In Search of Grandmothers' Recipes
Updated: Jun 24
These days, comfort can come in many forms.
The world on a lockdown from our normal social and familiar reconnaissance, leaving us longing for the times when we could roam free, enjoy our social gatherings, and take pleasures in life out and about. But in this time of semi-isolation, many are trying to find ways to make their self whole again. We relax, become creative, resourceful, inventive, work on bettering ourselves, and explore new avenues of interests and desires. We find ourselves looking for freshness and new air, finding sources of mediation, reminiscing, and finding new hope and purpose for the future.
I know some people are enjoying a lightened work load. Some are struggling without the means they had before. Some are trying to reinvent themselves in a career that has had to drastically change in order to adapt and overcome these new times. This has been uncharted territory for so many, and together we have pulled through.
As a chef, one of the commonalities I find amongst my peers, is that food is a comfort, and or, a vice for our daily lives that are so hectic and demanding. We love the food, how we make it, but even more so, how it makes us feel. Or how our customers and guests feel. And that’s why we keep on coming back for more, and subjecting ourselves to a lifestyle most wouldn’t understand.
And now, as the world waits for a return to the most normalcy we can get, I find myself lost in thoughts, trying to stay focused on teaching a hands-on curriculum, now in an online format. I am yearning for the day to be back in the kitchen, with my students, and showing them my passion. When people ask me how I learned to cook, the go to answer is my Grandma.
I was lucky enough to have lots of Grandmothers, who loved me very much. The comfort I found in their kitchens probably is what drew me into this crazy world. Their recipes were not only of love, but out necessity of the time, using ingredients that were available. I enjoyed making something “good”. I was fascinated by the processes, and even more so by the results.
As I sit here, edging on the brink of boredom, trying to come up with ways to keep my idle mind engaged and prosperous, I start missing foods from my childhood. Now, growing up, we very rarely ate “fancy”. And when we did eat “fancy” it is definitely a far cry from the “fancy”, luxurious, and scrumptious delights that I pleasure now. And then as my significant other and myself start talking about things we want to eat during the week, and planning our meals, I remember foods I loved from my childhood, I ate at my grandmothers’ houses.
Weird. I could prepare and eat literally anything I wanted, but was thinking about “enchilada casserole”: a Midwestern creation from my Grandma Maxene, that layered flour tortillas, ground beef drenched in canned enchilada sauce, and shredded Monterey jack cheese. Mundane at best, but one of the many things she taught me in my young days. I earned my first Brownie Scouts badge, with Grandma Maxene, baking an apple pie from scratch, among other things.
Her kitchen was always full of Midwest housewife culinary creations. Maybe not exciting, but always with a flare of love and nurturing. Meatloaf, potatoes au gratin, fresh sliced tomatoes, lots and lots of casseroles, and a treat as a kid: applesauce cooked with red hot candies so it was bright red and cinnamon flavored. “Special days” with Grandma Maxene usually involved a bit of time in the kitchen, creating, and exploring, and enjoying. We were never denied time in the kitchen.
Holiday meals are still adorned with these creations she indoctrinated into our lives: Chipped beef dip, broccoli cheese casserole, hash brown casserole, sweet vinegared cucumbers, pumpkin pie (no matter what time of year). Our special treat as a kid: Poppy-can biscuits, turned into donuts, fried in a small fry-daddy, and tossed in cinnamon sugar. (yes, this is probably why I am obsessed with donuts…..)
Grandma Maxene’s recipe for Kansas Cucumber Salad in her handwriting; Cucumber Salad
If I wanted to cook, I knew I could just go to her house and we could make something (usually a dessert lol).
