An introduction to a collection of family recipes.
This family loves to eat. Food holds us together. It is the center of every gathering. We live for the holidays. We bring to the feast the best dishes that we can. We like new things, but we still long for the old things, the things that remind us of loved ones, our youth, and our closeness. We have been blessed in that even at our lowest points, financially or emotionally, we have had good food.
This collection of family recipes is written in memory of those that we have loved and who fed us well. We can’t speak of them without remembering the good things they brought to the table. Dixie Smith made good deviled eggs, corn pudding, chocolate pies, and homemade hamburgers. Even her iced tea was outstanding. Dennett made wonderful vegetable soup. Walter Lacy loved his “snap” beans.
Bessie Gooch made memorable lemon meringue pies and pineapple upside down cake. Maggie Walker made plum pudding in a wood stove, and could feed dozens of people from that wood stove and then wash the dishes on it before it got cold. In fact Dixie and Dennett could both cook well on wood stoves, with no knobs to control the heat. Dixie’s was in the basement and supplemented the electric stove upstairs for large gatherings.
Harry (Jr.) is our meat expert. Sons Harry (III), Gary, and Robert know their way around a kitchen.
Doris did everything well, such as yeast rolls, biscuits, fried chicken, hams, soups, gravies, red-eye gravy, desserts, and cookies. She fried doughnuts one snowy day. Every time she turned around with a new batch, the first batch had disappeared. She was a little upset that not one was left. Her potato salad was revered, and she was please to offer it to people who appreciated it.
Her fruit cakes were rich and heavy and in great demand. The Modugno’s in New York wanted one each year (Uncle Carroll’s in-laws). They took days to prepare. As a child I’d have to cut the brown paper to fit the 2 piece aluminum tube pans. They had to be greased and fitted. Then the wax paper had to be cut in the proper sizes, greased and fitted on top the brown paper. That was to prevent burning in the long cook time. I hated rubbing the grease on the brown paper; it gave me the creeps. I still remember the awful feel of the brown paper under my young fingers. I did that while she prepared supper or chopped fruit for the cake. The candied fruit, bought by the pound had to be chopped, and then soaked in apricot nectar. A pound of unseeded currants and a pound of golden raisins were added to the soaking mixture. (These days it’s hard to find golden raisins.) All of the kids had to crack and pick nuts, English walnuts and pecans. The almonds had to be cracked, shelled, and blanched. They too would be added to the huge bowl of fruit.
Finally, after days of this process, she’d begin to mix the flours and sugars, eggs, vanilla, and leavening agents and large amounts of spices. When the batter was poured into the pans, red and green candied cherry halves and pecan halves were placed lovingly on the top for the perfect picture. This lengthy phase started right after breakfast, because the cakes would take up to six hours to bake. They were checked frequently to avoid any scorching, the flavor of which would go through the entire cake, and the ingredients were too expensive to waste. The finished cake weighed at least 10 pounds. They were always dense and moist and tasty. The raisins never overwhelmed the candied pineapple and citron and nuts. She was proud of them, justifiably so.
And then there’s the matter of canning and preserving. Doris canned tomatoes that Harry had grown that Dixie had started from seed. She made tomato juice. All the jars were perfectly sealed, and there were enough to last all year. Then she canned a hundred quarts of green beans, pickled beets, and made pickles and relish. (Navy beans with her pickled beets! Or with her green tomato relish!) No air conditioning or ceiling fan, that gas stove top ablaze in full summer heat, Doris slaved to “put up” food for her family. She scrubbed jars, then boiled the jars and new lids before filling with prepared fruit or vegetables, sealed them, and then boiled them in huge pots or the pressure canner. The kitchen was worse than a steam room. She suffered willingly to make use of what she had and to provide for her loved ones the best she could.
One of the things we miss about the good cooks of the past is their knowledge which they shared with us. When do you throw something away? What can I substitute? How do you do this? I still want to call my mom about kitchen things. And I remember her teaching her 5 year old granddaughter how to separate yolks and whites. So we’ve included some tips that have been passed on to us from the good cooks who taught us.
Today, few of us have wood stoves or have to make do with no air-conditioning. We can buy bread easily and don’t have to make biscuits from scratch. Few of us still can or preserve, but we put what we have in the freezer in special packaging. In fact, most of us don’t garden that much. The grocers are cheaper than the gardening, but homegrown still tastes better. And at least one person or more is dieting at any family gathering.
And food trends change, due to methods of preservation (remember when TV dinners were a novelty?), method of cooking (old enough to remember when microwaves were new?), lifestyle changes, and advertising. Our grandmothers would be envious of the nice hot and cold carrying cases for casseroles, the food processors, and the easy clean-up tools and products. They’d be appalled at how much we throw away, both food and utensils. Currently, our culture is in love with food celebrities, like Rachel Ray, Martha Stewart, Paula Dean, Emeril, and others.
What doesn’t change is our love of eating, our taste for good food, our desire to seek comfort with friends and family and feel a connection to our past. We aren’t just feeding our bodies, we’re feeding our hearts. And there’s always enough food to share, not just with family, but with those who are alone or just seem to need a good meal. Pull up a chair; there’s always room at the table.