Without getting too into the details of it, my grandma passed away recently. I am 33 years old, and, naturally, have never known life without her. She definitely played a bigger roll in my life when I was much younger, but, though we didn’t spend much time together as I got older, I always found comfort in knowing she was at home quilting. In her younger years, she was also cooking. As a mom of 14, and a grandmother to countless more, she used to host a giant Thanksgiving dinner (which I think was actually lunch, if I’m remembering correctly). I have very few memories of this, as she lived 4 hours away so we didn’t attend often, but I do remember the food. To this day I still don’t know if she actually cooked everything. Was it a pot luck? Did the community help? I was a mere child that did not concern herself with the logistical affairs of adults. I was just excited to EAT. (Which is the possible title of my future memoir.)
Dinner always consisted of the classic Midwestern staples, such as ambrosia salad (literally just canned fruit, cool whip, jello, marshmallows, and nuts), various “bars” (I seriously don’t know what people from other areas call these as a general term, but they’re basically variations of brownies and blondies), lots of stuffing and potatoes (we LOVE carbs more than any other area of the country), roast turkey, and probably ham. While I’m sure there were other things like sweet potatoes and green beans, I was mostly focused on cramming my plate as full of potatoes, stuffing, and desserts as possible. I was a sucker for those bars. They were so foreign to me, despite my Midwestern upbringing.
You see, my mom hates chocolate (I know). We also weren’t a dessert family in general. Our desserts were isolated to holidays and vacations, and were absolutely never chocolate based (most of my favorite bars have a thick layer of chocolate). Vacations were a free-for-all, and I recall eating ice cream for lunch and/or refrigerated cookie dough for dinner on several vacations with my mom as a child. Holidays always consisted of pie – both apple and pumpkin. My mom would always ask if we wanted whipped or ice cream, and it wasn’t until I became an adult that I developed the boldness to ask for both. I didn’t realize that this was all semi-abnormal until I was in my early 20’s, when I realized most other families offered dessert after dinner every night. Maybe this is why I have such an affinity for baking and sweets.
My mom loves to bake cookies, as we discovered here, but never baked much of anything else. Grandma, on the other hand, apparently baked quite a bit when she was younger. I discovered several years ago that my grandma used to make cinnamon rolls regularly when my mom was a child. Mom said that the kids would often fight over who would eat the last bite of dough that wasn’t big enough to be baked with the rest of the rolls. I made cinnamon rolls once in my life, and it was about 5 years ago. The whole thing was so time consuming and full of steps that it was the last time I ever attempted it. When I mentioned how difficult they were to my grandma, she laughed and said that she made them all the time for her children because they were so easy. Now I’m wondering if maybe I could learn a little patience and perhaps try it again. If she can do it with 14 children running around, I could certainly do it with one cat and one monster of a kitten at my feet.
But that’s a blog post for another time. This week I made cheesy potatoes. They were something my grandma made for most occasions, and a staple of the Midwestern diet. They were even served with the lunch buffet after her funeral, which then ended with a huge variety of ice cream treats (her very favorite). This isn’t her recipe, as I don’t actually have her recipe, but it was found in the Waunakee, Wisconsin cookbook that I was given for my wedding many years ago, so I figured it was close enough. These are simple, hearty, and creamy – a true comfort food that will stick to your ribs and keep you warm during a cold winter. This week was the perfect week to make them, as it has been unseasonably cold here in Minneapolis, sometimes only making it up to 25 degrees during the day. I’m enjoying the leftovers more than anything, since they are excellent at all times of the day. I’ve been eating them with my eggs for breakfast a lot. Because of my association with cheesy potatoes, they make every meal feel like a special occasion.
We all remember and honor loved ones in different ways. For me, it’s food. Do any of you have recipes that help you feel close to your grandma? If so, I’d love to hear about it in the comments.
6 medium potatoes, peeled and thinly sliced
1/2 small onion, diced
1 can cream of mushroom soup (the recipe called for cream of chicken)
2 cups milk
1/2 cup cheddar cheese, shredded
1/2 stick butter
Salt and pepper to taste
Preheat oven to 350 degrees.
In a medium sauce pan over medium heat, melt butter. Add diced onion and saute until translucent. Add remaining ingredients and bring to a boil. Reduce to simmer for 2-4 minutes. Pour into a 9×13 glass baking dish, or whatever you have. Cover with foil and bake for 45 minutes. Remove foil and bake for an additional 15 minutes, or until the top browns slightly. Serve with anything you like – eggs, meat, veggies. Or maybe just eat a bowl of this and call it a meal. You do you.
Bourdain discovered his love of butter this week.
*Cheers to you, Grandma. There’s not a single swear in this whole post.*