Tuesday, July 30, 2013

A Time and a Place: for my Grandmother's cooking

My grandmother taught me many things, but the tradition I carry on most and with great relish is that of her cooking ability.

Grandma Oberlander with great-grandchildren Adrian (on left)
and Erin (on right) in her well-used kitchen, circa 1985
I am fond of telling people that the Apple iPad is the “greatest invention there is.”  One of the reasons I love this gadget is it allows me to “FaceTime” with my grandchildren; we can talk face-to-face, in real time and I don’t miss the new haircut, they can show me their new boo-boos, etc.
Rain and Nana (in top right) captured on iPad during
a recent chat fest
The other day talking to my three-year-old grandson I said to him, “When you come visit Nana, do you want her to make you some beet soup?” 

Not in the mood to talk at the moment, he nodded with a big smile on his face because my Beet Soup is one this picky eater’s favorite foods. 
I share this little story because as I await the arrival of my grandchildren from their home five hours away, I am busy in the kitchen going back to a time when an iPad was as foreign an idea as space travel.  Today I am recreating meals my grandmother used to make and I’m doing it for my grandchildren as well as for myself. 

I miss my grandmother who has been dead since 1998.  I don’t think of her every single day, but I find myself recalling her in moments as I go through my day; something she may have said, the way she taught me to do a task, or when I’m cooking a meal that was one of her signatures.  Beet soup was just such a dish.  So is the Bean and Cabbage concoction I have simmering on the stove. 

These are meals that I rarely make.  If I cooked and ate these meals the way I did when I was a young girl, I would not be able to fit through my door.  During the time when I was growing up under the tutelage of Grandma Oberlander, I was witness to a way of life that was fast fading into obscurity. 

My grandmother was born in 1912.  She raised a large family on a farm during the Great Depression.  I recall her telling me she could make one potato feed her family of ten.  My aunt shared how she would watch her mother-in-law make bread, kneading a mountain of dough on a wooden table with the end result being the best bread she had ever eaten. 

My grandmother was of Polish extract; I assume she learned the basics from her own mother.  The foods she made (recipes for two follow at the end of this article) contained potatoes, beans, cabbage, bacon; all hearty and inexpensive, yet, filling and nutritious.  They kept my grandmother’s brood of children (she raised a total of 15) fed.  They have kept me hungering for my childhood favorites all of my adult life.  The combination of the ingredients are amazingly addictive: eat just a few bites and you are craving for more.  Trust me, it's true!

And, now I pass on the tradition to my own children albeit in small, excuse the pun, bites.

While my skinny-minnie grandchildren are in no danger of obesity from eating such carbohydrate packed foods, there is no way I could eat like this every day the way we did when I was growing up.  Not just the fact that I try hard to maintain some semblance of a trim figure, but think of the gastronomic consequences of those beans and cabbage.  I’d like to stay married, thank you very much! 

No, my diet these days is more typical of yesterday’s breakfast: a smoothie of kale, spinach, apple, and rice milk.  Can you imagine my grandmother’s face at the idea of that being called a meal? 

But on occasion it is so nice to return to the tastes of my grandmother’s kitchen.  There is a time and place for such nostalgic visits, and when the grandchildren come it is the perfect reason.  It gives me the chance to reminisce in my heart and to pass along traditions that began many generations ago. 

Yes, this is the time and my home is the place.  Thank you, Grandma, for the memories, great food, and traditions.

Beans and Cabbage

Great Northern White beans
½ head of cabbage
Vinegar to taste (approximately ¼ cup)
½ pound bacon
¼ cup of flour
Salt & pepper to taste
Soak beans overnight

In the morning, rinse the beans.  Place in a stock pot and cover with water.  Cook on medium heat, stirring often to prevent sticking.  Add salt and pepper.  Cook until beans are tender and water is reduced.

Chop cabbage into small pieces.  Add cabbage and vinegar to the cooked beans.  Cook about 30 minutes.  In a fry pan, cooked bacon that is chopped into small, bite-sized pieces.  Cook over low heat in a non-Teflon coated pan to bring out the fat.  When the bacon is crisp, remove it from pan.  Add the flour to the grease and whisk until blended.  Add the liquid from the beans and cabbage, a ladle-full at a time, then pour the thickened mixture into the pot of beans and cabbage.  Add the bacon bits.  Taste and add more salt and pepper as needed.  Add more water as needed.  Cook on very low heat for 30 minutes. 

The recipe for Beans and Cabbage is from my memory.  My grandmother never used a recipe book and neither do I.  Sometimes the end result is off; sometimes it’s the best I’ve ever made.

