My Mother's Cookbook
My two brothers and I called our paternal grandmother Buddy. She was an important presence in our lives because she lived with us and showed her love in many comforting ways. She had married our grandfather after his first wife, who was Buddy's older sister, died of tuberculosis. Buddy was a school teacher of thirty-five and on her way to becoming an old maid at the time of her marriage in 1899. Grandfather Cullison was fifty-one years old when they married and had already sired a family of six children. Together they produced three more children, my father being the oldest and only son.
When I was growing up, Buddy's bedroom was at the top of the front stairs in our family's late-Victorian house. She often looked after us while our mother was busy, and we spent quite a lot of time in her room. Four long windows looked out to the elm trees along the front and side yards, and they were often open to catch the summer breezes. In May we could smell the blossoming lilac bushes beside the screened porch below the windows. Buddy told us stories of her childhood in eastern Iowa just after the Civil War, and she always said she loved us "a whole world- full" whenever we asked.
The contents of the cubby holes of Buddy's ornate oak desk fascinated me, postcards from places I'd never been to, poems and aphorisms she admired, and letters from relatives I didn't know existed. Among those many fascinations was a pomander of dried orange studded with cloves; in earlier times such pomanders were used as air fresheners and moth repellents. I liked to hold the orange close to my nose and inhale the sweet aromas of citrus and spice.
Buddy was an easy-going soul by nature and necessity, because she had ceded her place as mistress of the house to my mother when she came to live there after marrying my father in 1927. Buddy had been widowed a few years earlier and depended upon her son to keep the family law practice solvent and to provide for her and other family members who might need a home. Giving up dominion over a kitchen is not easy for a woman who likes to cook, and Buddy had been a fine cook whose culinary skills were rooted in the 19th Century. But she accepted the transition with grace, occupying herself with reading, playing the songs of Steven Foster on the piano, crocheting table cloths and place mats, visiting relatives and friends, and amusing her grandchildren. Buddy lived with us until she died twenty-five years later, at the age of eighty-seven, and many of her recipes were our favorites and are included in my mother's cookbook.
Iowa ranks first in corn production among the twelve North Central states, so it's no wonder that we enjoyed corn in many forms. I must have been about five when I watched Buddy making parched corn, a staple of pioneers during the westward expansion of our country. Her parents and older sisters left New York State in the mid-1800s in a covered wagon, bound for Iowa. Parched corn may well have been among the provisions they carried with them. Buddy spread dried corn kernels in a pan with some lard and salt and then baked them slowly, the kernels expanding from the heat and fat and turning a dark golden brown. The product tasted crunchy and smoky and is similar to corn nuts found in stores today. Corn nuts are eaten as trail mix by hikers and backpackers these days, a leisure-time activity that our pioneer ancestors did of necessity.
Corn meal mush is an old-time dish from Buddy's repertoire that Mom continued to make because she especially liked the flavor of corn meal. She was always looking for new ways to use it and created her own version of tamale pie made of corn meal mush, ground beef, chopped onion, tomato juice, and chili powder. Polenta, the Italian version of corn meal mush, has gained favor among today's culinary elite that good old mush may never enjoy.
However, fried mush is still a delicious variation, crisp on the outside and hot and creamy on the inside. Serve it with eggs and bacon or sausage for breakfast but don't think too much about calories and cholesterol while eating it.
Corn Meal Mush
1 cup yellow corn meal
2 cups water
¼ teaspoon salt
Bring water and salt to a boil. Gradually add corn meal, stirring constantly until thickened. Add more water if necessary, but mush should be thick when finished.
Dip a 9 by-4 inch loaf pan in cold water and then pour in the hot mush. Cover and chill overnight. Cut the mush in ½ inch slices and fry slowly in butter or bacon fat. Good with warm maple syrup. Serves four.
Mother often made Buddy's corn bread to go with homemade chili, baked beans, or stuffed green peppers. Present day cookbooks feature variations of this traditional bread that call for a combination of flour and corn meal. Buddy's recipe uses only corn meal, and the batter seems impossibly runny before it's baked. But during the baking process, the corn meal and buttermilk combine to create dense, flavorful bread that can be made quickly in the last hour before dinner and served still warm from the oven.
Buddy's Corn Bread
2 cups corn meal
1 teaspoon baking soda
2 cups buttermilk
1 teaspoon butter
½ teaspoon salt
¼ cup sugar
Beat the egg and add dry ingredients, butter, and buttermilk. Mix until blended. Bake in a greased 8 by 10-inch pan at 400 degrees for 20 minutes.
Many of Buddy's recipes are now over one hundred years old. Included in the cookbook is Buddy's meat loaf, as it was written by her, and the amounts given for beef and pork reflect the price of meat in the early 1900's. This is a reliable version of comfort food still popular today.
*30 cents worth round steak, ground
**10 cents worth pork, ground
1 rounding teaspoon salt
2 cups bread crumbs
1 cup milk
1 teaspoon powdered sage
***½ teaspoon nutmeg pepper
Mix well, form into a loaf, and place in a baking dish, covering with a sliced onion and a bunch of parsley.
Note: Bake at 350 degrees for one hour. Serves six.
*1 pound ground beef
**1/2 pound ground pork.
One of the great delicacies of summer in Iowa is home-grown tomatoes, which have a characteristic tartness. I've never tasted a tomato as sweetly tart as those grown in the deep rich soil of my home state, although tomato lovers from other parts of the country might contest this claim. Mother would search out the first tomatoes of the season, still firm and slightly green, to make fried tomatoes. Because Dad came home for lunch, sometimes bringing a guest he'd run into on the downtown square or at the court house, the process of making enough fried tomatoes for six or more people took awhile.
This gave us a chance to sharpen our appetites as we waited, on a hot August noonday, smelling the fragrance of fresh tomatoes as they fried slowly in bacon fat or butter. Their richness of texture, color, and flavor is unequaled among the old-style dishes we enjoyed. Mom added a note to the recipe that shows how she learned to improve her cooking skills under the tutelage of a mother-in-law who was a more experienced cook.
4 very solid tomatoes
2 eggs, beaten
3/4 cup flour
4 tablespoons butter or bacon fat, more if needed
Salt and pepper, to taste
Wash tomatoes, do not peel, and slice ½ inch thick. Dip in egg and then flour. Salt and pepper and fry carefully in butter or bacon fat on medium heat. Tomatoes will absorb the shortening, so add more as needed. The slices hold together better with a firm crust. Serves four people.
Mom's Note: This is a Cullison dish. Very soon after I was married, I attempted it and peeled the tomatoes!
When I grew older, I learned another good reason for having a grandmother who lived with us whose last name was Cullison. I have forgotten why I needed an excuse from school that I knew my mother would balk at providing, but I had become devious enough to figure out a solution. I went to Buddy's room and asked her to write the note excusing me. Having become even more compliant as she grew older, Buddy did not hesitate to help me. My teacher may have wondered about the hand writing of that note from Mrs. Cullison, but she didn't question its authenticity. I never repeated the trick, having felt sufficient guilt about taking advantage of a grandmother who had demonstrated in yet another way that she really did love me a whole world-full.
Recipes are from the collection of Anna May Cullison