Food Memories Nourishes the Soul

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My brother may have a silly smile on his face, but he’s pretty happy about the food on his plate and the fun we had making it together.

“Do you remember how Mom made chili dog slaw?” my brother Bill asked. “You know, the one that tasted like slaw from Hanson?”

He’s asked the question to my sister Rita and me over the years. And more than once, we’ve mumbled non-descriptive answers. But this time, he wasn’t going to let us get away with a kinda, sorta, made up answer. His wife Diann had tried repeatedly to make the slaw, and because she never ate it or ever saw it, she was at her wits’ end trying to recreate it.

When we started rattling off our usual non-descriptive answer, I tried to deflect the fact we didn’t know by announcing that Vince had nailed our grandmother’s hot potato salad.

“You mean the hot one, with the green onions and eggs?” he asked with piqued interested.

“Yes, that one! Man, I didn’t think I’d ever eat that again,” I said.

“What about Nanaw’s Coconut Cake?” Rita added. “Mamaw Vivian always made one at Christmas. Does anybody have that recipe?”

“I do!”

“But what about the slaw? Does anybody know how Mama made the slaw?”

We shook our heads no, we didn’t. And that’s when I came up with the idea of getting together and making some of our favorite recipes that our mother, grandmothers, and great-grandmother enjoyed.

We pulled out our calendars and planned to get together on Saturday, January 16th. We’d meet at my brother and sister-in-law’s house and cook together. Each of us was tasked with preparing one of the recipes discussed.

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Vince, Rita, and Nick prepare our Grandmother Anna Mae Gentry’s Hot Potato Salad

When Vince and I arrived, the kitchen was already in full swing. My nephew Nick was helping his mom chop vegetables for the slaw. Rita had the cake ready, so she jumped in with Vince and me to quickly peel potatoes. Diann and I had both made chili for the hot dogs. And I had brought a bunch of turnip greens to go along with the hot potato salad.

It was a mixed-up menu, but each dish represented a thousand memories.

As we waited for the potatoes to boil, we explained to those who never experienced Mrs. Ligion’s coleslaw just how wonderful it tasted.

Mrs. Ligion operated a small drive up hut in Hanson. There’s is no telling how many hot dogs and ice cream cones were served out her pass-thru window. Her famous slaw dressed hot dogs and her famous footlong chili dogs. When Mrs. Ligion sold the establishment to her daughter, the hut became Kim’s Drive In sometime in the 1970’s. Later, it sold again. Sometime in the 1980’s, it closed. The little hut in Hanson, along Highway 41, had been a community institution. It was where everybody went after church. On hot summer evenings, station wagons and pickup trucks were parked all around it after softball games. Every little town in America had their version of Ligion’s. But only Hanson’s little hut had that sweet-and-sour slaw that mother had duplicated time and time again and my brother desperately wanted to taste once more.

With the meal ready and quickly blessed, each of us piled our plates. It was delicious. Every bite held a memory. Vince had once again recreated my grandmother Gentry’s hot potato salad. Diann did an outstanding job with the slaw. Frankly, I think it’s better than the original.

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My sister Rita tackled our Great-Grandmother Lelia Hailey’s Coconut Cake.

After lunch, I shared our family tree via ancestry.com. I’ve spent years collecting our family history, and in the past few months, I’ve been able to complete all the information back four generations (and beyond for some). It seemed a good time to share the new information after our lunch.

Afterwards, Rita sliced into her coconut cake which was delicious. Like so many family recipes, this coconut cake is different than most. It’s basically a white cake with thick coconut icing.

I loved sharing the stories and the food with my nephew Nick, who enjoys cooking. It was befitting to pass this experience to the next generation and hopefully, he’ll pass it on to the next.

 

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What Makes a Good Cookbook?

Favorite Cookbooks

I have dozens of cookbooks, but these are my favorites.

I love cookbooks, don’t you?