Beet Soup

Ham bone (not from a glazed ham)
One large potato, cut into bite-size pieces
Two cans sliced or whole beets (not pickled)
Sour cream
Vinegar (approximately ½ cup, but maybe more, depending on taste)
Salt and pepper
Macaroni (elbow), cooked

Put the ham bone in a large stock pot and cover with water.  Add whole onion, salt and pepper.  Cook on medium high heat until water is reduced by almost half, 45-60 minutes.  Add the two can of beets, marjoram, vinegar (as my grandmother used to say, you can always add more but can’t take it out, so be easy on the vinegar.  Add it, taste it, add more as needed), and potato.  Cook until potato is tender.  

Turn the heat off of the soup and allow to cool to lukewarm.

In a large bowl place the sour cream.  The amount depends on your taste; start with a ½ pint.  Add the lukewarm soup, one ladle-full at a time, whisking until about ¼ of the soup is mixed with the sour cream.  Transfer the sour cream/soup mixture to the large pot of soup. 
Turn the heat on very low to warm the soup, but NEVER bring to a boil.  You may add more sour cream at this time, depending on your taste.  Too much sour cream takes away from the nice ham & vinegar base of the soup. 

Serve with noodles.  Never put the noodles in the soup; store separately. 
Again, no exact recipe.  Sometimes it comes our perfectly, sometimes it’s an off day with too much of one thing and not enough of the other.

Wednesday, July 24, 2013

Next Installment of Aiden & Nana's NY Trip

When I’d planned out this weeklong trip for Aiden and I, I’d originally intended on visiting Civil War sites, even considered a trip to Gettysburg, but even the best laid plans……..  Oh, well, cemeteries and scenery would have to suffice. 
Aiden swears he saw a "ghost" flit from the
porch to inside this abandoned house!
Since we’d spent so much time in Amish country, it was necessary to stop for the night before making our way to Ohio. 

We stopped at a Days Inn in Erie, Pennsylvania and before we got settled, we made our way to Applebee’s Restaurant, a favorite of mine for their Santa Fe Chicken Salad.  I was disappointed to discover that they didn’t have that particular item on the menu; but aside from that the experience was memorable.  Why?  Because Aiden entertained the entire wait staff with his Amish puzzle. 
That coonskin cap he’s wearing, courtesy of his Uncle Mike, hardly left his head.  That alone brought attention to Aiden; his little trick just made him all the more endearing.  Wait until you see the pictures of him in the cap and accessorized with a fake mustache!

Once back at the hotel, I set up my computer near the pool so Aiden could swim.  I’d forgotten about intermittent rain in these parts and had to often shield my equipment from a drizzle.  As I sat under the umbrella Aiden awaited other kids to play with.  Before anyone else showed up, however, my little man showed a protective side to him.

I was seated on the far side of the pool and for some odd reason, a guy that came out of the hotel decided sitting in a seat next to me was the ideal spot, although there were empty seats all around the pool.  He sat down, put his hands on his knees and stared silently before him.  Within seconds, Aiden has crossed the pool, put his arms on the side and watched.  I raised my eyebrows to him, “What’s he doing?” my look conveyed.  Five minutes later, not a word spoken, the guy got up and left the area.  I thanked Aiden for looking out for me, my brave, eleven-year-old Man.

After a good night’s sleep, Aiden and I made our way to Youngstown, Ohio to visit an old Las Vegas friend.  Celeste and I met when in 1989 we opened Acres of Animals Pet Shop.  The store was located at Jones Blvd. and the 95 freeway.  We had to close two short years later, but my friendship with Celeste has endured.  Even though she moved from Las Vegas years ago, we have stayed in touch.  It was a great treat that I would be able to see her again.  And her daughter, Lisa, whom I’ve known since she was nine would be there, visiting herself from Colorado with her husband and four kids!  Aiden was also in for a great treat. 

July 4th was spent in the company of family – just the way I like to enjoy my holidays.  Celeste’s entire family, children, grandchildren, sisters, nieces, nephews, and mom all contributed to the potluck.  I was so happy to be there, and as you can see, so was Aiden.

The next days after our goodbyes, Aiden and I once again took to the road.  We were headed back to New York, but by way of Route 62, hoping to hit more Amish communities.  We didn’t, but the scenery we took in was everything I love about the northeastern woods – green trees, fields of flowers, and flowing rivers.  My enjoyment was palpable, but I started to feel a bit of anxiety as our arrival was expected by another family and I realized taking the back roads added hours to our trip.  Our four o’clock arrival time was pushed a couple of hours and I was feeling awful for holding anyone up.  Once we got on the New York Thruway, however, I knew we’d make better time. 
Next stop, Clarence, New York.  I’d spent nine years of my childhood in Clarence, leaving just after my freshman year in high school was over.  As I drove to our next destination, I was able to point out places to Aiden such as the location of the General Store where Nancy and I had gotten caught stealing candy (a great lesson on what not to do!), the street where I’d lived, the church where two of my brothers were married, and the Dry Cleaners that was once the location of a stop on the Underground Railroad. 

