Hidden Kitchen Mama
Kitchens and mothers. The food they cooked or didn't. The stories they told or couldn't. In honor of Mother's Day, The Kitchen Sisters linger in the kitchen — the room in the house that counts the most, that smells the best, where families gather and children are fed, where all good parties begin and end. The room where the best stories are told.
Story Notes: Calls and Recipes
We've received loads of calls and stories over the past year about your mothers, grandmothers, mother-in-laws, and aunties. We've gathered a small collection for you to listen to. Here's one of the stories that haunts us the most:
"Hi, I am Margie Carr and I have a story about my grandmother. Even though it's been nearly 25 years since our last visit, for me, Sunday afternoon still means sitting down for a huge meal at my grandmother's house. The meals always started at 3 o'clock. Of course, Grandma never sat with us, not even at Christmas or Thanksgiving. She was always hard at work chastising us for spilling our Coke's or finishing the hash browns which were fried in lard and so greasy good they would just slide down your throat.
"These meals that Grandma made were not particularly nutritious. For example, we never had salad and the fruits and vegetables always came from a can. As a kid, what I always looked forward to were the desserts. Especially her strawberry shortcake and rosette cookies. Every holiday we could count on pumpkin pie, apple strudel and povititsa, a Croatian nut bread made with English walnuts.
"Only once did I get to see her make povititsa and that was because it usually happened at 4 in the morning. But I can remember watching her roll them and pull the dough with her hands, stretching it out so it would cover the entire area of the kitchen table. It was as thin as paper before she covered it with nuts and rolled it into the loaf pan.
"Grandma didn't waste time doting on herself or us. There was no gooey or phony affection either. Her energy was spent on maintaining her house and garden. Even as a kid in the 1970s, I knew she was one of a dying breed. She was a second-generation immigrant from Croatia and she knew the value of a dollar. She saved any piece of tin foil that came her way. The strings from the newspapers were rolled into a large ball and stored away in her kitchen for any one of a myriad of jobs. She also sewed all of her own clothes made from feed sack material that she got from her job in Kansas City's garment district. These colorful prints, which were visible all over her house in the form of curtains, tablecloths, bedspreads, aprons and napkins came to epitomize my grandmother as much as her cooking did.
"And perhaps because Grandma was such a 'no-nonsense' woman, I don't think she approved of her son's choice of a wife. Mom had an aristocratic air and even though I wasn't present at those early meals, I don't think those two found too much to talk about. Grandma's attitude towards Mom was probably not helped by the fact that my mother insisted to Dad that they move away from his working-class roots into an upper middle-class suburb of Kansas City after they were married. Grandma didn't have much patience for Mom's refined manners or mood swings and I'm sure that Mom's mental illness, which baffled the medical establishment at the time, was totally mystifying to Grandma. My mom's manic depression, which eventually ended my parents' marriage, was also the reason that Dad won custody of all of us.
"I don't have too many memories of Mom attending to our needs as children and I never felt that she fulfilled that role, at least in the traditional sense of how a mother's presence is felt in a house. But, once she was gone, any illusion of normality for us was over. Our world was a mess. We were six children living in a house without a mother and our dad was working full time. The day was pretty much pandemonium. We were a disheveled bunch living in a dirty, noisy, chaotic house. We clearly didn't belong in the neighborhood where we were living and the neighbors' attitude alternated between pity and disgust. But those Sunday afternoon meals sitting around Grandma's dining room table provided the sense of family stability and routine that we lacked the other six days of the week. For those meals were not so much about the food — although the leftovers that usually lasted till Wednesday were a godsend for Dad. But those meals were Grandma's way of caring for her son and her grandchildren and both loving and fulfilling a duty she felt to us. We as kids were provided not only with nourishment but also tradition and strength. By giving us those Sunday afternoons, Grandma gave my dad and us her endurance, her steadiness and herself. In a real sense, they served as the glue that held our family together during those years of my childhood."
While we were working on this story, we were immersed in Molly O'Neill's striking new book, Mostly True: A Memoir of Family, Food and Baseball. Molly's mother leaps off the page and so does her father. And of course, a kitchen is at the heart of it all.
1. "It's A Blessing", Maria Muldaur sings with Bonnie Raitt, from I'm a Woman, 30 Years of Maria Muldaur (Rhino Records)
2. "Blue Drag" from Gaucho, Recorded Live at the Django Festival, San Francisco (Vgo Recordings)
3. "Bound for Canaan" (Sieber & Davis) from Music by Ry Cooder (Warner Bros.)
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