Family Stories: How I Learned to Cook

Learning to Cook!

kitchen table at farm

Learning to cook doesn’t always start in your mother’s kitchen… and it certainly didn’t with me, but I sure do envy those who have memories of standing beside their mother or grandmother… learning at the hip! (Photo of Grandma Minnie with daughters (left) Dolly and Nancy.)

I was one of those girls who didn’t hang around their mothers in the kitchen. I can close my eyes now and see her cooking, but was never interested in getting too close! I did enjoy time at the table, especially when fried chicken, creamed corn and hot out of the oven biscuits was on the menu. Fresh vegetables was always served in our house… especially as both grandparents were farmers. No can vegetables do I ever remember, but for some odd reason I do have memories of mama placing a small frozen dish of mac and cheese between her and daddy’s plate! Why didn’t I eat it? It’s one of my favorites now, especially if it’s homemade! I was told I was a picky eater… so guess that was why I ate no mac and cheese. At least she didn’t make the box type, as I did once for granddaughters, Grace and McKinley… and Grace didn’t hesitate in telling me it was horrible! Kids hold no punches in telling the truth!

Even though I didn’t hang out in mama’s kitchen, I do remember when she fried chicken… my favorite! I never knew she brined it by soaking it overnight in a batter of egg and buttermilk (learned that later), but I watched as it was fried in Crisco and drained in a paper bag. Funny as it sounds, a brown paper bag is the best for draining fried chicken and keeping it warm as it’s nestled in the bottom of a paper bag. I think it’s just a Southern thing… probably used way before there was paper towels, but they always had an abundant of paper bags. There was no plastic bags for your groceries when I grew up… everything was wrapped in paper!

making biscuits (2)FIX

Mama’s famous yellow measuring cup… it was a cup that she always used as her measurement; it actually holds 2/3 cup.

making biscuits FIX

The one food I stood side by side with my mother to watch her make, was her southern biscuits! To learn how to make biscuits is a process… as you need to put your hands in the dough to learn. Every time I went to Georgia, I watched as she pulled out her plastic tub of White Lily self-rising flour, filled her yellow measuring cup with milk and with only her fingers, she pinched off as much butter as she felt she needed. That was only after she made a well on the top of the flour inside the plastic tub. She actually made her dough on top of all the flour… no measuring out like I have to do… and start to finish it was all worked together with only her hands. I still am amazed in that complete process, but I finally understood that in order to mix the dough to the correct softness, you must have your hands involved. While her way never worked for me, I eventually worked out my own process of mixing the milk and butter into the flour with a fork, and just as the stickiness was almost gone, I used my hands to finish. Mama’s biscuits are a pinch and roll biscuit… she never rolled out her dough… it’s an old-fashioned way of biscuit making she learned from her mother.

I eventually learned how to make a good biscuit by making them daily for about two weeks… mixing the dough that often helped me to remember the feel and texture, and learn that it was the soft smooth dough that needed to be the end result… which yields you a soft biscuit; work too much flour in your dough and you’re going to bake a tougher biscuit. While they all were edible… I strived for that soft biscuit that tasted like my mothers, and when sliced open, you smelled the aroma as that puff of heat escaped from within; I’m ready for a biscuit now after writing that last phrase!

A Southern woman is remembered for her biscuit making!

When I married at the young age of 19, knowing my way around a kitchen was not something I was familiar with. I did know how to making daddy spaghetti sauce, but I won’t make you laugh at the ingredients I used. Let’s just say it’s not even near how I make sauce today.

Learning to cook for me was more learned in my mother-in-laws kitchen. As a young bride, I wanted to learn how to cook my husbands favorite foods… even if they were of odd sounding names to me… and who better than to learn from!

Every woman’s kitchen is different, and even more so in different parts of the country. While I found no White Lily self rising flour in my mother-in-laws kitchen, I did find spices like parsley, oregano and garlic… which had never set foot in my mother’s. Even gadgets varied… my mother used her small paring knife in peeling potato skins off… but I quickly learned there was a gadget called the potato peeler… who knew! I soon learned to maneuver my way around the potato… leaving more potato than a knife could leave. My mother always argued that point with me… saying that she only peeled the skin off… I wasn’t going to win that argument!