From the left: Jennifer, Grandma, Adrianne, Jordan, Elizabeth
Not far down the road lived my Grandmother Mary, Mummum as she is known. And at Mummum’s house, there was a large, outdoor pool surrounded by my grandfather “Buppa”’s gardens of fruits, vegetables, and ornamental flowers. Now, we spent A LOT of time there, primarily in the pool. We were mermaids of the most fabulous sort. My grandparents were transplants from the north, Cape Elizabeth, Maine, to be exact. Mummum was wheelchair bound from a young age after being inflicted with Polio. That still didn’t mean she didn’t provide for us. My grandfather provided all sorts of squashes, eggplants, cucumbers, lettuces, tomatoes, potatoes, navel oranges, and grapefruits from his garden. There were trellises of green beans, and clumps of dwarf bananas in the back. There was almost of steady supply of tomatoes on the windowsill finishing up their ripening process, and a bowl of cherry tomatoes that were like candy on the table for us to snack away at our desire. In citrus season, my grandmother would sit in her chair and peel for us navel oranges to eat. Hands of dwarf bananas would sit in the Florida room ripening slowly, perfect portions for us kids. (And perfect for our milkshakes on a hot summer day pool break).
Food wasn’t fancy, but always fresh. I remember eating “boiled” yellow squash tossed in butter and salt and pepper. It was one of my favorites, and made it to the table a lot. Mummum always put meals on the table. Whether it was seafood, “tuna noodle casserole”, chocolate cake and ice cream sauce, fruit jello, or a myriad of other things, she still cooked in her small Florida kitchen. At the end of the night when she retired out of her wheelchair, it was usually a bowl of chocolate ice-cream.
My parents and sister and I went u-picking the other day, to occupy our time of quarantine. U-Pick farms are of abundance in Florida, many are a side-hustle of farmers who grow commercial crops. These opportunities bring in immediate cash flow, whereas payment for crops may not come until they are sold or brokered. This time of year, U-pick farms are plentiful. We ended up with lots of produce, as we rambunctiously filled out buckets. I found some yellow squash on one of the crop rows. And yes, boiled yellow squash with butter and salt and pepper was definitely on the menu that night!
Mummum’s recipes in her handwriting: Orange swizzle slush, 2 Hour yeast rolls, Mother’s cream puffs
I’m sure my love of fruits and vegetables come from the fact that we always had a steady supply coming from Mummum and Buppa’s house. Now, one of the things Mummum was known for making for my mother on her birthday is ice-cream sauce. And this was served over a box mix chocolate cake. What is ice-cream sauce you say? Think of a super sweet, beaten vanilla custard enriched with fresh melted butter. Super decadent, and super sweet, and now I make it once a year for my mom’s birthday. But, I did transform ice-cream sauce into Fluffy Eggnog Sauce to adorn Fresh Ginger cake for the holidays. It works perfectly.
The infamous Ice Cream Sauce in Mummum’s handwriting; Fluffy Eggnog sauce with Gingercake
My grandmother Juanita, “Nini” referenced in several recipes on my site, grew up on a farm in Ohio. Orphaned at a young age by the death of both her parents, she was taken in by her much older brother. Nini was the quintessential farm cook. Everything was always homemade. Growing up on a farm meant that food was fresh, and sometimes plentiful for her.
(Notice the pies in the background)
One of my favorite projects with her was learning how to can. The first thing she ever showed me to do was canning tomatoes. We put up Roma tomatoes that I had in abundance. I thought it was so neat! The next time we did strawberry jam. Now I’m hooked on the process, and like to “put up” things. Spring time is always prevalent for fruit, and now so is the “jam sessions”.
I share this process with my students, and they are always wowed and content with what they produce. I tell them I learned how to can from my Grandmother and they get really excited.
Students’ preparing pickled vegetables to be canned
Nini was always known for her ability to cook. As a child, I remember food always being homemade, and lots of options on a table. Even when she was working, she would still come home and prepare a full meal from scratch almost every night. It wasn’t fancy food. Just good food. Vegetables boiled down with pieces of pork, roasts of meat, potpie, rolls, casseroles, and always dessert.
American Ice Cream and Pie Crust recipe cards in Nini’s handwritting
Nini was known for her pies. In Dayton, Ohio, where she lived the first part of her life, she used to prepare pies not only for the small restaurant they owned, but also to be sold to the other restaurants in the area. She used to rise at 2:30 every morning and make a variety of pies, over 30 of them a day. I’ve had her sour cherry pie, apple pie, peach pie, custard pie, chocolate pie, strawberry pie, pumpkin pie, lemon meringue pie just to name a few. The most well know pie she was known to make (at least amongst the family) is squash pie. Very similar to pumpkin pie, Nini’s squash pie is light and delicate with the essence of nutmeg. Squash pie is made with an heirloom squash called Cushaw.