But unlike most people, I love cookbooks for the stories. I don’t like cookbooks that are restricted to just recipes. I can collect all the recipes I want off the internet. But unless you’re plugged into the blogosphere, its hard to find great cook stories.  I love reading how the beautifully photographed food was inspired or how the writer’s grandmother taught them to make the recipe. Hopefully, there will even be a photo of said grandmother with her hands in a dough bowl smiling up at me.

Give me a cookbook that tells me something about the writer’s cooking experiences or their culture and I’ll read it for hours. A cookbook that is simply recipes can’t hold my attention more than a few minutes. Because the truth is – I won’t actually follow any of the recipes. I’ll look at the ingredients list. Sometimes I’ll read the directions. But mostly, I’ll look at the photos and sidebar items. When I read recipes, I’m constantly making mental adjustments.

Do I have all the ingredients? Probably not. What can I change? What can I add?

I can’t help it. Because I’m dyslexic, the directions just get jumbled up in my head. So photos are important. I like a cookbook with lots of photos of the finished product. Besides, what recipe can’t be improved with a little creativity? Granted, I’ve had some incredible failures. Thankfully, my husband has finally stopped asking me to simply try the recipe once before I attempt to improve it. I guess he’s learned that in order to do that, he’s going to have to read it to me — one step at a time.

Years ago, as a new bride, I happily collected cookbooks for the sake of collecting cookbooks. I felt it a necessary, grown-up activity.  After a couple of years, I realized that all I had was a shelf full of cookbooks that didn’t inspire me to cook a thing and they constantly needed dusting. Rather than using my newly collected cookbooks, I continued to drift back to the ones that I had used since I was a child. Finally, years ago, I took stacks of unused cookbooks to a thrift store. Hopefully, someone else is enjoying them.

Countryside Recipes

Published before I was born, this little treasure is the most important cookbook that I own.

One of my favorite cookbook connects me back to the place where I grew up. Published in 1961, Countryside Recipes was sponsored by the Women’s Society of Christian Service and the Young Adult Group of Providence Rural United Methodist Church. It is filled with recipes from family members and beloved members of the church where I grew up. There have been more recent editions of the cookbook, but that 1961 version is golden. There wasn’t a holiday that went by without numerous recipes made from it. While it doesn’t contain stories or photos it contains something much more important: memories. All I have to do is open my dog-eared, stained, and fragile bound copy and I’m swept back in time to revival potlucks or Young Adult Group dinners. As I read the recipes, the faces of the women who wrote them dance across my mind. These are/were the women who were my mother and grandmother’s closets friends. These are/were the women who helped to shape who I became. These are/were the women who will always be a part of me. My husband knows that if anything ever happens to the house, he should grab the Prov Rural cookbook first as it’s irreplaceable.

A few years ago, I began listening to the Splendid Table. My local National Public Radio station, WKMS, featured the series during lunch (very appropriate timing). Each week, I’d head off in my car at lunchtime and find a cozy corner of a local park or cemetery and listen to host Lynne Rossetto-Kasper interview great chefs. Yep, what drew me in were the stories they told. The show often inspired me to try something new. Then I bought one of the series’ cookbooks. I couldn’t wait to crack it open, but I waited until a rainy afternoon. I settled into my favorite chair with a cup of tea. As anticipated, it was the perfect cookbook for me.  It was filled with stories and recipes. I could hear Lynne saying the words, with her unique cantor and rustic accent. It was like she was speaking directly to me. Always excited to share interesting cookbook stories, I began reading them aloud to my Beloved who shares my love of the Splendid Table. If he walked out of the room, I got up and followed him, continuing to reading aloud. I followed him all around the house, reading in my start/stop/unjumble/restart fashion. Finally, he asked me to stop reading to him, saying that he’d much prefer to read the stories himself. Then he subtly suggested that I find something that we could cook together for dinner. I settled back down in my chair and didn’t move for hours until I ordered all her cookbooks off Amazon. I don’t know who actually made dinner that night, but I’m pretty sure it wasn’t me.

Breadman

My husband is an awesome cook.

