Saturday, November 17, 2012

Cooking with Grandma

One of the things that occupied my time during my blogging holiday was the update of my family's cookbook. The original cookbook--the name of which acknowledges our Swiss heritage with pride and sounds to outsiders like "Newest Wonder"--turns thirty this year. For those of you who are counting, that is a few years older than I am. My dad's branch on the included family tree is missing one of its (dare I say important?) twigs. But despite its age, this cookbook has remained a stalwart kitchen companion.

Still, the old family cookbook definitely has its shortcomings. Those who wrote it were not those who used it. I doubt my grandma, for instance, ever used a recipe in her life, yet hers were the ones we most wanted to preserve. Thus, her recipes follow a stream-of-consciousness flow, with ingredients conjured ex nihilo in the middle of the recipe. This style, while charming, has necessitated a number of frantic trips to the grocery store to procure the last of the required bits, sometimes moments before guests are set to arrive. But the main drawback of the cookbook is that there are simply no more copies available, and all of my family's copies (from overuse) are falling apart.

So my sister decided to overhaul the cookbook. A new (and updated!) family tree was commissioned, new recipes were solicited, old recipes were clarified, and several recipes were culled. (So long, hot dogs, noodles, and sauce!) And this time around, I was given the privilege to write the introduction.

I won't reproduce that introduction here, but I will tell a story I had thought about including. A B-side, if you will. The theme of the introduction and this story is basically how my family cookbook shed new light on just how much my grandma loved us.

December is a month of competing extremes. On the one hand, you have Christmas, lights, snow, festive music, cheerful hearts, and anticipatory church services. On the other hand, you have the enemy of all introverts: a full calendar. Since the first year Abby and I have been married, we've set aside one Saturday in the month of December as Hibernation Day (I wrote about this here), when we intentionally do not leave the house. We don't accept phone calls or invitations; we treat the day as if we were snowed in, with no compromises being made (except when Senor Jalapeno says on GrubHub that they deliver but really don't <mutter mutter>).

But one of the crucial things about Hibernation Day is that we always make some sort of special treat, something we would not make on a normal occasion because of either time or caloric constraints.

Three years ago, we ignored both time and calories and shot the moon: I decided I would make my grandma's mashed potato cinnamon rolls.

I remembered these rolls from my youth (at least after some coaxing from my sister). When Grandma made them, they were always hot and ready when I woke up. I would mumble my usual thanks in between bites, and I thought that covered it.

Well, friends, it did not.

I started making the rolls in the morning (a leisurely 10ish, I would guess). We ate the rolls, fresh from the oven, around 9:00 p.m. In between that time, there was rolling out, punching down, and monitoring of dough. The rolls are not a "set it and forget it" kind of recipe at all. And while Abby and I both enjoyed the fruits of our labor, we agreed that in the future we'll make something a little simpler on Hibernation Day.

So what does this teach us about my grandma? First of all, it is a testimony to her that these rolls were ready at breakfast, which would have required her to be up several times during the night to make sure the rolls turned out. (My sister verified later that this was the case; I was oblivious to the cost of the crumbs I shoveled in my face.) Second, it is a testimony to my grandma that she never complained about this or made us feel guilty about it. She quietly and unassumingly worked hard for her family, and at least the more oblivious among us never even recognized it until after she was gone.

This is not at all surprising, given what I remember about my grandma in other contexts. She was always the first to sacrifice a seat at the gaming table (a prized place indeed!) if there weren't enough places for everyone. There was never really a time when there weren't homemade snacks about (which has made past dieting futile over the holidays). She had simply the best, most lavishly decorated house at Christmas (which is why, to this day, the majority of the storage space in our house is occupied by decorations put up once a year). And once my grandma received a phone call in the middle of the night from her "grandson," saying his friends were being mean and would it be okay if he came over to stay at her house? My grandma sat up all night waiting for him, but he never came. It was a wrong number, but she still called me the next day to make sure everything was okay. She wasn't annoyed, just concerned.

Anyway, with the new family cookbook hot off the press and now in my sister's hands, I'm glad to have some small part of my grandma's legacy preserved...even if it's just a few delicious recipes.

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