"There are notes between notes, you know." -- Sarah Vaughan

Sunday, February 1, 2009

Cake bakery

My grandma (my mom's mom) doesn't enjoy cooking, but she is good at it. She cooks because she was raised in a household where there were specific roles for women. Grandma was one of 16 children -- 8 girls and 8 boys (two sets of twins) -- and the boys worked in the field, but the girls cooked, sewed, tended garden, cleaned, did laundry, took care of the younger children.

Grandma's food is good and simple. No extra sauces. No bells and whistles. She isn't spinning the spice rack or flipping through a cookbook when she prepares meals, all she uses is salt and pepper and skills/recipes she learned from my great-grandmother (who, at 85, was still getting up at 5 a.m. and making biscuits from scratch in time for breakfast). Grandma (and great-Grandma) passed on those skills and lessons to me, though some things, such as baking bread and making biscuits, I never mastered.

I loved Farmer's Market day because all my aunts and cousins and I would help Grandma snap beans, cut up greens and stuff to can or put in the freezer for the winter.

In all my 30-some years I can count on one hand when Grandma baked a cake. She would make a peach cobbler, fruit turnovers or a pie in a minute, but rarely did she bake a cake. So, when Grandma baked a cake, it was like Juneteenth day for our family. People would call folks they hadn't spoken to or seen in years to say, "mama/auntie/sister/cousin/grandma made a cake!" and everyone would pile in to Grandma's kitchen to get a sliver of this cake.

I asked Grandma once why she didn't bake cakes and she said she didn't like cake that much. And, on reflection, I don't like cake either. Well, I like a couple of specific cakes but I don't much care for very sweet or very fancy cakes or cakes with hunks of stuff in/on them. Ew.

As much time as I spent with Grandma learning how to cook (these lessons were partly for survival as my mama can not cook, at all, God bless her), I spent even more time with my Granny (my dad's mom) learning how to bake and entertain. Now *this* is a woman who loved to cook.

It was like yin and yang. Granny used spices and cookbooks and swapped recipes and made fancy pastries and things like Martha Stewart. If Better Homes and Garden or Southern Living had a spread, Granny was gonna duplicate it. She's the reason I've had formal china, silverware and serveware since my early 20s. She's the reason I obsess about tablescapes and centerpieces and cloth napkins.

Don't get me wrong, Granny knew how to make the basics, too. She and Grandaddy had a huge garden so produce was always fresh in her house. And sometimes the protein was, too, as every Saturday morning Grandaddy would go fishing and he'd bring back his catch, Granny would clean it and we would eat it at breakfast or for dinner that day. And yes, I've eaten a chicken at dinner that was walking around the pen earlier that same day.

Now that she's blind (legally blind, but not completely blind) she doesn't cook much anymore, though she does tell me what to do over the phone and shares her time-tested recipes with me.

It's these skills/lessons/recipes that I bring to the kitchen and they are greatly appreciated by Mr. SLS. His mom was busy singing/performing and cooking wasn't something she really did, so he learned to survive on canned soup, cereal and frozen pot pies. Now when he wants some soup, I pull out that soup bone I saved from the roast we had the other week and the Farmer's Market veggies I blanched and put up. Throw in some garlic and some fresh herbs (<--he grows these because I can even kill this stuff!) and voila! soup. When he wants a pot pie, I make him a pot pie.

That's why getting that KitchenAid stand mixer for Christmas was the best thing EVAH! To some it may have seemed unromantic, but I have long wanted one and just made do with my hand mixer because I didn't bake enough, I felt, to justify the cost.

But all this leads me to ask: Who taught you how to cook? Do you enjoy it? Why or why not? For those who do enjoy it, what's your signature dish?

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