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The Spirited Kitchen

There are ghosts in my kitchen.  It's a decent-sized room, which is good, because it's getting pretty crowded with memories and reminders.  I can't seem to cook a meal without consulting the bulging notebook full of handwritten family recipes, and when Drew and I follow my Aunt Bernice's instructions for chocolate chip cookies (recorded on a grease-stained index card in her elegant Palmer script) or Fran and I use the scribbled recipe my grandmother dictated to me for cornbread, it feels like they're in the room with us.  When I roll out dumplings, I can see my younger self, standing beside my Ma Grimes on a shaky step-stool, dropping strips of dough into bubbling chicken broth, and I can hear her voice explaining the proper technique for cutting the shortening into the flour when I'm teaching the kids to make biscuits.

There are more concrete reminders as well.  The kitchen shelves are overflowing with inherited china, silverware, and glasses; the number of family heirlooms in our cabinets keeps increasing as our grandparents' generation passes on.  Most of these items have stories attached to them and they're invariably referred to by their original owner's names.  I never met my Aunt Ovie, but the kids all know exactly what I mean if I ask them to pass me "Aunt Ovie's bowl."  Maybe it betrays an unhealthy obsession with food to have so many memories that revolve around cooking and eating, but it's something that my family is particularly good at, and to be honest, it's healthier than some of the other family traits.

Last night, Adam and I indulged in what we laughingly call our ethnic cuisine.  While I peeled and sliced peaches for a cobbler, he was frying catfish and French fries.  Franny came into the kitchen and said, "It smells good in here!"  She was right.  Fragrant Fredericksburg peaches simmered in a saucepan with cinnamon and vanilla, and the scent mingled with the smell of hot grease into something very like the smell of my grandmother's kitchen.  All that was missing was the odor of stale bacon grease, collected in a coffee can on the stove and reused at almost every meal to fry meat or vegetables.

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The last few years of my grandmothers' life she was unable to cook, but that smell transported me to a time when she was still strong and capable and spent most of her day in the kitchen.  She was always the first one up, banging pots and pans and making scrambled eggs, bacon and biscuits, percolating coffee and serving out little glasses of orange juice.  And before we'd finished breakfast she was already talking about what we'd have for lunch.  No cold cuts and chips for lunch at Mawmaw's house: lunch and supper were equally important, and both featured hot meat, several different kinds of vegetables and sweet tea, as well as a plethora of dessert options (my grandmother used to apologize if there wasn't pie and cake for dessert).

Baking is serious business in my family.  I was helping my mom stir the cake batter and patting out miniature pies with my Ma Grimes when I was preschooler, and I can remember my mother making a long distance phone call from Edmonton, Alberta Canada to Garrison, TX (nothing to sneeze at in those days) to tell my grandmother that her chocolate pie had come out just right, "with the little sugar beads on top" just like my grandmother's.  Of all my accomplishments, my grandmother was particularly proud of the fact that I could make a nice layer cake;  she judged this to be the most difficult sort of baking, and claimed she'd rather be "shot in the butt with a hot crackling" than make a layer cake.  

My mother used to joke that I'd better marry a man who liked sweets, because all I cared about making was dessert.  I did one better; Adam not only loves sweets, but he likes to cook.  Baking is a science, requiring precision and exactitude, while cooking is an art that rewards spontaneity and creativity.  I measure carefully and hesitate to alter a recipe before I've fully comprehended the chemistry of this particular formula while Adam gleefully throws handfuls of spices into dishes and reworks recipes on the fly.  Like Jack Sprat and his wife, we complement one another perfectly.

And all our kitchen ghosts get along as well; after fifteen years of marriage, I consult Adam's battered family cookbook as often as mine, and our family meals are a mélange of Lipscomb, Grimes, Kelso and Bird recipes, served on dishes that came from both sides of the family.  The kitchen gets pretty crowded sometimes, but the conversation is lively and there's always more than enough food to go around.  As my grandmother used to say, "If you don't have some left over, how do you know you made enough?"
About the Author:  
Melissa Lipscomb
lives in Austin with her children Drew, Franny, Alec and husband Adam. Some days she feels like she's figuring out, and others she's just waiting for the other shoe to drop. Visit her blog.



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