As readers of this blog and followers of our Facebook page know, the real cook in our family is my husband Vince. Each and every day, he’s in our kitchen making dinner. I try to help, but usually, by the time I get home, most of the work is done. All he really needs is someone to clean up his mess. On the weekends when I’m not elbow-deep in produce to preserve, I take over the kitchen and try out new recipes I’ve discovered. Or he’ll gladly attempt anything that I think we should try.

Several of my favorite food bloggers are now beginning to publish cookbooks. And they are awesome! Unexpected new-found food celebrities, these writers are changing how America discovers food trends — without the Food Network. They are real people who love to cook and experiment. I love making food from these cookbooks, then Twitting or Instagramming my efforts, tagging these bloggers. Best part? They respond with likes or comments. Its pretty cool, and I rather doubt that would happen with the megastars of Food Network. When they respond, it makes me feel connected to a foodie community who believes, as I do, that the best food comes from the earth and is made from scratch.

In many ways, this blog is my favorite cookbook. It’s a place where I park my favorites recipes and memories. I’ve filled it with stories about cooks, tossed in a few photos, and I always try to include a recipe. I hope in some small way that you’re enjoying this blog in the same fashion — like a favorite cookbook accept it’s always free.

The recipe below was one that my maternal grandmother contributed to the 1961 Edition of Countryside Recipes. I just have to laugh at the directions–as there are none. She wasn’t one to waste any effort explaining common sense and this recipe demonstrates her at her best. Back then, women knew to pour the mixture into a uncooked pie shell and cook it for 30 minutes at 400 degrees. Nowadays, we have to look it up. It’s a great pie that simple enough for anymore to make.

Egg Custard Pie

My grandmother’s Egg Custard Pie. Simple, easy, and incredibly delicious.

Egg Custard Pie
Mrs. Carroll Gentry
Countryside Recipes Cookbook

1 egg
3/4 c sugar
1 c milk
1 T flour
1 T butter
1/2 t nutmeg

Beat egg, add sugar, butter, flour, nutmeg, and milk. Bake 300-350 degree oven.

It’s Official: I’m a Freakin’ Genius

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I’ve been declared a freakin’ genius. All because of a humble biscuit.

After almost 22 years of marriage, my Darling finally agreed with what I’ve been telling her all along: I’m a genius.  Not just “a” genius.  A “freakin'” genius.  She even made it Facebook official, so it must be true.  Imagine my surprise.  And it came about through the most unlikely of events.  But first I need to take you back a few weeks.

“Why don’t you make some homemade biscuits?” she asked on that fateful Saturday morning last month.

I was shocked to hear those words.  So shocked that I narrowly avoided blurting out “Who are you?  And what have you done with my wife?”

Bread in our household is a touchy subject.  Me, I’m pretty non-judgmental.  So long as it’s made with flour and some sort of liquid, I’m likely to think it’s just great.  The Bouncing Baby Boy is a little more picky, but he’s also pretty tolerant.  My Darling, on the other hand, is a discerning bread connoisseur.  Over the years, we’ve discovered a few types that she likes.  But only a few.  And never anything like my mom’s biscuits, which were perfect for soaking up a pat of melted butter and great jam-delivery devices but not really what I would call “light and airy.”  In fact, biscuits are so far outside my skills, I haven’t really even tried to make them in years.  As I recall, all of my little family turned up their noses at the last batch.  Come to think of it, the local wildlife wouldn’t eat them out of the compost pile, either.  Under the circumstances, you can understand my confusion.

“Ummm, okaaay,” I said.  “Really?  Me make biscuits?”

“Sure,” she smiled.

I panicked.

Fortunately, my niece happened to be home from college.  She came into the kitchen and started making toast instead.  Feeling like I’d dodged a rogue asteroid, I mumbled something like “Why don’t we just have toast today?  And I’ll find a good recipe for another time.”

So I did.  I scoured the internet and our cookbooks looking for a good, simple recipe.  You would be absolutely amazed at how complicated some people can make a simple breakfast quick bread.  If any of my ancestors had ever been told it would take an hour or more to make biscuits, they’d STILL be laughing.  I settled for rolling my eyes, snorting in derision, and moving on to the next page.

