As a self-appointed foodie, I often watch Diners, Drive Ins, and Dives for cooking inspiration. Guy Fieri’s success at seeking eateries with reputations for amazing fare motivates me to look for excellent dining on road trips. Because of my research, I have a list of favorite restaurants. However, none of these culinary institutions matches the quality or flavor of my all-time preferred place to eat, Grandma Lottie’s kitchen.
I suspect everyone in my audience has a family member who manufactures unforgettable meals out of a bit of nothing. That person in our family was an apron-clad Mrs. Santa look-alike who could turn the simplest ingredients into feasts for kings. I can’t think of anyone whose salivary glands didn’t kick into overdrive just thinking about dining at Lottie’s table.
She’s been gone for more than a decade, so I’ve had time to consider what made her food so memorable. Her ingredients were common staples: eggs, flour, butter, dried beans, inexpensive cuts of beef, chicken, ham hocks, cream, and sugar. She would have been uncomfortable in a big city deli-grocery with aisles displaying fish, adobo, or wasabi sauces. A trip past a meat department showcasing octopus, squid, or raw sushi ingredients would have left her shuddering.
After seeing a Face Book post requesting Grandma’s hot roll recipe, I think I’ve identified what made her cooking noteworthy. She made everything from scratch. She cracked the eggs and added the flour that turned into noodles and dumplings she added to her chicken or beef broth. Her combination of meat, broth, and noodles ladled over a heaping mound of hand-peeled, hand-mashed potatoes was true ambrosia of the gods. She created everything filling the huge bowls setting in the middle of her table. Nothing came from a jar, can, sack, or box.
I recall standing beside her as she kneaded her famous bread dough that turned into airy dinner rolls, comforting bread slices that were palettes for homemade jellies, or legendary cinnamon rolls. I’d ask for her recipe, and she’d say, “Oh, I use a little of this and a bit of that and mix it til it sounds like I’m patting a baby’s bottom.”
It took me 1000s of mistakes before I understood I didn’t have to use exact measurements when cooking. I, too, could mix a little of this and a lot of that to create breads, noodles, dumplings, and pies that reminded me of Grandma’s. All that practice was an opportunity to feel like a girl again, watching Lottie transform Gold Medal flour and eggs into golden strips of rich dough or whisking eggs, milk, sugar, and cocoa together to turn an empty piecrust into a chocolate meringue wonder.
Grandma couldn’t afford fancy ingredients or kitchen gadgets. She made do with inexpensive recipe components and trusted that her sense of taste and touch would turn those into something special to feed family and friends. Those of us lucky enough to put our feet under her table will confirm she succeeded time after time at proving she was a wizard in the kitchen.
The lesson for those who knew her was that it isn’t sophisticated ingredients that make a meal tasty. It’s time spent making dishes by hand that creates family legends. Every moment I stir, roll, cut, and otherwise produce meals connects me to a woman who blessed so many with her gift of turning the common into the uncommon. The pay-off for preparing homemade food is life-long memories.