My Family Table
By Marsha Tennant
In my childhood, the table…usually the kitchen table…was the heart and soul of the family. It was the gathering place for everyone to come together and share a daily meal, a birthday or holiday. Each event was highlighted with a favorite dish. I loved fresh coconut cake for my birthday, pecan pie for Christmas and pineapple upside down cake for the Fourth of July. Baked beans (not canned) showed up at every picnic. Ham and congealed salad were the perennial stars at Easter. These signature recipes permeated my memories and senses as I grew up, moved away and returned from time to time.
I hold three family treasures close to my heart and in my aged recipe box. There is no price I would take for them. I look at them often, run my fingers across the lists of ingredients and smile at the stains and tattered edges. I see the three women who have meant the most to me. Each helped shape the woman I became. They added a necessary ingredient in my life at just the right moment. I owe them much. All were patient cooks who knew what was needed for perfect results. I have thought of them often as I have attempted their signature recipes. What I have come to realize is that it isn’t so important that I replicate the actual dish but that I understand why they cooked them over and over. Their recipes were tangible acts of love for the family.
Grandma’s chocolate pie was the ultimate gift to her family. We had it for birthdays and many Sunday dinners after church. We always had a dessert on Sunday, but for their only granddaughter the pie was what I prayed for on the way out of the church. The screen door slammed and a rowdy little girl with her nose up in the air hoped to get a whiff of Hershey’s cocoa. The fried chicken, mashed potatoes and fresh green beans were delicious, but I could hardly contain myself waiting for the pie. The meringue was piled high with perfect peaks that had been browned under the oven broiler. The warm chocolate custard slid down my throat like velvet. I stand in my air conditioned kitchen and still cannot get the meringue to peak at an amazing height like Grandma did. She created her magic in a kitchen with just a corner floor fan that hummed a soft hymn as it spread the warm scents across the room.
Mom’s chicken and dumplings never won a national contest, but they showed up at every church covered dish supper and family special occasion. Most conversations with mom now always lead to the recipe. Several members of the family have attempted the recipe. We are a work in progress. Recently, with heart failure drawing closer, we brought her to my house. She stood, with the help of a walker. She held a vodka tonic in one hand and recited priceless tips for dumplings to my daughter and husband. “Just three ingredients,” she laughed. “So simple.” Age may have robbed her of her day-to-day memory, but she was sharp as a tack recalling the first time she watched her grandmother roll the dough or the secrets that my dad’s mother (Grandma) shared about how to make the chicken broth richer. I hope it is in my cooking DNA.
A Waterford bowl sits on my dining room table. It is Nana’s potato salad bowl. Like most family heirlooms, this one has a story. Nana, my mother-in-law, was known for many recipes: banana pudding, cornbread dressing and her potent eggnog. I mastered the potato salad early in my marriage. The secret was the ratio of ingredients. I had to practice, but finally discovered just the right proportions of potatoes, eggs and onions. About twenty-five years ago our “couple” Christmas gift was a beautiful, scalloped-edge, engraved Waterford bowl. “For your potato salad,” she said. What a way to serve a simple dish. The meaning of this gesture did not escape me. She was giving me her stamp of approval. I always smile when I reach for the potato salad bowl.
I like to cook and have my own special creations like spaghetti sauce and Brunswick Stew. My family loves them, but the ones from Grandma, Mom and Nana are requested the most. When we sit down to eat we travel back in our memories to meals we remember. Those birthdays or holidays we shared bring comfort and joy to the moment. The food stirs the senses and once again we are sitting at the family table. And these fabulous women – who cooked – always join us for the occasion.
When I walk into my kitchen today, I am not alone. Whether we know it or not, none of us is. We bring fathers and mothers and kitchen tables, and every meal we have ever eaten. Food is never just food. It’s also a way of getting at something else: who we are, who we have been, and who we want to be.
About this writer
- Marsha Tennant is the author of the children’s book, Margaret, Pirate Queen. She was recently published in AARP Bulletin and Mary Jane’s Farm. She and her husband retired and moved to the beach from Calabash in an attempt to downsize and spend time with their new grandson. A second Pirate Queen book is circling while porch sitting these days!