Finally, though, I came across Paula Deen’s fireplace biscuits.  They looked promising.  Simple and quick, my only concern was figuring out how long to bake them and at what temperature since our oven is notoriously lacking in hot coals.  Trial and error is sometimes my friend, but for this I wanted a day when I was the only taste-testing victim in the house.

Then I got distracted, and that’s where I left it.

Fast forward a couple of weeks.  Sam and I were home alone and he wanted biscuits.  Since there weren’t any store-bought packages in the fridge, I asked if he would be okay with me trying out a new recipe.  Poor kid must have been desperate because he agreed to be my guinea pig in figuring out how to do this.

That first batch weren’t too bad.  A little dense and somewhat crumbly for my taste, but not too bad.  I did figure out that 350° is NOT the same as “hot coals” when they took 25 minutes to cook and never browned.  But he pronounced them edible, and I breathed a sigh of relief.  In fact, he issued a directive that I was never again to buy the boxed biscuits at the grocery.  I tried to share one of my creations with Mary Anne when she got home from work, but sadly, unlike our child, she was not in the mood for my culinary experiments.  Ah well.

Then today, after hitting the Downtown Farmer’s Market in the pouring rain, we had breakfast with friends at Rudy’s.  There were, as usual, great company, delicious food, wonderful conversation, and a bottomless coffee cup.  All my favorites.  In fact, I enjoyed it so much that I forgot to order Sam’s breakfast to take home.  Oops.

Luckily, he was cool with biscuits and sausage for lunch.  And he asked for the homemade variety.  Apparently “never again” in his world really did mean “do not feed me brand-name biscuits in future.”  So I set to work, taking the opportunity to make a couple of tweaks to Paula’s recipe.  When they came out of the oven, I realized that it really did take no more time to make them by hand.  It turns out, the oven takes about 15 minutes to come up to temperature.  And it takes about 15 minutes to mix up the dough, cut the biscuits, and drop them on the cooking stone.  There is absolutely no time saved by using Pillsbury.  Instead, you do save a lot of preservatives and other unhealthy additives.  It’s a win-win.

While he was eating lunch, I took the beagle out for his midday walk.  When I came back, my Darling was sitting at the table happily munching one of the biscuits.  Yes, I said “happily.”  She had even posted a photo and update to Facebook.  I was more than a little surprised.  Amazed even.  And very, very pleased.

So, without further ado, here’s how I like to make biscuits these days.

Ingredients

  • 1 stick (8 tbsp) butter
  • 2 cups bread flour
  • 1 tbsp baking powder
  • 1 tbsp raw sugar
  • 1 tsp salt
  • 3/4 cup whole milk

Directions

Drop butter in the freezer for a half hour or so.  It’s even better if you have time to freeze it solid, although this is not absolutely necessary.  While the butter is chilling, preheat the oven to 425°-450°F.

In a mixing bowl, combine dry ingredients and mix well.  Working quickly, cut butter into the mixture (I use a grater or a pair of knives), then finish mixing it with your fingers. You don’t want the butter to melt before the biscuits go into the oven. It should be crumbly and look like wet sand.

Add milk and mix until dough forms.  If you want to mix with your hand, add milk in stages.  You should end up with a relatively smooth dough that is not sticky.  On a lightly floured surface, roll or press dough to 1/2 inch thick (more or less) and cut biscuits.  Use a biscuit cutter or a small cup.  Try not to overwork the dough at this point.

Toss biscuits in the oven for 12-15 minutes or until they are as brown as you like them. Brushing the tops with melted butter might help them to develop good color.  That’s my next experiment.

Remove from oven, slather with yet more butter and homemade jelly/jam/preserves.

Bon appétit!

Weekend Frittatas: The Perfect Brunch

The Bouncing Baby Boy helps with brunch.

The Bouncing Baby Boy helps with brunch.

Our favorite weekend brunch is frittata.

It’s also one of my favorite dinner dishes when I can get away with it. I realized that I was pushing the limits when my Darling pointed out last Thursday that we’d had frittatas three times that week. Oops.