Squash pie is always a staple. If and when a cushaw squash is located at a farmer’s market, it is cooked, and peeled, and riced, and portioned into freezer baggies, and shared amongst hopeful family members. One squash can produce around 8-10 pies if you are lucky. Honestly, this my favorite part of the Thanksgiving Meal. And the day after breakfast………
In fact, one Thanksgiving, besides our usually turkeys, she managed to pull off, by herself a mountainous feast that included over 30 side dishes, not including a buffet of pies. You name it, it was on her table.
Now, I try to shy away from lots of processed foods these days, but doesn’t mean I still don’t crave Nini’s creations. Instead, I have re-created some, opting to use fresh products. One of my favorites, green bean casserole, but as we knew it “Green Bean Gloop”, following the old housewives’ recipe of canned or frozen green beans, cream of mushroom soup, and fried onion pieces.
Here it is, re-imagined with Fresh from Florida ingredients.
Another family favorite is Corn Casserole, utilizing canned creamed corn, and kernels, boxed cornbread mix, and sour cream. Here it is re-imagined with fresh Zellwood Sweet corn.
One of my favorite recipes Nini made was her Chicken Potpie. Not a casserole, but a form of dumplings slowly simmered in rich broth. Sometimes it was chicken, sometimes it was turkey, sometimes it was beef. It is so hearty and satisfying to the soul. And she usually served it with said meat accompanying it. If there was no meat to be roasted, she pulled a jar of homemade broth pulled from the freezer. Now, I know how to make pot pie, it’s not hard, just takes a little counter space, and some very rich broth or stock; but when I wanted it and my Nini wasn’t available to make it, I would call, and she would tell me the same thing every time. And every time I’d call her.
I remembered one time when I was a teenager and I was really sick, and had not been able to eat for days. We had stopped by Nini and Poppop’s house, and as usual, we were offered to stay for dinner. I asked Nini to make Chicken potpie because I thought I would be able to eat that. Even though my father quietly scolded me for giving my grandmother so much work to do (she was still working at the time), without question, Nini obliged and created magic for dinner, and I was finally able to eat a little.
The food she made always made me smile. Always pots of simmering vegetables to have with dinner.
There has always been a long tradition of recipe sharing in my family. Prior to a Denlinger family reunion in 1991 in Tipp City, Ohio, we assembled a family cookbook. Pages and pages of recipes that were submitted, typed up and bound with a plastic spiral strip. Everyone could contribute, even us kids in the “kids’ corner”.
The first section of the book contained recipes in “Grandma’s Kitchen” which were the recipes of my Great-Grandma Mary Lynch Denlinger.
Two recipes from “Grandma’s Kitchen”: Grandma Wray & Grandma Lynch’s Sour
Cream Cookies; Green Tomato Pickles
There are about a dozen or more recipes from Great Grandma Mary, that the family contributed in her honor, and to make sure everyone had a copy to have in their own kitchen.
From my grandmother Mummum’s family, I have in my possession, a hand- written recipe book full of favorite recipes, clipped newspaper recipes and shared recipe cards. The recipes came from some great aunts and m
Looking inside the recipe book
My sisters have recipe cards from my grandmothers, both in her handwriting, and their own when she was no longer able to write well. All of these precious jewels show how the tradition of family recipes from generations past, and will ensure family traditions have the opportunity to endure for generations to come.
Even though my grandmothers are no longer with us, their legacy still remains written on these cards, and in these pages. Their food at our holiday parties and dinner tables reminds us of their love they had for us, and ensure their memory will never be forgotten. The memories the carefree days of spending time with your grandmother draw upon the comfort and peace we all need now…..through a bowl of Potpie, or some sliced tomatoes, or simply a navel orange. -JD