Finally, we arrived at the Gorny home.  Laura and her husband and five children waited their dinner for us.  Laura is the sister of my daughter, Erin’s husband.  We have spoken on the phone, gotten to know one another through Facebook, but it was such a joy to meet her in person.  Aiden was thrilled to have another set of kids, cousins this time, to play with.  The arrangement was for Aiden to spend the night while I went out with a few friends. 
The report I got back the next day when I went to pick him up was what a great time he’d had: exploring the woods behind the house and playing video games; this kid was racking up the summer memories, for sure!

Aiden (on left) with cousin Caleb

 Next Up………………. Chatty Cathy loses her voice

Saturday, July 20, 2013

Trip of a Lifetime: Aiden and Nana's Summer Vacation, Part I

In the blink of an eye my grandson Aiden will be all grown up.  On my fridge are photographs of him in his chubby, little boy phase.

I look at those pictures and can’t quite grasp the idea that soon he will have other, more important things on his mind than spending time with his Nana.  For now, however, he is happy to be in my company and I’m making as many memories with him as I can.  This summer we did another trip; just the two of us and we had the time of our lives.

Four years ago I attempted to cross the country with Aiden (See New York a Bust).  We made it halfway there then I decided I was pooped so we turned around and went back the way we’d come.  It wasn’t a failed trip; we still had some great experiences, but the final destination had been my hometown in New York State.  This summer we succeeded in making it there, thanks to Southwest Airlines. 

Aiden turned eleven years old on the flight from Los Angeles to Buffalo and he got the royal treatment: applause from the airline crew and passengers and a chance to meet the pilot and sit in the cockpit.

When we arrived in Buffalo, I took him to a local treasure, Antoinette’s Sweets, a place my grandmother took me to when I was a little kid.  They still make their own ice cream, whipped cream and candy right on the premises. 

When the owners, Mr. and Mrs. Morphis, were still alive, my husband and I became friends with them and we always got a behind-the-scenes tour.  This visit I was content to sit with Aiden and share some of those memories with him.

We spent the first night with my big brother, Dominic.  He took Aiden to a kid’s paradise: Vidler’s in East Aurora.  Aiden came back with a bagful of treasure and then we went to a local diner for some New York fare: Beef on Weck

and chicken wings.  I was home! 

The next day Aiden and I headed south through Pennsylvania on our way to Ohio.  Our first stop was to Amish Country where Aiden saw for the first time people that live without electricity, horse and buggy transportation, horse-powered field plowing, kids with funny haircuts (and bad teeth unfortunately, but a good lesson to him to keep up his own tooth hygiene), and a way of life so foreign to a kid that lives in L.A.  We went to all the different shops and his favorite by far was the Toy Store where Amish-made puzzles delighted him and where he plunked down his own money and came away with a puzzle that for the rest of the trip he stumped anyone willing to try the challenge.

On the road again we indulged in my favorite hobby, and now Aiden’s, and visited old, old cemeteries. 

This interest of mine is one I’ve passed on to both my girls and now Aiden will probably keep up the practice. 

We look for the oldest person, interesting names and seek out war veterans.

Our greatest find was an ex-slave cemetery, one I would have missed had I not made a U-turn to read the historic marker.

Next installment:  Fourth of July Fun in Youngstown, Ohio

Monday, July 1, 2013

"When I Was a Kid..............": what the younger generation doesn't know

When I was a kid, black and white television as still the “new” thing. 
I’m only 55 years old, but that little fact is very hard to believe because today there are so many technological advances. 
As a historian I think about people from my grandmother’s generation (most are all gone now) that saw their lives change from the horse and buggy era all the way through the invention of air travel and computers.  I can’t imagine what life was like before air conditioning, electricity, and indoor plumbing.  So when my grandson expressed curiosity about a piece of technology from my generation, I considered that he must be just as much in awe of how we “old folks” got by in such a primitive world. 
What was it that had him stumped?  A rotary dial phone!      

“I wonder how that thing worked,” he said aloud as we watched a television program in which a character used one to make a phone call.  I didn’t have the heart to tell him that, Ummmm, I'm very familiar with how one of those contraptions works. 

We sure have come a long way with phones, haven’t we?  I don’t have to expound on that topic, but suffice it to say that I remember when, living in Corfu (New York) we had a party line and could hear the phone conversations of our neighbors and that my grandmother’s home sat on a township boundary line so that if we wanted to call the neighbor catty corner from our own house, it was a long distance call! 

Yep, I’m now of the generation of wonders: how did we get by without WiFi access wherever we go, phones that don’t just make calls but allow us to stream live TV, and Facetime? 
I wish I were going to be around to hear my grandson’s grandson say, “Hey, what was it like living on planet Earth?”