Frittatas appeared on our menu, ironically, through one of my periodic spasms of indecision over dinner.

“Why don’t we have breakfast for dinner?” my Darling asked. “We haven’t done that in ages, we all like it, and it’s quick.”

“Cool,” I said. “But I think we’re all bored with scrambled eggs. Why not make omelets?”

After agreeing that this was a good idea, we set about chopping, cutting, stirring and sauteing. I whipped up eggs and milk while the skillet was preheating. We dropped in just the right amount of butter, waited for it to melt, and then poured them in. When the eggs were about half cooked, we tossed in the sauteed onions, added some green peppers, threw in a few mushrooms, and waited until time to fold the egg over.

This is where my omelets always fall apart – figuratively and literally.

This time was no different. When I had finished failing to fold the omelet, accompanied by much wailing and gnashing of teeth, we had something that resembled scrambled eggs after all. They were just stuffed with all our omelet fixings. Grrr.

“There has to be an easier way to do this,” I thought. “An open-face omelet would be so much easier than all this turning and folding and flipping.”

Enter the Italian frittata.

My favorite version of this dish is actually Spanish, a tortilla de patata. It was one of my favorite snacks when I studied in Madrid during the summer of 1987. I’ve made it a few times but as a more traditional omelet that just happen to be stuffed with shredded potatoes. Now, though, frittatas have become one of my go-to dishes when I’m out of ideas and need to get something on the table. They’re a regular feature of weekend brunch. Super easy and tasty, they’re also excellent for clearing out the fridge when you have a few mushrooms, half an onion, and a handful of spinach left over from another meal. We’ve even used kale and leftover breakfast sausage. I could imagine potatoes, tomatoes, or olives. This is pretty much a “whatever you need to use up” dish.

At our house, here’s how we often go about it. Only the eggs are absolutely required. Everything else is optional, but it should be as organic as possible, of course.

Frittata a la Medlock

Ingredients

  • Onion (we always have white, sometimes red, occasionally yellow)
  • Bell pepper (green, red, yellow, orange, purple… you get the idea)
  • Mushroom (white, portabello, shitake, whatever)
  • Spinach
  • Cheese (what kind do you like?)
  • Butter or olive oil (or both)
  • Eggs
  • Milk

    Frittata in progress

    Before you add the egg, you have something that resembles stir fry. In fact, you could stop here and serve over rice or noodles.
    *New dinner idea!*

Directions

  • Preheat an iron skillet over medium-high heat. If you’re using oil, go ahead and let it warm up with the skillet. If you’re using butter, save it until just before you start sauteing vegetables so that it doesn’t burn before you start cooking.
  • Chop onions, peppers, mushrooms, and other vegetables you plan to use. I prefer a fairly coarse chop, but my Darling likes finer pieces.
  • Saute vegetables, starting with those that take longer to cook. I like to put onions in first, but my family sometimes complain that I overcook them. If you’re using potatoes, those would definitely come ahead of anything else. Add soft ingredients like mushrooms nearer the end. Leafy vegetables should cook just long enough to wilt.
  • Whip up your egg mixture. Normal people are probably good with one or two eggs each. Teenagers, I’ve discovered, like more. Five or six are not too many for the Bouncing Baby Boy. I like to add a lot of milk, about half or two-thirds as much as the volume of the eggs. You want them frothy, so beat the heck out of them. A fork or whisk works just fine, but I could imagine a mixer doing a nice job as well.
  • Spread your sauteed vegetables evenly in the skillet, then pour your egg over them. Stir to mix well, then leave them alone until the egg sets up so that the bottom is firm but the top is still runny.
  • If you’re using it, spread cheese over the top of your frittata.
  • At this point, you have a choice. You can finish cooking your dish on the stove top like fried or scrambled eggs. Or you can pop it in the oven set on high broil for a few minutes to cook the top layers and to lightly toast the cheese.
  • Let cool, slice into pieces, and serve. If your family is like mine, “slice into pieces” is optional. They usually just scoop it straight out of the skillet.

