Food and Stories

Days like today always get me thinking about the comfort food of my childhood and the people who provided it. I haven’t written much about it for anyone but myself, but my grandmother died in early January almost two years ago. It wasn’t unexpected; she wasn’t in a lot of pain; but that didn’t make it any easier. It’s one of those things that you aren’t prepared for no matter how far in advance you know it’s coming.

After she was gone, I cooked and I wrote. Those were my ways of saying good-bye. And while I was doing both I started thinking about how important food was in her story.

She grew up in a sharecropper shack in north Mississippi in the 1920s. They were one of those families who didn’t feel the effects of the Depression because they were already living on such a thin margin. She always talked about how they ate — the watered down soups that would stretch into two meals for seven people, the excitement over a piece of meat coming home, the lunches she packed for her younger brother and sister instead of for herself.

The first job she had that took her away from the cotton fields was to work with food. She made pies and waited tables in a little cafe when she was 14. She got married at 17 and went straight to Gulfport, Mississippi, with her husband and the Army. Food was important there, too. She was proud that his friends brought her chickens to fry for them because they liked the way she did it. And she did do it even though she couldn’t eat chicken herself without getting sick. She spent $40 back then for a cooking encyclopedia because she wanted to learn more than she knew about food from all over the world that she had never tasted.

When my mother and aunt were growing up, she would get up at 4:00am to make breakfast — fried chicken for my grandfather, a hamburger for my aunt, a perfect fried egg for my mother. She did this every day. And then she went to work.

When I came along, food was something she could give me. Cornbread, soups, cakes, and pies — she made them all something special for me. Yes, I was spoiled. If I asked for anything back then, I got it. But it meant a lot to her to be able to give it to me. I remember her fixing graham crackers and milk for me when I didn’t feel like eating anything else. Hot mugs of Ovaltine (It was more nutritious than cocoa.) during the winter. Coffee milk to make me feel all grown up.

There were foods that I think we all took for granted. Every year for Christmas she made a coconut cake for my grandfather. It was a lot of work – from cracking and draining the coconut and grating the meat to boiling the frosting and putting it all together. It was his favorite, but we all loved it. He died when I was 14, and she never made another coconut cake.

I made the food for her wake. It wasn’t something I had to do. It wasn’t something she would have asked me to do. But it was important to me to give food back to her. I made things she would have loved — pimento cheese, cheese straws, key lime cookies, potted meat. It was a lot of work. I cried a lot while I was making it. But it was what I needed to do for her, for me.

Days like today are the ones I miss her most. These are the days when I would call her and spend an hour on the phone talking about when she was a little girl or when my mother was growing up or when she was herself. And those calls would always end with her asking me what I was making for dinner.

Coffee Milk

Total Time: 10 minutes

Yield: 1 serving

Yes, there is as much sugar as there is coffee in this. Yes, that's not a lot of coffee in relation to the milk. Yes, that's a lot of sugar. But that's the way it's supposed to be. What you're looking for is a barely brown sweet drink with just a hint of actual coffee flavor.

You can serve this hot. When my grandmother gave it to me hot, she always put an ice cube in it to cool it down enough for me to drink it without burning my mouth. You can add cocoa or chocolate syrup to coffee milk if you have a child who wants chocolate. Think of it as a mini mocha.

You can also make it with tea. I prefer a more bitter tea most of the time, but it's also really good with Darjeeling if you can get around doing that to a really great tea. And if you're an adult having a child moment, feel free to splash in some Bailey's or Kahlua or cognac or any other "seasoning" of your choice.

Ingredients

  • 1 cup whole milk, divided
  • 2 tablespoons sugar
  • 2 tablespoons cold coffee

Instructions

  1. Dissolve the sugar in 1/4 cup of the milk.
  2. Stir the coffee and the rest of the cold milk into the mixture until blended.
  3. Serve in a big cup for little hands.
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