Monday, January 17, 2011
Kinship in the Kitchen
Yesterday at my dad’s house I found myself looking through a box labeled “Memory Box” in my mom’s neat and distinct handwriting. In it were old report cards, high school diplomas, birth certificates, pictures we had drawn as kids, letters my dad had written home when he was in the National Guard during Vietnam, newspaper clippings – all manner of things from different eras. I could have spent all day looking at everything, reading it and soaking it all in.
As much as I love going through old things, this time it left me a bit melancholy. Going home to my parents’ house is always bittersweet. Most of you know me, and know that I lost my mom to ovarian cancer 4 ½ years ago. The house is in many ways as she left it – her artwork adorns the walls, the “art room” is still stocked with supplies, the piano sits unplayed, and some of her cookbooks still neatly line a shelf in the kitchen next to her teapot collection. I love feeling close to her by being close to her “things,” but at the same time their presence reminds me of the giant void her absence has left in my life.
I’ve come to realize, though, that writing this blog is one way that I am connecting with her even still. Food was, and continues to be, such an important part of my family life. I find that the times I feel closest to her are when I’m in the kitchen making biscuits, chicken and dumplings and other dishes she taught me to make – the same dishes her mama taught her to make. The kitchen was the place we spent the most time together – her cooking away with frenzied efficiency; me watching or begging to help. Later in life, we’d cook together or I would simply hang out and chat while she worked her magic. The only time I didn’t enjoy spending in the kitchen was cleaning up. Some things never change!
Now I have a five-year-old tugging on my apron strings asking to “help,” and I’m reminded of the importance of passing on family and cultural food traditions. When I make special things that I remember having as a child, I’m always sure to tell him, “My mommy cooked these things for me when I was little.” And he feels a connection, too.
Six years ago, as part of my graduate studies, I had the opportunity to document the women in my family – my mom, granny, aunt and me - making biscuits. My goal was to examine Southern biscuit making as a folk craft – a skill featuring traditional materials and “construction” passed down from generation to generation. This experience really had an impact on me as I witnessed the ways that we all learned from one another and the importance of kitchen and kinship. You’ll definitely be hearing more about it in posts to come.
Inspired by telling these stories, I dug around my mom’s kitchen and brought back with me some of her cookbooks and hand-written recipes. Since I had just experimented with tea cakes in my last post, I was thrilled to find her recipe neatly written on one of her recipe cards. If you want a more traditional Southern tea cake, these are sure to please. I also want to thank you for your kind words and the great response I’ve been getting to my blog so far. I really want this to be a labor of love, a place for inspiration and a place for you to dig from your “memory box” and share, too. It would be a whole lot easier to cook out of a box, but as my mama would say, “That’s not fit to eat!” Food is central to who we are, where we’ve been and what we are to become. Let’s enjoy!
Tea Cakes (recipe by Joyce Corn Roberts)
1 stick of butter
½ c. shortening
1 ½ c. sugar
1 tsp. vanilla
6+ cups self-rising flour
Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Beat with electric mixer until fluffy. Add about 3 cups of flour mixing well. Add more flour until very stiff dough is formed. Form 1-inch balls in palms of hands. Place about two inches apart on ungreased cookie sheet. Flatten with bottom of smooth drinking glass dipped in sugar. Bake about 8-10 minutes until very light brown. Makes about 6 dozen.