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Granny’s cooking brings to mind sweet memories

I recently heard a woman talking about preparing a special meal and how delicious it is.

She said her family loves it. However, they don’t react with the level of pleasure she does when eating it.

She equated her enjoyment of the dish to the fact that her grandmother used to make it for her. She wondered that perhaps this particular dish tastes extra good to her partly because of the sweet memories she has when she smells it and eats it.

We humans have a strong love affair with food, sometimes to our detriment. Food is essential to life, but it means so much more to us. In every culture and society throughout the world, breaking bread together symbolizes family and community.

We are conditioned from the time of birth to equate food with love. A newborn baby feels the hunger pain in his tiny body, responds by crying, which signals to us to pick the child up, hold him close and provide the relief from the hunger pains. At the same time, we tend to talk to the baby, maybe even sing. All these actions bring comfort, teach the child to trust and establishes a powerful everlasting bond.

When someone is sick, or just had a new baby, or are grieving the death of a loved one, what do we do? We take casseroles and fried chicken to their homes. It’s our way of saying, “I love you. I want to bring you comfort. I will walk this journey with you.”

My granny, on very special days, would make ‘chocolate stuff,’ a hot chocolate gravy that she would pour over fresh biscuits already slathered with melted butter. Usually, this treat was prepared in the cold of winter and was totally unexpected by us kids. I can remember the sweetness, smoothness and warmth of the gravy and biscuits as it filled my mouth and went down my throat. My sister, Linda, the Betty Crocker of the family, tried over and over to replicate this treasure, but never quite got it right.

Granny also made rice pudding that tasted like it had been sent from heaven. As an adult, I hate rice pudding. What about Granny’s dish made the difference? Her fresh baked bread, cinnamon rolls and blackberry cobbler are lost treasures except in my memory. No one can make them taste the same way.

Granny’s cornbread was made with pork cracklings in it, bits of bacon and baked fat of the hog left over after a fall butchering. She always had lard in the kitchen, not only for cooking but also to keep her iron skillet cured.  Her creamed potatoes and fresh green beans seasoned with back fat were unbeatable. These were the green beans she and Mom strung and broke the evening before with newspapers spread over their laps.

The memories of Granny’s cooking doesn’t just involve the texture and taste of the food. It brings to mind her heavy calloused hands as she kneaded dough, and the way she used the back of her hand to brush away hair on her forehead. It reminds me of her asking for more wood to be carried in for her cook stove and the way she showed me how to pick the best pieces of kindling to start the fire. Even now, my spirit can almost capture the aroma of the food and the natural sweet scent of her skin.

I did not inherit Granny’s ability to make tasty morsels from practically nothing. I don’t recall her ever using a recipe, though certainly she did at times. She would simply take a bit of flour in her hand or a pinch of salt and say, “that’s about right.”  Many times I’ve tried to imitate Granny’s cooking. When I was 15 years old, Granny told me I would never ‘get a man’ because I couldn’t make a good biscuit. She didn’t live long enough to know I married a city boy who didn’t know what good sausage gravy and biscuits were until he met my sister, Linda.

When I was very young, Mom worked in Grandpa’s and neighbor’s tobacco fields or gardens all day. Granny wouldn’t allow us to eat until they were both home for the evening. Granny would have Grandpa sit down at the table first, then mom and finally us kids. It was Granny’s way of showing her acknowledgment for their hard day’s work, her appreciation for their efforts and her love for the whole family.

We humans are so much more than our physical bodies and our spirits are connected in powerful ways based on memories, traditions and family circles. Food is at the center of this.

The intimacy and commitments represented in certain dishes of our memories past are forever within us reminding us of who we are and where we came from. An aroma, a taste, a texture take us back to our beginnings and bring reminders of comfort, trust and commitment.

Nora Swango Stanger, a Lawrence County native and Appalachian outreach coordinator for Sinclair Community College, can be reached at norastanger@gmail.com.