by Kelli Ra Anderson
The other morning in my search for canning jars I stumbled across an old recipe folder I hadn’t seen in years. I paused and leafed through the scraps of paper still tucked inside. In the last pocket behind stained 3 x 5s was my grandmother’s letter. Her familiar voice, lifted from the ink on the pages, asked me how I was, told me about her latest doctor’s visit and closed her message with love and a written recipe for fruitcake she had long promised to send.
I miss her. I miss her voice. I miss her practical, no-nonsense sass. And I miss her cooking and the countless meals she prepared over sixty years for her family like her peppery fried chicken paired with rich cream gravy cradled in piles of whipped potatoes. Or platters stacked high with crispy, corn-mealed crappy filets and buttery bowls of hand-sliced corn off the cob. Her pantry was always filled with the summer’s wild blackberry jelly and Mason jars stuffed with abundance from Grandpa’s prolific summer garden. And her fresh biscuits and gravy each morning? Hallelujah. What a flavor.
She was an amazing cook. From her early years feeding Oklahoma cowboys from an honest-to-goodness chuckwagon, to feeding three generations of her own children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren, she took care of the people she cared about most. Food was hard-earned. Food was practical. And food was love.
Growing up in the military, visits to my grandmother’s farm were few and far between but always delicious. Every pilgrimage home was not complete until I popped the seal of a Mason jar filled with cherry red, plump tomatoes. Better than candy. Honestly, I can’t think of anything she made that I didn’t like or love.(Except liver. I never did acquire a taste for it although I tried and tried.)
In February of 2007 I returned to my grandmother’s house for the last time. The evening before the memorial service I walked through her home, told by the family to take anything I wanted. It was surreal. Walking room by room, I looked at things I would never see in the same proximity again: the china cabinet with the assortment of depression glass and serving bowls; the flowered sofa with her crocheted afghan blanket; or the plain jewelry box I rummaged through a million times as a child. I didn’t know what I wanted to take. I just didn’t want anything to change. The kitchen was the last room on my tour and where I finally saw what I wanted. A single cast iron pan still sat on the stovetop just where she’d left it. It was heavy in my hand and still shiny with oil from the last meal she had cooked in it.
Today, hardly a week goes by that my own family dinners aren’t made better by cooking in cast iron pans that came from her kitchen and her mother’s and her mother’s mother. Every day our meals remind me in some fashion of family stories, places we’ve been and history that goes back generations. Some are funny. Some are unbelievable. But all with a delicious connection worth knowing and celebrating.
But DNA testing also refuted cherished stories about who we thought we were. Contrary to insistence on every side there is not one drop of Native American blood in us. We are about as Anglo-German as they come. And while many are keen to learn if they are descended from royalty, the truth about my clan is we were most often running from them. Or getting into trouble with them. Apparently, we are born troublemakers. It’s in our DNA probably tucked in somewhere between genetic codes for “doomed to be too short” and “way too opinionated.”
In the 1700s in Germany, for example, my grandmother’s descendants, the Stebens, were spiritual dissenters. They broke from the Lutheran tradition and became pacifist Mennonites. Eager to flee war-torn Germany, they accepted a generous offer of free land along the Volga River from Catherine the Great of Russia who promised the Mennonites they’d never be drafted. Three generations later, Catherine’s grandson broke her promise. To avoid conscription, the family set sail for the United States where the Oklahoma Land Rush of 1889 gave them a second chance as skilled farmers.
One morning I asked my grandmother if she remembered any of her Volga German family. One of her earliest memories was watching her great-grandfather Stebens enjoy a plate of pfannkuchen (German pancakes) topped with butter and sprinkled with powdered sugar and cinnamon. Although he spoke no English and she spoke no German, she remembered his easy smile hidden behind a full mustache, and the stories her grandmother told her about driving horses and wagons over the frozen Volga every Russian winter.
Fast forward to the present day and it only makes sense that some of my family’s favorite meals are German. I still put butter and sugar on my pancakes (with an added splash of lemon). Basically, however, I come from peasant stock, complete with a great-grandfather carpenter accused and tried for shoddy work aboard the ships anchored in Fort New Amsterdam in 1660. But whatever I inherited from my ancestors, for good or for ill, it did not include a liking for organ meats. My Scottish grandfather, the last Archbishop of Glasgow in 1687, John Peterson, and all his kin would most likely have savored them, but we part ways at haggis and blood sausage.
Biscuits and gravy. Sourdough pancakes. Cornish pasty. We all have foods that call out to us and say something special. Often they are simple, odd or of no real pedigree. It’s our memories that elevate them to the status of love or the sacred. Recipes are the love letters written by the people, events or memories that come back to us every time we taste them. Food is love. Food is story. Food tells us where we’ve come from and who we are. And sometimes it tells us we all have limits. And that no matter how hard we may try, we will never, ever like liver.