Thursday, November 8, 2007

Apples and Thyme ~ a celebration of mothers and grandmothers and time spent with with them in the kitchen

This is my entry for Inge's and my first "Apples & Thyme" event. I would like to add...first of many!I have procrastinated writing this entry as it is extra difficult. As most of you know, my mother passed away five weeks ago. My mother had one of the most intense loves with cooking that I have ever seen. I am not quite ready to write about her influence as it feels too raw still.

Since it is November 8, my mother's mother's birthday, it seems fitting that I write about her. My Nana, as we called her, was born and raised in rural (and I mean RURAL) West Virginia in, I think, 1902. Her birth name was Jennie Belle Knotts. She was one of many in long line of Jennie Belles (I have seen the many generations of them in the graveyard). When I was born, my Nana was suffering from some depression, so my parents decided to name me Jeni to cheer her up (they chose the different spelling.) She was from a real hillbilly family. Her mother died when my Nana was about two years old, but as she was the youngest of about 7 children, her elder siblings raised her. She grew up barefoot (except in winter), wild and riding horseback through the country bareback. Her grandmother was a full-blooded Cherokee Indian and the rest of her family was a mix of Northern Europeans who first arrived in America in the 1590s in what is now the Maryland area. (A fascinating family history!) Sadly, all of her brothers and sisters took after her parents and died by the time they reached 50 years. My Nana, the strongblood, lived into her 80s, and thankfully so, as we have so many wonderful memories with her.

I went with her once to see where she was raised and it was still remote and wild in the early 70s. The mountains were steep, full of cougars and deer, with lots of rivers and streams, or "runs" as they call them there. As we approached the house she was raised in, crossing the run, the two men sitting on the front porch grabbed their shotguns and pointed them at our car as clearly we were strangers and not to be trusted. My mom calmed them down and told them that her mom just wanted to see the house she was born in. The lowered their shotguns but didn't dare take their eyes off our every move. As a 13 year old from New England, this was like being in an old Western movie or something from the Twilight Zone.

Knowing where my Nana was from and what she made of a very rough life (her life got more difficult after she left West Virgina) my respect grew for her as I aged. Despite a very challenging life, she was always so sweet, nice, generous, and gentle. She only wanted to take care of others. My mother would tell me stories about her mother taking food to hungry people during the depression, or taking in homeless or poor people and giving them a bath. As times got easier her focus was on feeding her family and her grandchildren.

My memories of her in the kitchen are all so wonderful, like:
  • Making pies - any kind of pie, with whatever was coming out of their orchard, bushes or vines.

  • Peeling apples, spooning out the fruit to us as small children while we "tweeted" and pretended we were birds.

  • "Unfastening Beans" as I called it when I was little - or shelling beans.

  • Canning - she and my grandfather would can and/or freeze everything from their garden.

  • Using the old, hand-crank meat grinder.

  • Frying, frying and more frying.

  • Always filling up a little jar on the stove with leftover grease after the frying. (Everything was cooked in some kind of pork fat usually.) Yummy!

I smile when I remember that she was always wearing an apron and often had a cigarette going while cooking. Even when she was very old and suffering from some dementia, she would have a cigarette either hanging from her lip or her hands or sitting in an ashtray next to the stove. We were always reminding her that her ashes were falling. (I wonder how many ended up in the food!)


One cooking tradition I have always maintained from her is fried yellow squash. Whenever I see the first ones hit the market, I slice them in thin rounds, toss them in cornmeal and flour, salt and pepper and fry them. I remember eating them as soon as they came out of the pan when she would make them.

She influenced me, like my other grandmother, to be patient, that cooking was a labor of love, not to be rushed, but to be enjoyed. Whenever I "unfasten" beans or peel apples, I sit, as she did, with a big bowl on my lap, in the quiet of the kitchen or the fresh air outside and work calmly at my task. It is very zen for me, and for her, it was her peaceful time, before the grouchy husband got home, before the crowd showed up for dinner, when she could truly be alone with her thoughts and peaceful surroundings.


Thank you Nana for passing on the feeling of peace that cooking gives me. Happy Birthday!


30 comments:

Mrs. W said...

Lovely post. What a sweet picture of your grandmother lovingly cooking... even with that cigarette! That gave me a laugh, because my in-laws still do that.

sognatrice said...

Gorgeous post. Peace in the kitchen is definitely underrated.

Also, you reminded me how my grandmother always had a pan/jar of fat near the stove....

katiez said...

Yep, bacon grease jar on the stove! Today I saw jars of duck fat for sale - 20 euros!
Lovely post, such wonderful memories of a remarkable woman!

