Back in 2010, I submitted an entry to Anthony Bourdain’s Medium Raw Challenge. My essay was ranked #39 out of almost 2000 entries, but it didn’t win a slot in the top 10 finalists. I’m still pretty darn proud of it, so I’ll share it with you here:
Canning jars: aligned in flawless ranks like fat, glass-bellied soldiers in my grandmother’s pantry, staring out from my Pappaw’s handcrafted cabinets. Blood-hued tomatoes. Golden-syruped apples and pears. The best tangy-sweet bread-‘n’-butter pickles I ever tasted. Mammaw rolled out buttery crusts in that kitchen, draped them into aged pie plates, filled them with a jar of whatever fruit we grandkids chose. (My favorite? Reminisce over grandma’s apple pie if you want, but I loved those crisp pears.) While pie baked, filling the kitchen with scents of mingled care and caramelization, Mammaw’s alchemy transformed dough scraps into magical braids of flaky pastry, oozing with butter and cinnamon and brown sugar.
Idyllic, but not the whole picture. Mammaw also made triple-decker mayonnaise sandwiches—Duke’s on Sunbeam white, naturally—finishing her lunch construction by slurping a dollop of fatty egg-goo straight from the jar. Her other favorite foods? Sackfuls of greasy three-bite Krystal hamburgers, sugar-crunchy marshmallow Peeps (I once witnessed her gorge down an entire 12-count package), and those nature-defying, coral-tinted, circus peanut sponge-candies that still scare the hell out of me.
Yes, my memories of her food are a constant battle between nostalgia and disgust. How she could embody such culinary conflict always escaped me, but I realize: food, eating, cooking, sharing your kitchen’s bounty—these things are personal.
Coming of age in the 1950s, my Mammaw beheld a large-scale, mechanized food revolution that promised hearty home-cooking to even the least confident cooks. She may have been raised on baking and canning, but she was later charmed by instant butter-flavored mashed potato flakes, the ease of frozen Salisbury steaks (complete with gravy, ready in fifteen minutes!), and the triumphant pop of refrigerated biscuit dough bursting from its depressurized cardboard can. For my grandmother, convenience cooking was as much a part of her as her own grandma’s German potato salad.
My own food heritage is just as varied, encompassing the smoky char of my dad’s made-from-scratch burgers, fresh off the grill; the juicy, spicy tenderness of my mom’s meatballs in slow-cooked marinara—but also the eager anticipation of Friday pizza takeout with that rare treat of fizzy-cold Coke, or the once-a-year indulgence in sugary cereal (which Mom only allowed on Christmas mornings). I’ve lately learned the pleasure of cooking—really cooking—baking yeasty, crusty breads; simmering sauces from my husband’s homemade stock; constructing spur-of-the-moment soups and tarts from farmer’s market veggies. (I still savor a Coke sometimes, too.)
Do I cook well? Did my Mammaw cook well? By my definition—cooking food we love for people we love—I can answer both questions: yes.
I still cringe when a spoon squelches around in a mayo jar, but I also still remember Mammaw’s contented smile as she tucked into mushy, white-on-white sandwiches on summer afternoons. And I’ll never forget her pear pie’s perfume, her kitchen’s warmth, or the sugary-tart crunch of those bread-‘n’-butter pickles.