Now I’m hungry. By the way Darling, guess what’s for dinner?

My Favorite Soup Recipes

Soup is the perfect food as far as I’m concerned.

We love soup, which is a good thing because I make a pot of it just about every week. I’ve shared several of my recipes before. I have my veggie soup; sometimes it has meat, sometimes it doesn’t. Our son loves my chicken noodle soup that includes a few extra veggies. (A mother has to do, what a mother has to do!) My favorites are the hearty, earthy blends of lentils or greens. My Beloved doesn’t care as long as someone else cooks. He’ll eat anything.

A few years after we married, my father-in-law, Earl, had open heart surgery. Afterwards, he said nothing tasted right. However the one thing he wanted during his recovery was soup. So each weekend, we’d take a stockpot full of soup to him and Vince’s stepmother. The next day, he would call and tell me that whatever I made was their favorite. It didn’t matter what it was. My semi-truck-driving, bearded, rough-and-tumble father-in-law loved my cooking. And I loved him for eating whatever I put in front of him. He used to say that after eating at truck stops across the country, anything that was home-cooked was delicious. Because of him, I developed several good recipes and gained enough confidence to experiment beyond my mother’s most excellent chili recipe. I know if he were with us now, he’d snicker at my turnip greens, but he’d eat every bite.

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There’s nothing better on a cold, rainy day than a bowl of chili.

Mother’s Most Excellent Chili
When we were growing up, we knew that if it snowed, Mother would make chili. There would be plenty of leftovers, so we’d eat chili for days. There was always a warm bowl of chili waiting for us when we finished sledding or building snow forts. Even today, I can guarantee that if there’s snow in the forecast , that same stock pot is bubbling on my sister’s stove. And it’s full of chili, just like Mother used to make. Nowadays, I substitute organic black beans for the Bush Mild Chili Beans and add a bit more chili powder.

2 lbs lean ground beef
1 quart of canned tomatoes
1 quart canned tomato juice
2 cups beef broth (or you can use 1 16-ounce beef broth)
3 cans of Bush Mild Chili Beans (or you can use dried organic beans that are soaked overnight)
1 medium onion
3T chili powder
2 garlic cloves

Saute garlic cloves and onion in an seasoned iron skillet. Add ground beef. Drain fat from skillet. In a heavy stock pot, place canned tomatoes, tomato juice, beef broth, and chili beans. Add browned beef, onions, and garlic. Stir well. Add 2T of chili powder. Salt and pepper to taste. Cook slowly on stove for 45 minutes, stirring occasionally until mixture reduces by 1/3. Add the last remaining 1T of chili pepper. Serve warm.

Meatball Soup

I love hearty soups like meatball soup that features  turnip greens and mushrooms. It has a earthy taste that is perfect on a cold day.

Meatball Soup with Greens and Mushrooms
I make several dozen meatballs at a time and keep them in the freezer. My favorite soup these days is meatball soup that features turnip greens and mushrooms. A few weeks ago, I served brunch for several friends and family members. I served a couple different soups, including my meatball soup. Everyone was intrigued, and bless their hearts, a few hearty souls even tried it after I explained the turnip greens. To my delight, those who tried it went back for seconds and thirds. You can use homemade beef broth or boxed beef broth.

Prep time: 30 minutes, serves 6

18 cooked meatballs (you can use frozen meatballs or leftovers)
2 cups of cooked turnip greens (or kale!)
2 cups beef broth (or you can use 1 16-ounce box of beef broth)
2 carrots
1 cup mushrooms (can be fresh or dried mushrooms)
1 medium onion (or leeks)
2 cloves garlic
2 T butter
1/2 cup water
1 cup dumpling noodles

If frozen, cook meatballs in oven on a roasting pan. In a heavy stockpot, brown a couple cloves of garlic in butter. Add turnip greens, mushrooms, onions, and carrot. Cook until crispy. Add 1/2 cup water and one box of beef broth. Add meatballs. Then add noodles, salt, and pepper. When noodles are cooked, it’s ready. Top with shredded Parmesan cheese.

