a small amount of the beef and soup mixture into the bottom, just to cover it. Top with a layer of tortillas. Ladle enough beef and soup mixture on top to cover the tortillas, then continue alternating layers of the beef mixture and tortillas. The final layer should be the beef mixture. Top with the cheese. (I get very heavy-handed with the cheese, since I like mine extra cheesy and gooey.) Cover with aluminum foil and bake 30 minutes. Remove the foil and bake for another 15 minutes, or until cheese is melted and bubbling. Allow to rest for 5 minutes before serving.

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