I remember the exact moment I discovered that I had a passion for good food. I was 8 years old, sitting in the kitchen of my grandparents’ simple one-story, wood-frame house in Longview, Wash., eating a lunch that consisted of sliced tomatoes, buttered whole-wheat bread, summer sausage, milk and oatmeal cookies. Unpretentious though that lunch may have been, I realized then that the food I was eating was unusually delicious. In one respect, nothing was out of the ordinary: Almost everything my grandmother served was familiar and commonplace. But somehow the flavors and aromas were intensified, purified, heightened. It was as if the foods were more essentially themselves. There was, as they say, more there there.
As a child, I didn’t know how to explain this. It wasn’t that my grandmother was a sophisticated gourmet. Her style was basic--typical Midwestern. She did have good technique, and what she knew she prepared well. But her real secret (if you could even call it that; it was simply necessity to her) was that she made everything from scratch using only fresh, home-grown ingredients or, in the winter, items that had been home-canned or frozen at the peak of freshness.
These were the ‘50s, you understand, before Alice Waters revolutionized American cuisine by advocating the virtues of cooking with fresh, seasonal ingredients. Most home cooks were content to use canned or frozen fruits and vegetables from grocery store shelves, and they regularly employed packaged, prepared foods, such as Campbell’s soups, as essential shortcut components in main or side dishes. In some places in the country, this remains a common practice.
But on their little spread in southwestern Washington, my grandparents, neither of them educated beyond the eighth grade, grew or raised nearly every morsel of food that went into the mouths of the five children they still had at home. They had moved there from Nebraska in 1944 when my grandfather got a good-paying job at the aluminum mill in Longview, a logging town on the Columbia River. Eventually sidelined by a neck injury, my grandfather stayed home and worked the flat, fertile four acres that nestled up against a jagged evergreen-covered hill nearly tall enough to be considered a mountain. My grandmother cooked and cleaned for a wealthy family in Portland, Ore., 45 miles to the south, to bring in a modest income.
Grandpa Art, a stocky man with gnarled hands and a thick head of hair that turned white when he got older, was in charge of the livestock: some 100 chickens running free in a good-sized coop behind the house; half a dozen pigs rooting in a pen nearby; several cows and a couple of steers grazing on a couple of acres of surrounding pasture land. These domestic animals kept them supplied year-round with eggs, milk, poultry, beef and pork (and suet to render for soap).
It was not unusual to see lengths of summer sausage hanging in their fruit room (a euphemism for the dark, closet-sized space where home-canned goods and other foodstuffs were stored), and they also smoked their own ham and bacon. Additional protein occasionally was supplied from the dank slough that sliced the land at the base of the mountain, where my grandfather caught catfish that my grandmo ther immediately floured and fried.
My visits were punctuated with events that I loved--helping milk the cows, mastering sending the warm, fragrant stream of liquid splattering into a tin bucket--and those I hated, such as coming unexpectedly upon the steaming carcass of a freshly slaughtered pig hanging from a prominent branch of the maple tree in their frontyard. Once when a number of chickens had been designated for the freezer, I was drafted for feather plucking, an activity I fortunately never had to repeat.
I rarely missed joining Grandpa Art in the separating room where the morning and evening milk, fresh from the cows, was poured into an uncomplicated large metal machine that my grandfather, with my assistance, hand-cranked until the cream came spewing out one spigot and the fat-reduced milk another. The memory of the sweet-sour smell (the aroma of buttermilk is similar but not quite the same) in that small room lined with gallon milk jars still makes me nostalgic.
Dairy products were an essential part of the family diet and were used generously in all types of dishes. Grandma Clara, a stout woman with peaches-and-cream complexion, made her own cheese and churned her own butter, which, when combined with her homemade whole-wheat raisin bread and jam, transformed toast into a special treat. Cream, milk and buttermilk were staples in everyday cooking, appearing with every imaginable vegetable (creamed new potatoes and peas), in salad dressings (a cooked dressing of buttermilk, vinegar and bacon fat thickened with flour on a leafy green lettuce and potato salad) or with poultry, (creamed chicken on mashed potatoes), and, of course, in rich, silky homemade ice cream.
