This weekend it has been rainy and cold. I don’t think we’ve been outside the house for more than an hour total. It’s been a great weekend to just stay in and cook. Mick talked to his mom this morning and the first thing she said was she got up and said to his dad, “I’m gonna cook today”. Beans and cornbread was on her mind. And she told us that she made Granny’s Cornbread. I need to make that with her. It’s definitely going in the cookbook.
So, what do you call comfort food? For me, it would be something I ate when someone was taking care of me. Those foods come from my mom, her mom, and Mary.
Grandmaw Barton was a self-reliant person who raised five kids, and they became self-reliant too. It was rare for someone to take care of them. But, what it meant to be on the other side of that is that you were well taken care of. I remember the foods that she made which made me feel comfortable, at home and loved. She never wrote down a recipe or even owned a cookbook. Mom tried a few times to get a recipe or two from her, but she would rattle off that you put this and that in it. She just knew how to make it. I know that’s the stuff that grandmaw legends are made of, but it’s the truth. There was nothing I wouldn’t eat at her house, ever.
In the summer I stayed with her for a couple of weeks. She only lived about 30 miles from us, but it seemed like a world away when I was a kid. One of the other things I liked about staying with her and my other grandparents in the summer was that I was an only child! In a house with 3 older brothers and friends always at the house, being alone was not lonely, it was peaceful.
She had a portion of a garden that she and her neighbor put out and then she grew a few things of her own just outside her kitchen window, in a little bed she made. She could watch it while she sat and read the paper or her Bible and enjoyed her cup of coffee in the morning. When she was just cooking for herself, she could see what was ready to pick and made a pot of something she would eat on all day.
There was a pot of new potatoes, green beans, and corn that she would fix that I loved. Sometimes she would put a little ground beef in it, but I liked it best when she left the meat out and put just a little sugar in the water. I have tried to make it myself, but I’ve never gotten it quite right so I may be wrong about how she made it. But, I did watch her make it a few times. She would also slice yellow squash longways in half, lay it out on a sheet pan and put a little butter and salt on it. She would bake it until it started to brown on top. Her cooking was so simple it seemed, but it had the best flavor. To this day I prefer vegetables with very little seasoning. You can really taste what it’s supposed to taste like. To me, earthy flavors in vegetables are comforting and I feel connected to grandmaw. It makes sense too because she was so connected to the earth. She could grow anything, and it seemed to grow overnight. And, my mom made the best meatloaf. I don’t know if grandmaw showed her how to make it because I don’t ever remember meatloaf at grandmaw’s house. I helped mom with that many times, so it is one of those things that I make without thinking about it, which is how grandmaw cooked. She also made really good fried potatoes, but I have to say that Mick’s are better. I’ve said before that he makes the best I’ve ever had.
In a couple of months, grandmaw would have been 102. I think about her often when I’m cooking. I like a fancy meal every now and then, but something simple is comforting to me.
Mary was also an incredible cook. She could bake be best homemade rolls. I watched her make them many, many times and finally, I said “I need you to teach me how to do that!” She said that she learned from her grandfather. He began to bake bread when he was in the Army. He baked bread for soldiers during the Civil War! Well, now I had to learn how. What a legacy to pass along. And, it wasn’t about which side he was on, but that he fed his men and then passed on what he knew. I haven’t made her rolls in a very long time. I think it’s time I do. I know exactly what I would eat them with too. She made the most tender and flavorful Country Fried Steak and Gravy you would ever have. I would also make a pan of her fried squash. I guess you can tell squash is one of my favorites. I don’t know how she was so patient with frying it. She would bread each piece and lay it out in the pan and turn each one when it was time. When that pan was done, she would start all over again until she had a plate full of these golden medallions for the table.
Her Country Fried Steak was perfectly brown, with crispy edges of breading that held so much flavor. See, you can even make flour unbelievably irresistible if you do it the right way. The pan would have little bits of what we called “brownies” where breading would fall off and fry up like crunchy little nuggets. She would scoop those out along with the steaks when she was done. They were the best appetizers if we could grab some off the plate before she put it on the table. Her gravy was just thick enough to sit on top of the steaks and hold on when you lifted a bite to your mouth. Oh my gosh, I can taste it right now if I close my eyes. Creamy and crunchy mouthfuls of heaven. She never saw cooking as something she had to do. She loved it. She would put on her apron when she entered the kitchen in the morning and didn’t take it off until the dishes were washed up after supper.
So, what did I make to feel comforted? Everything. Yesterday I made mom’s meatloaf and today I made Mary’s country fried steak with Mick’s fried potatoes. I usually get him to make them for me, telling him I can’t make them as good as he does. Today I may have ruined my chances of him ever making them again. Apparently, I did pretty good, but probably not as good, but acceptable. This morning for breakfast I fried up some bacon and sausage patties, eggs, and biscuits. Don’t tell anyone, but I used frozen biscuits. After the bacon came out of the skillet, I tossed in some cornmeal and made what I am calling Gristmill Gravy. Some call it sawmill gravy or cornmeal gravy. I saved what I had left and warmed it for the country fried steak tonight. Before dinner, I got in the kitchen and developed a new recipe for Apple Bread.
I am full. I am happy. I am comforted.