I grew up around my dad’s family, where food was definitely in the center of things. My great-aunt Mary Emma Showalter was a home economics professor, she collected and edited over 1000 recipes for the Mennonite Community Cookbook, which can still be found in many Mennonite kitchens. My dad’s sister Nancy also taught home economics and was skilled in the kitchen – I fondly remember her delicious German Chocolate Cake, Raisin-Filled Cookies and Shrimp Creole. At our many holiday dinners, the ratio of pies to the number of dinner guests was often nearly 1:1, plus ice cream!
My Grandaddy was a country boy raised in rural Virginia who didn’t cook in the kitchen, but grilled the best steaks I have ever eaten or probably ever will again. Not just steaks, but also salmon, potatoes, corn grilled in the husk, and Vidalia onions with olive oil wrapped in foil and cooked down on the coals. When he was more than 80 years old, Grandaddy saw an advertisement for a panini press in one of his farming magazines, and promptly ordered himself a new cooking toy. Memie (our nickname for my grandma) was a farm wife who grew a big garden with her very green thumb, canning and freezing through the harvest season, and cooking full meals, all meals, every day for her family. I’ve already touched on my parents’ cooking skills and interests in the previous post, and you should know that they also own a bakery in Virginia.
Needless to say, surrounded by all these expert cooks I started in the kitchen at a young age. One early memory involves baking snickerdoodle cookies with our babysitter. If you have ever made snickerdoodles, you’ll know they’re a perfect kids’ project, you roll the dough into balls and then roll them around in cinnamon sugar before baking (see recipe below). When we were older, my brother Perry and I would often make crepes together on Saturday mornings, filling them with sugar and jam and drizzling syrup over the top.
The constant supply of fresh fruits and vegetables from our home garden and local environment no doubt also contributed to my love for food. We had a small orchard of fruit trees and a large vegetable garden. We gathered wild asparagus growing beside country roads and watercress from the creek. We harvested black raspberries, blackberries, black walnuts and persimmons from the surrounding woods. I have to laugh today when people talk about edamame (soybeans) as a new thing, because we had heirloom edible soybeans that we grew every year in the garden and ate like lima beans. I’m also remembering a picture of my brother as a toddler, his face covered with red beet juice from the fresh beets he had been enjoying. The canned beets they served at school were disgusting, but we absolutely adored fresh beets, coarsely grated and steamed until tender but still just a bit crunchy – cooked this way they are amazingly sweet and flavorful (plus they still have most of their nutrients!).
The family vegetable garden turned into a 30+ acre truck farm where I worked every summer during high school and college, selling vegetables along the side of the road. Besides the main crop of sweet corn, we grew more than 25 varieties of tomatoes, 15 kinds of sweet and hot peppers, melons, squash, okra, beans, the list goes on and on. My dad liked to grow unusual vegetables such as striped chioga beets, lebanese squash and purple beans. One of the crops that grew really well was eggplant, but we had some trouble selling it all. We would hear many customers say something like this, “I enjoy eating eggplant when I’ve tried it in restaurants – but I don’t know how to cook it.” So one summer when we had a particularly booming crop to sell, I found some simple recipes to share and we started providing vegetable cooking and grilling advice to our customers too.
Before I paint too rosy a picture, all of my cooking experiences have not been positive. For example, I can remember an attempt to make blackberry jelly where I ended up in tears after a series of frustrating events. But food was important enough to keep trying, even when it didn’t always turn out perfectly. That was an important lesson once I was out on my own – I have made many mistakes, though the results are usually still edible. But I learn something from each mistake and then it works better the next time. I probably take more cooking risks as a single person, because I know that I’m the only one who has to eat it in the end. And occasionally, a mistake turns into serendipitous discovery and the risk pays off, leading to a new favorite!
1 ½ c. sugar
½ c. margarine, softened
½ c. vegetable shortening
2 ¾ c. flour
2 tsp. cream of tartar
1 tsp. baking soda
¼ tsp. salt
Mix together sugar, margarine and shortening until smooth. Mix in eggs. Sift together the flour, cream of tartar, baking soda and eggs and mix into the wet ingredients. Refrigerate for at least an hour to firm up the dough.
Shape into 1 ¼-inch balls. Mix together ¼ c. sugar and 2 tsp. ground cinnamon. Roll balls in the mixture and place 2 inches apart on an ungreased cookie sheet. Bake 8-10 minutes in a 400 degree F oven, or until slightly golden and set. Makes about 4 dozen cookies.