(Originally published September 18, 2013)
This time of year always reminds me of my Grandma Parker. Wandering through the farmers’ markets amid stacks of big, aromatic cantaloupes—or “mushmelons,” as she would have called them—I can’t help but remember her carefully slicing a small melon in half, scooping out the seeds, and sprinkling it liberally with ground black pepper before digging in, while I looked askance at her choice of seasoning. That, with a slice of Roman Meal whole grain toast, was her daily summer breakfast, while in winter the melon might be replaced by half a grapefruit—salted, of course. Though unlike my mother, I never adopted Grandma’s fruit seasoning habits, she did instill an appreciation of fresh fruit and whole grain bread in what was a predominantly Wonder Bread world in 1970s small-town Illinois.
I asked some friends and family members about their food memories, and it seemed to bring back a flood for many. My father, the youngest in a large family living on a hard-scrabble dairy farm in northern Illinois, remembered all the luscious pears he and his seven siblings would gobble up as soon as they ripened and fell from the tree. And who can forget the heavenly smell of good things baking in the oven—pies, cakes, and especially breads? Dad can still call up the smell that filled the house on baking day, when his mother made enough crusty loaves and dinner rolls to feed her large family for the next few days. The taste of the warm, yeasty bread dripping with butter fresh from their own dairy still brings a smile to his face as he describes it to me.
My mother’s most vivid food memory of her maternal grandmother also involves dairy and fresh-picked fruit: the thick cream from her grandmother’s single cow, poured over the blackberries she’d be sent out to gather in her grandparents’ northern Missouri farmstead. Since those infrequent visits south to pay respects to her rather dour grandparents were fraught with scary trips to the dark, spider-filled outhouse and cold baths in a galvanized metal tub, my mother was happy take a little comfort in a sweet, creamy treat.
Family friend Patty H. never got meet her own grandmother Lelia, who’d passed away long before Patty’s birth, but she did inherit her grandmother’s recipe cards, including one for grape wine (follow this link to find the recipe). Patty hasn’t tried it yet, but she’s passed it on to me so I can share it with you—let us know how it turns out if you have a grape arbor and keep meaning to give home wine-making a try. We’re not sure what variety of grapes her grandmother used, or how she mashed her grapes, but Patty has a feeling there was some stomping going on.
My parents tell me they still associate severe storms—especially tornadoes—with stored garden bounty. When they were growing up, every time a severe storm threatened—a not infrequent occurrence in the Midwest—parents always rushed their children to the nearest family root cellar. Just as in the Wizard of Oz, people stepped down into cozy cellars, closed the overhead doors tight, and sat in safety amid quart jars of tomatoes, green beans, and peaches, and bins of potatoes, onions, and carrots, while chaos reigned overhead.
My own taste memories of this time of year remain vivid since I keep reliving them every time I go for a summer feast at my parents’ house. Growing up on a farm, every summer dinner—especially Sunday dinner—offered whatever was abundant in the garden that week, with a main course of whatever beef, chicken, or pork my mother pulled from our huge chest freezer. From the wilted lettuce salads of early spring, to pots of green beans and new potatoes, on through the plates of thickly sliced tomatoes, bowls of cucumber and onion salad, pickled beets, and the much-anticipated fresh sweet corn of later summer—we ate it then, and we still eat it when I bring my family to visit now. (Special note: Follow the cucumber salad link above to find a brand new recipe, submitted by Lucy Brenner.)
I didn’t realize how lucky we were back then to have so much fresh, nutritious food so readily available, and I’d love to be able to share that experience with the many kids growing up now in “food deserts,” where fresh fruits and vegetables are an unaffordable, hard-to-find luxury. If you’re interested in sharing any of your own fresh produce with those with less access, or if you would like to find affordable or free sources of fresh foods, go to Ample Harvest and type in your zip code. You’ll find contact info for the Central Missouri Food Bank, SERVE Food Pantry, and other places in your area.
When I asked my friend Zea what the coming of autumn meant to her as she grew up on a Callaway County farm, she thought of her mom’s pumpkin pies. But even though she loved the smell of cinnamon and nutmeg wafting through the farmhouse, and helping her mother crimp the crusts, she could never abide eating the pie itself—a texture thing, she supposes. However, she sent me her mom Julia’s recipe for pumpkin bread, which holds a much fonder place in her taste memory. Since pumpkins are just beginning to appear in the markets, it’s a good time to start collecting those recipes you’ll be dying to try between now and Thanksgiving.
What are your favorite food memories? Send me a message at email@example.com and share!