In those days nobody knew about the dangers of cholesterol in foods, and even after my grandparents did, they paid no heed. My grandfather, after a lifetime of consuming fried eggs, bacon, butter, cream, and meats and potatoes drenched in gravy, died of old age at 94. My grandmother lived to be 86.
In the spring and summer, my grandparents planted and tended an enormous garden. Of course, there were green pole beans, lettuce, cucumbers, onions, potatoes, peas, carrots, squash, spinach and other vegetables (none exotic or unusual in any way, but each carefully selected for size or flavor). But nothing was treasured more than those sweet golden ears of corn and the monumental beefsteak tomatoes. It was not unusual on a warm summer’s night for the family to make an entire meal of corn-on-the-cob slathered in butter, and sliced ruby red tomatoes dripping with juice. A sprinkling of salt, and who could ask for anything more?
They always planted enough to feed the family during the summer with plenty left over to preserve for the winter months. Grandma canned or froze almost every fruit and vegetable they grew. She pickled cucumbers and beets and made her own sauerkraut. Most items were canned in clear glass jars that created a beautiful still life on the shelves in the fruit room.
An apple and a cherry tree, rhubarb and strawberry plants, and raspberry, blackberry, gooseberry and currant bushes provided the fresh fruits for canning and for Grandma’s famous jams, jellies and pies (rhubarb cream and gooseberry cream being my personal favorites). I cannot think of a time I ever visited them that I did not leave for home without two or more jars of homemade jam or jelly in hand.
Grandma and Grandpa also made their own beer and wine, the merits of which were questionable. Let me put it this way: After I reached drinking age and was allowed to imbibe, I would take a few delicate sips, then find a way to pour the rest into a sink or houseplant. But the alcohol content was high, as was my grandparents’ need for recognition, and so few visiting friends or relatives declined an offer.
Before moving West, my grandparents briefly ran a restaurant in a train depot in Beatrice, Neb., with my grandmother doing the cooking. She also served as “pastry chef” for a nearby grocery store, providing fresh baked goods. If she had an area of indisputable expertise, this was it. Grandma’s cookies, breads and cinnamon rolls were without parallel. Part of her success seemed to be an uncanny knack for knowing precisely how much of every ingredient to add without measuring.
I once made the mistake of asking her to teach me to make her legendary cinnamon rolls. She cheerfully agreed, but I soon discovered that it was hopeless. She had no written recipe and she spoke so rapidly that I couldn’t keep up as she moved around the kitchen like a dervish, adding a pinch of this, handfuls of that, kneading, rolling, patting and sprinkling.
Although I now have a cinnamon roll recipe that is attributed to my grandmother, compiled by someone more patient than I, attempts to make them have never measured up. It is probably because I cannot savor them with her at her kitchen table.
The making of pfeffernussen cookies every Christmas was one labor-intensive baking ritual that even ensnared my grandfather. A delicacy brought over by his family when it emigrated from Germany, these anise-flavored morsels have become a tradition, with the fourth generation now making them during the holidays. This despite the time it takes to form the marble-sized balls. Hard as a jawbreaker, a pepper nut is not chewable until it rests in your mouth awhile to soften. Only then, when you bite into it, does it yield its subtle licorice flavor. My mother still bakes and sends pfeffernussen to us at Christmastime. My daughter is addicted to them.
As a youngster, I never considered my grandparents poor, although I eventually came to realize how hard they had to work just to make ends meet. There was nothing glamorous about their life--few, if any luxuries and little peace of mind. But the house was always full of family and friends and the food was superb. Their self-sufficiency and the quality of the meals they put on the table lifted them above what might have seemed to some like poverty, and gave their lives richness and dignity. It was, no doubt, one of the greatest legacies they left their six children, 28 grandchildren and 38 great-grandchildren.
Leader was formerly senior editor for a Monterey Peninsula-based food and dining magazine and wrote for the San Francisco Chronicle.