Grandma's Cooking Heritage
Many of us yearn for dishes like our grandmothers used to make, hearty, comforting and good to the last bite. Why is grandma's cooking so fondly recalled? There's no single answer, but taking a look at how women cooked years ago, where they lived, and the foods they used will help us understand what made grandma's meals so tasty.
Unlike many of us today, our grandmothers learned to cook at their mother's knees. Cookbooks were rare, and if a woman did find a recipe, it often was a list of ingredients with few if any directions. So, young girls were taught by their mothers to cook by the feel of the dough, the look of the batter, or the taste of the stew. Forced by necessity to cook day in and day out, they soon became excellent cooks. Today, many a struggling cook would love to know how gramma judged when fried chicken was done just right or how she made such tender pie crust. The answer is practice made perfect.
Many of the dishes grandma made were tried and true, handed down from generation to generation. Of course, what those dishes depended on was grandmother's ethnic heritage. Women of English ancestry prepared roast beef with Yorkshire pudding, meat pies, and hot cross buns. African-American grandmas specialized in hoppin' john, gumbo, fried catfish and fried chicken. Women of German background served sauerbraten and dark rye bread, while Mexican-Americans made arroz con pollo and enchiladas. Over the years, our grandmothers molded and shaped these recipes, adding a spice here, a bit of cream there, so that the traditional deliciously their own.
Grandma's cooking also was influenced by the fact that store-bought ingredients often were a luxury. In the 1800's. women purchased staples, such as spices, sugar and coffee from the general store. As villages grew into cities, they were more likely to get foods from several stores, such as the butcher shop and bakery, and still later, grocery stores became the norm. But typically her trips to the store were infrequent, no more than once a week or so. So in-between, she turned to her pantry, garden or root cellar.
Gramma's cooking was shaped by fresh ingredients she had near by. Women along the eastern seaboard took advantage of lobster and clams that were so plentiful. Southern cooks relied on bountiful supplies of rice, sweet potatoes, collard greens, peaches and grits. Midwestern farm wives made hearty meals with beef, pork, freshwater fish and dairy products. In the West, women cooked with crab, salmon, and a lot of fresh fruits and vegetables.
Depending on fresh ingredients meant that women served only what was in season. In spring, fresh greens, asparagus and peas appeared on the table. Summer was a time for tomatoes, corn, strawberries and peaches. Fall meant a new crop of apples, pears and acorn squash. In winter, grandma served the vegetables that could be stored in her root cellar, such as potatoes, onions, parsnips and rutabagas.
Some of our favorite dishes from long ago came about out of necessity. In the days before refrigeration, women had to preserve fresh ingredients before they spoiled. They salted and smoked meats to keep them for months. They made cheese from milk. Dried berries and canned vegetables so they could serve them all winter long. They turned cucumbers into pickles, cabbage into sauerkraut and fruits into jams. These foods gradually became a treasured part of our food heritage.
With the arrival of the icebox, it was much easier to keep fresh foods longer. Although the earliest ice boxes were simply boxes that held chunks of ice, they soon became more sophisticated, having insulated walls, shelves and a compartment to hold water from the melting ice.
In the early 1900's the proliferation of refrigerators changed the world of cooking. Cooks were able to make perishable dishes, such as potato salad and cream pies any time of the year. Later, with the growth in popularity of home freezers, our grandmas invented many new dishes, including frozen fruit salad and ice cream tortes.
A woman's meals also were affected by their cooking equipment. In the era of fireplace cooking, women could only make one or two foods at once and most of the hot dishes they served were simmered in big pots. If they were lucky enough to have a brick oven, it took hours to heat the oven and bake bread. Even then, the uneven heat made baking tricky, so housewives could only make simple breads, like corn bread. With the coming of the cookstoves, they had a lot more choices. Some of the fancier models had as many as six stove top burners, plus baking and warming ovens. These stoves meant women could cook several dishes at once and they could bake bread quickly and evenly. The invention of gas and electric ranges revolutionized cooking. With these more accurate ranges delicate cakes and souffles could be made.
Grandma never let anything go to waste. In fact, many of our best-loved meals were actually her innovative ways of using leftovers. Those extra bits of vegetables or meat made a tasty soup. The day old bread became French toast or stuffing, and supper's leftover potatoes were the next days hash.
Years ago, most socializing revolved around food, and many grandmother's dishes were created for special occasions. There were ice cream socials, church suppers, family picnics, holiday meals and dozens of other gatherings. A Christmas dinner menu from days gone by might have included ten or more dishes, with everything from shrimp cocktail as an appetizer to several kinds of pie and cakes for dessert.