Bean Bowl o Soupin

A tender blend of dried lentils along with a few leftovers creates a twist for hearty soup.

Bean Bowl o’ Soupin’
When my Beloved was a little boy, he loved lentils. He would beg his mother to make Bean Bowl o’Soupin’, which she’d gladly do.  Here is my version of his favorite childhood soup.

1 cup of 9 Variety Dried Beans
2 cups beef broth (or you can use 1 16-ounce box of beef broth)
2 cups cooked ham
2 cups turnip greens
2 carrots
1 medium onion
1 cup barley
2 T summer savory
1 T oregano

Soak beans overnight (at least 12 hours). Drain and rinse. In a heavy stockpot, cook beans in water for 45 minutes. Add cooked ham, turnip greens, carrots, and onion. Add beef broth. Cook slowly for 1 hour. Add summer savory and oregano along with salt and pepper to taste.

Moo’s Famous Cornbread Dressing

Moos Dressing 2

The three siblings try a final taste test.

The best recipes aren’t necessarily the ones that are written down. Instead they are a part of who you are–you just know when it’s right.

My mother, lovingly called Moo by her grandchildren, made the best cornbread dressing. But there wasn’t a recipe. For us, her children, it was never an issue because she trained our taste buds to know exactly when there was enough sage or salt or butter. I believe that the flavor of her dressing is a part of our DNA. As we married, the fact that there wasn’t a recipe to her famous cornbread dressing drove our spouses (who all love to cook) crazy, especially my sister-in-law Diann. She became a fan of mother’s cornbread dressing the year that she and my brother married. She couldn’t wait to make it for her family, but there wasn’t a recipe.

Over the years, when we all gathered together to making the dressing, there have been curious looks, shaking heads, and much questioning about why there wasn’t a recipe. Bless her heart, Mother tried to write it down. But she never landed on that perfect taste the same way twice. Too much depended on the freshness of the ingredients and the age of the dried sage.  The years that she attempted to measured out the ingredients were the years that it didn’t taste right.

“This isn’t a science experiment,” she said. “You can’t measure out perfection.”

One year, determined to get the recipe recorded, Diann watched us and kept track of how much we added of each ingredient. But after the fourth time of adding another handful of sage or a dash more pepper, she finally gave up and declared us impossible.

Mother loved the ritual of making her dressing. We cherished the nights before any holiday when we’d all finally be back home on Brown Road. After unpacking cars and giving out hugs, we would put on our PJs and gather in her kitchen. She would have already filled the large container that she only used for dressing with fresh crumbled cornbread. Then we’d start adding the chicken broth, eggs, melted butter, celery, sage, salt, and pepper. Somebody would stir and somebody else would keep adding salt. Then the taste testing would begin. Without fail, it always needed more of this or that. Holding our breaths as we dipped our spoons into the mixture, we’d slowly anticipate that first taste.

“Needs more salt.”

“Needs more butter.”

“No. It needs more sage. It’s not green enough yet.”

More ingredients would be added until the moment when our taste buds would start buzzing, announcing that the dressing was done. With relief, we’d head off to bed knowing that, once baked, the dressing would be perfect and all was right with the world

This year, on the Wednesday night before Thanksgiving, we gathered in my sister’s kitchen. Like our mother, Rita had the large container filled with warm crumbled cornbread waiting for us. It’s always around that container that we reconnect as a family. We joke, we laugh, and we always tell the same stories. Even the kids know the stories and laugh along to tales about Moo’s dressing that happened years before they were born. We were having so much fun making dressing this year that we ended up with a double batch, meaning that we had enough for Thanksgiving and for Christmas dinner, which was at our house.

For the first time since we’ve been married, my family came to Murray for Christmas. My favorite gift came from my brother, his wife, and their sons. Diann had made us each a beautiful apron. My sister and her husband’s aprons were Christmas themed, which was perfect for them as they collect Santa Clauses and often have a dozen decorated trees in their home. My Beloved and I received Chez Medlock aprons which are absolutely beautiful. Tucked into the box along with new oven mitts and kitchen tools was a recipe. Exactly as it should be. As Vince read it aloud, we laughed, and yes, I wiped away a tear–for the woman who taught me the joy of cooking and that the best recipes can’t be measured when the most important ingredient is love.

