I hope there’s a kitchen in heaven. My loved ones know to look for me there. In fact, I expect to go to heaven straight from my own kitchen, leaving behind a freezer full of food and, less likely, clean dishes. I come from a long line of enthusiastic cooks and have persistent memories of family kitchens where I learned about life and the value of family members who care about each other.
On my father’s side of the family, Great-Grandma Crawford made sweet wine from muscadine grapes and stored it in crocks down in her Tennessee basement. Her son, Henry, was allowed to taste it, but her daughters were not. Once, finding a batch of this medicinal potion, thickened and dark with age, my dad and his brothers got the dog drunk. Whether or not the boys tasted it themselves remains a secret.
Other family members had their specialties. Great-Grandma Schlesinger had a way with fresh spinach. Plain Grandma, my paternal grandmother, had a way with hot fudge sauce, which was always in the blue pitcher when we visited. It thickened just right when poured over vanilla ice cream. (“Plain Grandma” was my way of differentiating the grandmother with the same name as mine—Schlesinger—from the one with a different last name.) Plain Grandpa loved salty country ham and made his redeye gravy with coffee in it. On special occasions he made taffy, which the kids got to pull with him. He let us dig potatoes, pick cukes for bread-and-butter pickles, and gather huge blackberries from the fence row along his garden. There he taught us ditties like:
“Pie, pie, ’tater pie
P-i-e, e-i-p, pie
E for, i for, eat a piece of pie for,
We just love that ’tater pie.”
When we wondered how anyone could eat a pie made of vegetables, Grandma made such a pie for us. I never see a sweet potato pie without the urge to burst into song.
On Mother’s side of the family, Grandma Stoughton’s German doughnuts, fragrant with mace, were an unusual treat. For special occasions she made a sherry pudding and brought in bowls of her beautiful roses for the table. To this day I prefer my grapefruit with salt and my cantaloupe with pepper, like they season them in Texas. The Stoughtons lived in Dallas and ran their neighborhood grocery store next door. When we visited, they let me mind the store. Grandpa was a wiry, hardworking man with the softest of hearts. It was his practice to run a tab for people who did not have the money for their purchases. He always let us fill a bag with candy and Devil Dogs from their store to take on the long drive home. Maybe I can attribute to him my attraction to candy bars.
During the early ’50s in Houston, my family had a modern chrome and red Formica dinette set with matching chairs that grabbed the skin on our skinny, bare legs. In the sticky climate (no air conditioning), the breeze from a black oscillating fan accompanied meals for much of the year.
A finicky eater through all of childhood, I must have been a disappointment at the table. My sister and I drank so much chocolate milk that the nonflavored version was referred to as “white milk.” There was only whole milk at the time; my grandmother referred to it as “homogenized milk.” She grew up with fresh milk, so the cream rose to the top and needed shaking to mix before drinking. One of us spilled milk at almost every meal. Was it rambunctious girls or unstable glasses? We lived the ’50s ideal of family togetherness, and supper together was a ritual. There we eventually learned table manners, and now we rarely spill our milk.
We saw the dawn of a new age in food. Chemists were dreaming up new food products, advertised to people of modest means and eagerly adopted by the public. Fresh foods were replaced by convenience foods, with long lists of ingredients and additives. I remember when Oreos and sugared breakfast cereals were new. Frozen TV dinners became available, but my family never ate them, preferring home-cooked meals. I find it difficult to forget Mama’s standbys in those days: the creamed chipped beef on toast, fish sticks, meatloaf, hash (her name for beef stew), wedges of iceberg lettuce with bottled French dressing, and canned green beans cooked in a pressure cooker. As we dawdled reluctantly over each bite, we kids were frequently admonished to appreciate what we had because there were starving children in China. With no clear idea of the whereabouts of those children, I was more than willing to send them my food. But her homemade pies and cakes were the best, and that motivated me to clean my plate.
We carried our lunches to Will Rogers Elementary School—sandwiches on soft, white bread with the crusts cut off to eliminate any texture, and always cut in triangles and wrapped in wax paper. After lunch in the school cafeteria, we had regular drills, getting under our desks or lining up in the hall with our hands protecting our little necks from nuclear bombs and tornadoes.
After-school snacks were an enticement to share our day’s experiences. It was at snack time that we first heard a favorite family tale. “Mama, tell us about the time you poured soup in my hair,” I would plead. I’m told I poured my cool, congealed Campbell’s tomato soup in my innocent and unsuspecting sister’s hair. Shocking us all, my exasperated mother poured soup in my hair to teach me a lesson, only to create a grand mess for herself.
She may argue that she was not the perfect mother, but she is the perfect mother for me. I know there is always a place for me and mine at her table, where each of us feels loved from every direction and buffered from the ugly or frightening parts of life.
Moments like these have reassured me that maybe I could be a good parent without losing myself. We don’t have to behave perfectly all the time, but there are consequences. The soup story was my earliest indication that Mama was a real person, not just my mother. I got the occasional uneasy feeling that she wondered, Who are these little girls, and when is their real mother going to come and get them? When she said, “You are driving me to the loony bin and you’ll have to visit me there,” that was our clue to back off for a while. Thank goodness she stayed to see that we were “raised right.” She may argue that she was not the perfect mother, but she is the perfect mother for me. I know there is always a place for me and mine at her table, where each of us feels loved from every direction and buffered from the ugly or frightening parts of life.
In the ’50s moms wore aprons in the kitchen while dads got dressed, had breakfast and coffee, and went off in the family’s one car to work in the world beyond the neighborhood. Unable to comprehend or explain what a chemical engineer did at a paint and varnish company, I told people my daddy painted houses. He did paint ours, with full family participation. I lived for the day I could be the one on the ladder. As an extension of his work, he was always “cooking up” some product for us to use at home—cleaners, sunscreen, insect repellant, shampoo, colored concrete for our driveway, and more. These no-name-brand substitutes for commercial products were slow to gain family acceptance. He was experimental, too, when he cooked food. I remember the potatoes, dropped into boiling resin, while he grilled on the cooker he made from a 50-gallon paint drum. Considering recipes as formulas to be refined and tested was an engineer’s approach to food, and not a bad legacy. His experimentation left us open to change, when the food revolution of the early 1970s freed us from reliance on convenience foods and led us back to “from scratch” cooking.
Through the changes of the years, the family has gathered to share food. We are how we eat, and who’s at the table is more important than what is on it. Still, what’s on the table draws my family there. Look for us in the kitchen.
Editor’s Note: In 2006 a group of nurses who graduated 40 years earlier gathered at Vanderbilt for a class reunion. The event ignited the spark of an idea that soon led to formation of The Nurses’ Apron Partnership (TNAP), a grassroots organization whose mission is to assist nurses in providing health-care services that might not otherwise be available. To help support TNAP, dozens of Vanderbilt nursing alumnae and professors contributed literary submissions to Gotcha Covered: A Legacy of Service and Protection (2009, Westview Inc.), which was compiled and edited by Ginger T. Manley. This essay by Linda Schlesinger Mabry, who lives in Tallahassee, Fla., is adapted from Gotcha Covered. All book royalties will be donated to Burning Bush Inc., a nonprofit microlending organization supporting community development initiatives in Central Kenya. Find out more about The Nurses’ Apron Partnership at www.thenursesapronpartnership.com.