Finger Magic

By Diane DeVaughn Stokes

Thanksgiving always conjures up wonderful warm memories of years gone by; living with my mom, grandmother, grandfather, aunt and cousin, all in a two-bedroom apartment. Our home was tight and cozy, but filled with love.

Nana loved to cook, and I got my love of the kitchen and all yummy things from her. I can still see the pea-like beads of dough squishing through her wrinkled hands as she kneaded the piecrust for the apple pies that would make Paula Deen seem like a novice.

But when I think about Nana and her incredible cooking skills, the one thing that stands out, was the use of her pointy finger. She was a whiz without all the multiple tools we have clogging up our kitchen drawers today. I actually laughed out loud last month as I wandered through the kitchen stores at the Tanger Outlets thinking about all the things Nana did with that amazing second finger of her right hand and one single large spoon.

For example, take a bowl filled with cake batter. Nana could wipe that sucker clean with a few finger swipes and never waste a drop, even though occasionally she left just enough in there so that I could lick the bowl. She used that same finger to wipe out an egg shell after cracking it open and spilling the contents into a frying pan. Keep in mind she was a child of the depression era and never wasted a thing.

Another finger skill that Nana perfected was the art of indenting the pie crust edges so each and every one looked identical to the one next to it. One single finger press after another, she would encircle that pie with precision.

But my favorite finger memory of Nana’s kitchen capers was her heavenly gingerbread. I recall how she tediously whipped the gingerbread cake batter into folds, claiming that she was putting air into the mixture to make the cake lighter in texture. After it was baked to a chocolate brown with an aroma of brown sugar and molasses that I can almost taste as I write this article, she let it sit for an hour before the magic happened.

Nana would take that amazing finger and poke into the cake like the Pillsbury Dough Boy gets poked in his belly, being sure to make each poke the same size, spaced the same distance apart, making it look like an unused peg board. Then she would pour her buttery, lightly-flavored lemon sauce made from confectioner’s sugar over the top of the gingerbread and into the fingered holes. It was breathtaking to watch, not only for a child of five, like I was the first time I remember her making it, but for anyone who happened to be lucky enough to see this culinary genius at work.

Recently, on the food channel I saw one of the hosts making gingerbread, and I watched eagerly to see what she would do when it came time to make the topping. You guessed it…this chef did not use her finger, but the rounded end of her wooden spoon.

Yes, Nana was an artist in the kitchen with every meal, not just desserts, and she knew it. I guess as the oldest of eleven siblings she honed her skills early, helping her mother prepare meals for the family on a two burner, wood-burning stove, in the little community of Browntown, Pennsylvania, outside of Wilkes Barre. It was there that Nana learned how to “stretch a dollar,” as she liked to say. Thank goodness for that, as we were two single moms, two kids and grandparents living under one roof with very little money. But I never knew that then. I wanted for nothing. I was surrounded by love and never went to bed hungry.

Thanksgiving was the most glorious meal with a spread of delicacies that must have cost my grandparents a fortune. That buttered roasted, twenty-pound turkey was picture-perfect every year and could have been featured on the cover of Southern Living. Nana knew just how to slice it up, something I have yet to master. Perhaps it was from all the chickens she had to catch and cook for her family growing up. Yet, it was always her desserts that I relished the most.

I find that when I am in my kitchen, I feel closest to Nana, mimicking her every move and honing my own finger fun. I still have not mastered her homemade piecrust, but I’ve got that gingerbread down to a science. Whether it’s cooking for the holidays or just preparing lunch any day of the week, my finger is busy cleaning every bowl, pot or dish, not wasting a single dollop, in Nana’s beautiful, treasured memory.

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