This helps me gain confidence that Spring is coming. What a great time to write about my grandma and her gardening and cooking. The real story is my mom asked me to write a piece for an upcoming cookbook featuring cooks from Emerald, Nebraska. Can’t say no to her! Here’s what I sent. The blanks are for mom to fill in (she’s good with dates and details).
My grandma lived in Emerald, Nebraska, from ________ to _________. I enjoyed many visits to her Emerald homestead, but grandma wasn’t living there when I went. It had been passed to her son. During my life, she lived in a tidy bungalow in Lincoln, Nebraska, in a neighborhood called the Russian Bottoms.
The Emerald homestead was a working farm with many acres dedicated to ___________ and ___________. There was a big vegetable garden near the house. Grandmother and her kids took care of that. She grew _______________, and canned what the family didn’t eat during the growing season. These are just stories to me, though, shared with me by grandmother and my mother. We should fast forward some to my direct experience, when grandma was in the Russian Bottoms tending a big garden there.
The work would start every spring after her son tilled the soil. The rest was all grandma. I remember her planting tomatoes, onions and cucumbers. There was more, but I remember these plants because some of the tomatoes were prepared into spicy catsup, then canned, and the cucumbers were prepared as sweet pickles, then canned. Both were the best I have ever tasted. In the end it was the tomato catsup that took the blue ribbon for me. Spicy and complex. Store bought catsup just tasted like sugar by comparison. I don’t think grandma had the recipe written down. When I asked for it, she just listed the spices from memory. I recreated it and always have many pints in the freezer.
In honor of grandma’s methods, I’ll just list the ingredients as she listed them for me. You can work out the quantities to your tastes. Tomatoes (skinned and seeded–grandma used the big round tomatoes she grew, but I grow paste tomatoes and use those), onions, mustard seed, black pepper, cayenne pepper, allspice, cinnamon, salt, brown sugar and vinegar. I never watched grandma make it, so the rest is just how I do it. Blend the tomatoes and onions and cook them down until half the quantity remains. Add the spices and sugar and continue reducing until it is as thick as you want it. Grandma’s wasn’t as thick as store bought catsup, so mine isn’t either. Finally, add the vinegar (a little at a time until it tastes right to you) and cook for just a few minutes more. This cans well and that’s what grandma always did. I did for years, but now I just freeze it.
Grandma also loved geraniums. As I remember it, geraniums were the only decorative plant to which she paid much attention. She’d grow them every summer and take clippings in the fall. The clippings would go in water until they rooted, then they’d be transplanted into soil in tin cans and placed in her window. There they’d wait patiently to be put out again in spring. This she’d do, along with the garden, every year, like clockwork, until she was _____. Then it was time to sell her home in the Russian Bottoms and move to a nursing home. Before the house sold, I took clippings from her geraniums and have kept them going using grandma’s methods to this day. I am looking at one soaking up spring sunshine as I write this.
Grandma’s gardening and cooking is what I remember best about her. That, and her love of hosting the family’s Sunday dinner. Hosting was a chance to share what she had grown and to listen to her family talk. She didn’t speak much. She was too busy working. Others pitched in, but she was always at it. It was accepted that grandma wouldn’t sit with us to eat the huge and delicious meal until everyone was done. There was a place for her at the table, but it was mostly empty. If everyone seemed sated, and then over sated, she might make a plate for herself. Sometimes!
I learned from her steadfast example the importance of patience, love and the joys of hosting and sharing food. I also learned from her that listening is better than talking (you learn so much more). I have yet to meet a person with as much love in her heart as grandma, and I’d like to think some of that came from the quiet, patient work required to make a garden flourish. I think about her every day and miss her so very much. She was one of a kind!
Sappy, but there is no other way to think or write about my grandma. That’s that!
Mahar’s was open on Sunday (a rare treat). I enjoyed a cask conditioned Blue Herron Pale Ale from the Mendocino brewers up north. Lacey, a Southern Tier Oak Unearthly IPA. Both were real standouts. I share what we drink mostly for our reference. I sometimes have a hard time remembering what I enjoy. If it is recorded here, I can find it and enjoy it again.
Time to work! Have a productive week.