I still crave my grandmother’s cooking, although she’s been gone now for more than 15 years.
She wasn’t a “chef,” or a fancy cook, but she prepared delicious, abundant meals and she poured her love for her family into every casserole and every slice of cornbread. I think because she and my granddaddy had lived through the Depression, when times were so hard and food was scarce, it was important for her afterwards to make a feast of every family meal.
Sunday dinner at my Granny’s was a momentous occasion. (And Sunday dinner means lunch, by the way. In the old South, “supper” is the evening meal.)
She started cooking for Sunday on Saturday morning.
She always had two or three meats (ham, a beef roast, fried chicken, fried catfish or country-fried steak with white gravy) along with one or two types of potatoes (mashed with gravy/sweet potato casserole/potato salad), a vegetable medley casserole, macaroni and cheese, black-eyed peas, fried summer squash, fried sweet corn, green beans, slow cooked turnip greens with fatback, fresh sliced tomatoes in the Summer and fried green tomatoes in the Spring, and my all-time favorite, cornmeal–battered okra (the super crispy, slightly burned pieces are the best).
Hushpuppies, fresh-baked cornbread, yeast rolls and biscuits to sop up the gravy, or to slather with butter and her homemade plum jelly. Coconut cake, banana pudding, pecan pie, strawberry shortcake and peach cobbler would satisfy your sweet tooth (should you have any energy left to open your mouth.)
I have dined at some of the finest restaurants in this country. I’d trade every one of those meals for one more chance to sit at her table.
Of course, she never sat at her own table. She bustled throughout the entire meal, filling up glasses with iced tea and water, fetching a fresh batch of biscuits from the oven, replenishing the chow-chow. After everyone else had stuffed themselves senseless, and the table was cleared, she might stop a moment for a small plate for herself.
She was always urging you to eat more. “But your plate is empty!” she’d wail.
Bulging eyes, tightening belts, groaning tummies and protests of being “full as a tick” had no impact: She’d just sniff and mourn that “you must not have liked it.”
Jewish grandmas got nothing on Southern grannies for food and guilt.
There are days when I yearn for for the food of my childhood.
I’ll pick up squash and fresh tomatoes from the farmer’s market. I even bake biscuits. I have the technology, recipes and equations that should make them taste the same, but they never do.
Southern food is au courant. Farm-to-table is all the rage. You can spend a fortune on something called “soul food” in trendy restaurants in New York, Chicago and L.A.
The true soul of Southern food isn’t just grits and greens, though; it’s the passion that goes into making them.
It’s the time and care in the cooking, the bond of the family at table; the joy of generations sharing stories and sustenance, passing down the memories along with the recipes.
It’s my Granny, piling up my plate not just with food, but with her love.
“We believed in our grandmother’s cooking more fervently than we believed in God.” ― Jonathan Safran Foer