The Passionate Palate said...

Mrs. W - Thank you...and the cigarettes still make me laugh, too!

Sognatrice & Katie - I guess the jar of fat is ubiquitous, isn't it?

african vanielje said...

Jeni, it's a lovely tribute, and peace in the kitchen is a rare thing. You're so lucky that it is one of your gifts from your nana

The Passionate Palate said...

Inge - yes, peace is a priceless gift!

Maryann@FindingLaDolceVita said...

What a great post, Jeni. Your writing gave me so many images. I love sitting with the string beans on my lap and a big bowl just like our grandmothers did. Your image of the men on their front porch pointing a gun reminded me of "Second Hand Lions" haha. As for those remote areas, we still have some closeby and they scare the bejeesus out of me haha.

Ann said...

What a very beautifully written post. I'd also forgotten about my grandmother's jar of bacon fat, kept right nest to the sink.

The fried yellow squash sound marvelous.

Susan said...

Jeni, LOL! The shotguns and the cigarettes. And some seriously sweet memories. A very enjoyable break as I'm working out my own post today for this event.

The Passionate Palate said...

Maryann - I am glad you do the bowl on-the-lap-thing too! Yeah, I don't recommend crossing guys with shotguns.

Ann - it's funny how many people remember the jar of bacon fat!

Susan - They gave me a laugh all over again, too. :-)

Chris said...

Jeni - this is a special post and dedication to your grandmother. Nana's are wonderful! Thanks for sharing such lovely memories with us!

The Passionate Palate said...

Chris - it was a pleasure to share these memories and fun for me. Yes, Nana's are wonderful!

Jannis said...

What wonderful writing!

Valli said...

Thank you for sharing your chilhood memeories with us. Our families have such influence over our love of life in every aspect of it.

Wanderlust Scarlett said...

That is wonderful, I loved every word of it.

I could just see it all... how precious these moments in your memory!

Thank you for sharing them, and bringing up some good ones for me too.

Big hugs
Scarlett & Viaggiatore

amanda said...

What a wonderful post. You have so many great memories.... The cigarette smoking Nana made me smile, my Nana used to smoke 20 Woodbine a day, she gave up about 10 years before she died but she always kept a packet in her knicker drawer 'just in case'. My sister still has the packet.

JennDZ - The Leftover Queen said...

What a nice ode to your Nana. I called my grandmother the same name. How fun! I loved hearing this story.

The Passionate Palate said...

Jannis -a very sincere thank you!

Valli - it's wonderful when we honor those influences of our families, isn't it?

Scarlett - your compliments mean a lot to me. Hugs to you too!

Amanda - I love your story too. It's wonderful to remember the memories that make you laugh.

Jenn - thank you!!! It was fun writing it too!

Jannis said...

Jenni, What a small world we live in. I stopped by one of my favorite food blogs Tartelette and to my surprise she is talking about you! All good of course. Ha Ha

myfrenchkitchen said...

Lovely memories and a beautiful tribute to a special woman!
Ronell

The Passionate Palate said...

Ronell - Merci!

M&Ms... said...

That is a beautiful post and you have such amazing family history!
Wish I had been able to post in time for this blog event.. alas..

The Passionate Palate said...

M&Ms - thank you for your kind words. Please post an entry for next month!

katerinfiore09 said...

I love your writing, this was a moving post! Your Grandmother seemed like a lovely lady. un bacio!

The Passionate Palate said...

Katerina - Thank you for the lovely compliments!

Laurie Constantino said...

Jeni, so sorry for your loss -- and what a wonderful way to commemorate your mom, with all these amazing posts.
Your story was wonderful. As I was just thinking your description of hillbilly country sounded like the twilight zone, you mentioned how wierd it was for you. Very interesting story about a clearly amazing woman. Thank you!

bird's eye view said...

Jeni,

I'm sorry for your loss...and I think you found a lovely way to celebrate your mother's life in this event.

Your blog was very evocative, and I could almost feel my frantic self calming down when you talked about peeling the beans and the apples.

The Passionate Palate said...

Laurie - welcome and a big thank you. It feels good to pay tribute to the women who gave me so much!

Bird's Eye - welcome to you too and thank you for your very kind words!

Julie said...

I'm reading through all the event's stories and have just come to this one. I love the scrapbook memories, and like any good piece of memoir writing, it brings up memories of my own. I haven't unfastened beans since I was very young, and I remember, it was meditative. Thank you for sharing your family here!

The Passionate Palate said...

Julie, I'm glad you liked it and that my memories could evoke some for you!