Moo's Famous Dressing

From our family to yours, Merry Christmas

Moo’s Famous Cornbread Dressing

Ingredients
Bisquick
Cornmeal
Chicken Broth (Only buy chicken on sale, pull from bones, boil the bone.)
Sage (Brown Road grown only!)
Eggs (Six or seven if fresh, a dozen if from the store)
Onion (1 if Rita makes it, 3 if others make it)
Celery (diced except for when Mary Anne juices it)
Carrots (if Mary Anne can hide them)
Salt and Pepper to taste, and taste, and taste.
Butter (Start with 1 stick and keep adding until other ingredients float)

After cornmeal and bisquick mixture is oven-browned, rip the bread into small pieces in a large bowl. (Have larger bowl ready as the mixture grows and grows). Once all ingredients are floating (don’t worry, it will absorb through the night) taste concoction with large spoons. Only double-dip if other guests are not planned. As more bread is added, transfer to your largest bowl because it will grow overnight. When 2 of 3 siblings agree “Yep, that’s it,” pour into as many pans as possible for baking. As the dressing is baking, wild tales must be repeated from previous years about the grandmother arguments over who made the best or about when Moo dumped the pan on the floor while we were living in Beaver Dam, and she scraped it up and served it anyway…daring us to say a word about it.

The Demise of Heavenly Salad

Heavenly Salad was my mother’s go-to dish.

It was a concoction of fluff, cherries, pineapple bits, nuts, and minature marshmallows. The recipe was straight out of the sixties. At our house, no formal meal was complete until the Heavenly Salad was lovingly arranged in its own crystal bowl, just left of the main dish, tucked in next to a candlestick. We ate it like it was ambrosia. I can’t remember a single holiday meal that it wasn’t on the menu. Even after we married, Heavenly Salad became a part of our holiday meals alongside my mother-in-law’s orange salad. It always amused me that my Tennessee in-law’s favorite fluff salad was UT orange. Coincendence? I think not.

This year, my family will gather for Thanksgiving at my sister’s house. Her menu will feature the same traditional dishes that have always graced our table. There will be a gigantic bird, cornbread dressing, mashed potatoes, giblet gravy, cranberry sauce, green beans (from her garden), deviled eggs, and macaroni and cheese. We’ll have that Rockwell moment, where we all look at the food before us and give thanks. When I called her to ask what I should bring, she said, “You make the Heavenly Salad.”

Great. The sister that has all but eliminated processed food and processed sugar is supposed to buy the crap that makes up this so-called salad? But I agreed and mentioned that perhaps I could sneak in some turnip greens. She chose to overlook my suggestion; after all, turnip greens aren’t a traditional Hailey Thanksgiving dish. Ever since that phone call, I’ve pondered just how I was going to tell her that this year, it’s time we ditch the Heavenly Salad. I know when I suggest it, it will send her off her rocker. Great wails of despair will come from kids who devour it. Everyone will feel deprived.  Well, almost.

So what do I do? Do I make it so that everyone has a Happy Thanksgiving and a sugar coma? Or do I use this moment establish new traditions? It won’t be easy. More than likely, I’ll cave in and make the darn stuff. After all, my sister is under enough stress already with tackling this holiday feast. And does it really matter? Probably not. And I certainly don’t have to eat it.

I wonder what a little bit of kale will do for it?

Heavenly Salad by Marcella Griffin
Featured in Countryside Recipes
Printed in 1962 by the Providence Rural United Methodist Women

3 eggs
2T vinegar
2T sugar
2T lemon juice

Cook and stir completely. Will be lumpy. Place in bowl. Fold in the following ingredients and chill.

1 lg can of crushed pineapple
1 package of mini marshmellows
1 c pecans pieces
1 pt whipped cream