What is it about grandmothers' recipes? Often incomplete and scribbled on tattered scraps of paper faded by age, they have the power to evoke strong memories and feelings from generation to generation.
Could it be grandmothers' treasured recipes were made with love? Hours were spent in the kitchen - a luxury women today do not have - coaxing the flavor from foods, lifting lids, stirring pots and triple checking pies in the oven.
Their food was uncomplicated and straightforward.
No arugula tossed in the salad, white truffle oil drizzled on the pasta or espresso whirled into the cake batter. Meats survived without peppercorn or hazelnut crusts, and vegetables never knew balsamic vinegar or goat cheese.
Author Ellen Perry Berkeley has written a book about these women who have enriched our lives with their simple, wholesome and cherished recipes.
In her book, At Grandmother's Table (Fairview Press, 2000), Perry describes the bond between grandmothers and granddaughters (and, we also can add grandsons) as connections that span the boundaries of time.
"Indeed, by cooking what they cooked, we are in contact again with their lessons and their values, their warmth, their courage, their comfort and their love," she said.
As Mother's Day approaches, we are reminded of these women and the foods they gave us, which will always have a place in our hearts and on our tables.
Nana's velvety custard
When the phone rings in Carol Beth Hall's Sykesville home and the caller says, "Ummmm, um, um .... " that means one thing - a family member has just savored a warm spoonful of Nana's 1-quart custard.
In this family, Louise Brandenburg's treasured custard lives on through her grandchildren, great-grandchildren and others who maintain the endearing tradition of ringing each other up after making a batch of the velvety smooth dessert.
Hall recalls racing with her sister, Barbara Leasure, to her grandmother's house after school to help make the custard.
Nana Brandenburg cooked the custard in a double boiler that held 1 quart, hence the name of her recipe. Then, the flavor choices were simple -either vanilla or chocolate, which she grated over the warm custard before serving.
"She would let us stir it to keep it from thickening," said Hall. "While we stirred, she got the dishes ready. I think we were actually helping, but didn't know it. When the custard started to thicken, she would take over so there weren't any lumps."
Over the years, younger family members modernized the cherished custard recipe with chocolate, peanut-butter and butterscotch chips and an assortment of candy.
Add any one of these to Nana Brandenburg's recipe, and you've got to pick up the phone.
`Food of the gods'
Among the many great memories Christopher Falkenhagen has of his Grandma Leola Hadley, her macaroni and cheese ranks near the top. How this classic American comfort food is prepared is not negotiable with her grandson.
No one person, in his mind, can make a better dish of macaroni and cheese than his beloved grandmother, whom he visits each summer in Michigan.
"It is like tasting the food of the gods - a perfect combination of sharp cheddar cheese, milk and pasta that is unrivaled by anyone although my mother, Jill, who learned from the best, comes close," says Falkenhagen, who lives in Annapolis.
Grandma Hadley was never stingy with cheese or milk. This was essential. The more cheese, the better. Her original recipe, until modernized for the ease of her children and grandchildren, called for "a block of sharp cheddar cheese." She demanded her macaroni and cheese be moist, and it always was. This was achieved by checking the dish every 10 minutes while it baked.
"Even when her eyes started failing her, she would peer down into the dish that my grandfather, Maurey, loved as much as me and would help her with in the latter years. He would say, "That's enough [milk], honey."
Grandma Hadley would respond, "No, it needs more. I can see it."
Whether she could see it or not, she was always right. Milk would be added, the dish stirred and tenderly slid back into the hot, waiting oven.
At 89, Grandma Hadley can no longer see well enough to make the beloved dish, but other family members carry on. At times, Falkenhagen has strayed from his grandmother's recipe by adding mozzarella, Swiss and even blue cheese to the dish. His attempts to sophisticate his childhood favorite are fun, but he always returns to his roots.
That `awesome' icing
Kenneth Carmody of Elkton says he was a lucky kid. For a few memorable years during his boyhood, he lived with his grandmother in the Mayfair neighborhood of Philadelphia, where he was introduced to stickball games in the street, new friends and Mom Mom Eileen Carmody's sweet tooth.
Mom Mom Carmody loved to bake and always there was dessert on the table.