Cherishing gifts from Grandma

Heritage: Family recipes stir warm memories while making personal and distinctive holiday treats.

November 14, 2001|By Liz McGehee | Liz McGehee,SUN STAFF

Gifts from Grandma

When I was looking for something meaningful to give co-workers and friends at the holidays, I turned to my grandmothers' kitchens.

I made Grandmother Boden's shortbread cookies and gathered recipes from Granny McGehee's extensive collection. And though the two women couldn't have been more different, these projects taught me a lot about what my grandmothers passed on to me in common.

Mom says Grandmother Boden disliked cooking. It wasn't that she couldn't or that she didn't cook. But even when they were poor, Grandmommy considered hiring a cook a necessity. She had other things to tend to.

But when Grandmommy threw a party, she'd be elbow to elbow with her kitchen helpers slicing cucumbers for finger sandwiches or setting out cocktail onions. And her small repertoire was delicious, Mom remembers: steak, potatoes and salad. Spaghetti with pounds of artery-clogging Cheddar cheese. Tomato aspic with homemade mayonnaise. Roast chicken. Shortbread.

I have two memories of Grandmommy's cooking. Actually, it would be more accurate to say one, because one of those instances involved sandwiches.

But the one that counts occurred at my parents' house in South Carolina when I was home from college for Thanksgiving. I had come downstairs to grab another diet cola and keep my caffeine buzz going while I wrote term papers. Grandmommy was at the kitchen counter in a housedress, hair done up, lipstick and blush on, wearing jewelry (not her good stuff, but sparkly enough) and squishing her slender fingers through dough for large shortbread rounds. Afterward, the warmth and buttery smell wafting through the house made it hard for me to concentrate on learning about dour dead people for history class.

Although Grandmommy grew up in rough, turn-of-the-century Montana, her hands looked as soft, her skin as creamy, as they do in a photo of her as a teen-ager riding horses with her three cousins, hats askew, comfortably tall in unladylike Western saddles at their friend Mr. Frank's ranch. A lifetime of Ivory Soap ablutions before bed will do that.

The idea for making Grandmommy's shortbread at the holidays came from my cousin, who gave out cookies based on the recipe at her wedding reception last year. I easily fell in love with the cookie recipe. Pounds of butter, flour and sugar are mixed in a big bowl and then baked. That's it. I made six or seven dozen, sipping vodka tonics, like Grand- mommy, to keep up my stamina. My long, now grown-up fingers, like Grandmommy's, squishing the dough, the smell quickly filling my small Bolton Hill apartment like that day years ago at home.

The timing seemed natural to go through Granny McGehee's recipes as well.

Granny was a dynamo: a short, informal woman who never left a spot on her table clear at family dinners and whom my father and uncle would tease about a lighthearted mealtime phrase she used when they were growing up in Tennessee. She would warn them not to be greedy and take the last roll or pork chop, but "leave it for Jesus."

When Granny was unable to cook after a stroke a few years back, she generously gave me a half-century's worth of utensils and a huge brown box of yellowing, neatly organized recipe cards. Family recipes. Recipes from cake boxes. Recipes from the Memphis Commercial Appeal or from church bulletins. Menus of "brown food" - food that is fried or has a brown or beige topping - fried chicken, green-bean casseroles with crunchy onions on top, banana pudding and ice tea.

I picked about three dozen family favorites from Granny's recipe box. Pulling them together was taxing; deciphering her note cards was like trying to break the World War II Enigma code.

Because she made some recipes so frequently, she had recorded them in shorthand, leaving out baking temperatures or times or failing to note amounts of ingredients. Some called for ingredients in terms most people don't use anymore - oleo, for example, instead of margarine.

Between frequent calls to my mother and culling through The Joy of Cooking, I was able to piece most of the recipes together. In other cases, it was more a matter of picking the right recipe.

My father loves Granny's coconut cake, and I remember her generously sifting coconut onto the snow-white frosting and taking the finished cakes downstairs to our basement to let them "cure" on Christmas visits. Her smooshing together pimento cheese with arthritic fingers. Handing me and my cousin Ron candied orange slices - but not too many - when she made a cake named after the candy. Which of the six versions of each of these recipes was the one, I had no clue. So I guessed.

But when I was through preparing and giving people their cookies and recipes, they not only appreciated the cookies and tried the recipes, they started talking about their family traditions. Cousins I hadn't heard from in ages sent recipes and remembrances.

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