Cooking Like Grandma

A discussion on some of the differences between Grandma's kitchen and the kitchen of today.

When Grandma started dinner, she had very different goals in mind that we do today. She wasn't concerned with mono- poly- or un- saturated fats. She didn't worry about fiber, although she did think about "˜roughage'. She certainly never wasted a thought towards "micronutrients" or "bioflavinoids" But we certainly do today. Our meal time planning is cross between an NASCAR pit and chemist's lab. We want to get the kids to soccer, dance or tai-chi and give them the proper mix of cruciferous vegetables and low-fat-high protein and calcium supplements. Or we give up and go to Burger Barn.

The kitchen of the 21st century is an electronic marvel, from food processors to microwave ovens, labor saving devices are in every corner. Grandma had a completely different approach: physical work. Grandma's recipes were based on time or help from the children. Her cooking goals were a little different, too. The modern cook is trying desperately to balance everyone's schedule and all the latest scientific news. Grandma was trying to feed a hungry family that did hard physical work everyday.

GrandMa's kitchen got used a lot more use than the modern kitchen, too. 50 years ago, we went out to eat rarely. It was a big event to go to a restaurant. Now, of course, people eat out constantly. Between trendy ethnic restaurants that produce meals we cannot pronounce, let alone reproduce, and fast food places that will serve us lunch for less than five bucks and bring it to the car, cooking at home is becoming an event to be treasured.

Breakfast was a more complex meal than our standards. A quick bowl of cereal or a cup of coffee and a bagel wouldn't do for Grandpa. He had work to do, and needed fuel to get it done. Breakfast was more likely to be pancakes from scratch (oil, flour, baking soda and buttermilk) and eggs, fried in bacon grease. Or the eggs could be the main dish, with hot biscuits and sausage gravy. Grandma's Sausage gravy was a meal in itself. First she fried the sausage, crumbled in the pan untill the meat was nice and brown. Then added flour to soak up the grease. When the flour and grease were at just the right consistency, she'd pour in the whole milk, and plenty of it. Then she'd cook it and stir it until it thickened and bubbled. The sausage would color the milk and she'd add just the right amount of salt and pepper to finish it.

On Grandpa's farm, there was no such thing as "˜lunch'. Grandma served dinner in the middle of the day, unless Grandpa was plowing a long way from the house. In that case she'd make him up some sandwiches and send "˜em down with a mason jar of lemonade. But if Grandpa was going to be near the house at noon, she might fry up some beefsteak, pounded on the back step by whatever child is handy, dredged in seasoned flour and fried in bacon grease. Of course, whatever vegetables were in the "truck patch" showed up on the table, too. For example, just picked tomatoes, sliced or green tomatoes, fried; new peas in cream sauce or (if it's been a good year for "˜em) morrel mushrooms dredged in flour and fried in butter. No meal was complete without bread of some kind. If she hadn't done her baking yet, then hot biscuits would come out of the oven. Otherwise she'd slice into a loaf of homemade bread. Store-bought bread wasn't good enough to suit Grandma, but the kids thought it was a treat.

During the winter the root cellar was the prime source of raw material for meals. Potatoes could be boiled, mashed or fried while canned meat provided a rich gravy to pour over the potatoes. Green beans or tomatoes or corn were "put up" during the summer only to reappear all winter long. The dead of winter was no time for fresh oranges or green salads.

Grandma's soups and stews were proper meals. Heavy with meat and winter vegetables, a bowlful of that would feed a hungry man. And don't forget the salt and pepper! Grandma hadn't heard that a low-salt low-fat diet was the path to dietary heaven yet.

No discussion of Grandma's kitchen would be complete without Sunday Dinner. At least that's what we remember it being called. In reality, those table-breaking dinners were served near the end of summer during the harvest. With the harvesters working from sunup to sundown, dinner was a critical refueling break. Fried chicken, Roast Beef, and a Baked Ham started the menu, with corn bread, Green beans, coleslaw, mashed potatoes and gravy with fruit cobbler for dessert.

In essence, Grandma's kitchen was a place for a working man to get a full meal, much of the meal was fried and salted. Vegetables were served fresh in season, or canned in winter. The emphasis was on what was available locally, here and now. Food was intended to provide fuel for physical labor. But in one important way, kitchens haven't changed at all since kitchens were invented: they still provide the best place for a family to connect with one another. They provide the raw materials that families build memories.

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