My grandmother McKinley’s kitchen cabinets at the farm. The corner cabinet my grandfather built to store her canning jars in. I’m told by my mother that it was always full for the winter… sure wish I had a photograph of that. (The new owners graciously gave me a couple of the cabinet doors when they remodeled the house)

I have no cooking memories of my grandmother McKinley, but I do remember her delicious blackberry jam and peach preserves she made… and always had jars waiting on the kitchen counter for me. I vaguely can remember watching my grandmother Bryan in her kitchen as she made granddaddy’s favorite sweet potato cobbler. When I began my family cookbook, I became determined to recreate that very recipe that had always haunted me. With my cousin, Charles Bryans’, help… I created a recipe that satisfied my taste buds of what I remembered. Check out the link above if I’ve peaked your interest!

There were many new gadgets in my mother-in-laws kitchen and another gadget was her pasta roller for making the holiday manicotti. I’ll never forget my first experience in pasta making there… but sadly I never found any written recipes for the pasta. If memory serves me right, I only saw her add eggs to flour, so I’m assuming she mixed until she felt the right texture in her hands… that’s how good cooks, cook! She didn’t hesitate to put me to work in turning the handle to crank the pieces of dough through the rollers… and never hesitated in yelling out directions as she handed me pieces pulled from the mound of dough. As a young girl, and definitely out of my comfort zone… I didn’t question!

mom pasta machine

My mother-in-law didn’t seem to have recipes for the early family recipes… she didn’t need a recipe box for them… she just picked up the phone and called her mother. Grandma Minnie never forgot a recipe… and had a sharp mind always for recipes and phone numbers. That was what pushed me into writing their family recipes down… to preserve for the future generations. I compiled two family cookbooks to share back with all the family cooks. Even today, someone will tell me, “I still use your cookbook today.”

Christmas was interesting as I learned the abc’s of cookie baking! My mother-in-law was an excellent baker… and her trays of anginettes, snowballs, thumbprints, fudge, and Cherry Winks… which soon became my favorite for dunking! My still-today favorite cookie is Cherry Winks, but I’m often too lazy to bake them… probably a good thing as I’m the only one who eats them. Every Xmas I make sure I have the ingredients, just in-case I get the urge to bake… but often that’s as far as I get! Everyone baked cookies in the family, and they all brought a cookie tray to Grandma Minnie’s on Christmas Eve… my favorite table! Once you learned, who made which cookies, you’d always know who’s tray was who’s… and the ones who made your favorite was always the tray you hit first!

I quickly learned that it wasn’t all about cookies at Christmas in my husband’s family… it was also the Christmas Eve foods that had many drooling all year in anticipation. While it took me years to develop the love they had… I eventually joined the love and began anticipating the Christmas Eve specialties such as the seafood sauce bubbling with blue crabs and often lobster tails… which Grandma Minnie liked to add. Then there were many others that made up the 7 fishes which Christmas Eve, in an Italian family, is known to serve. On the platters passed around, having been fried in early afternoon, was fried shrimp, baccala, scallops, calamari, cod, shiners (a bait fish but a family fried favorite), and sometimes eel. The eel was more popular on their table when son Freddie lived home, as he harvested them himself at the beach below their house. Grandma Minnie wouldn’t buy them as they were expensive, but anytime Freddie brought a bucket of them to her… she was willing to cook any time of the year; my husband remembers her making stuffed eels, which was his favorite cooked in sauce… but sadly no one wrote down that recipe. A few have tried recreating it, but always say… “it’s not quite like hers.” It’s funny how you might know exactly what the ingredients were… but creating the exact taste is often a tough process!

Learning to cook all the Italian dishes was a process… but over the years there wasn’t really anything I didn’t master. The matriarchs of my husband’s family were his grandmother Minnie and her sister Mary… they were two of the best cooks that everyone learned from… and neither ever forgot how to cook. Even later when they didn’t stand at the stove, they’d still give directions from the kitchen table… and even if you knew how to cook the dish… They still told you!

When I was pregnant with my son, Stephen, I tasted many new foods when visiting Grandma Minnie… as she felt that the baby learned to like all foods if the mother ate them when pregnant. Whether true or not, I wasn’t going to argue, and I tasted whatever she cooked for me. It must have been true as Stephen loves all foods, especially all the Italian family favorites. From a young boy, foods interested him and he spent time in the kitchen and still enjoys cooking today… and like all good cooks, he cooks pretty much with no recipe in front of him. My daughter is also a great cook, but wasn’t in her early years… just ask her brother on the morning she announced she was going to make french toast… then asked him how do you make it!

It was Grandma Minnie who introduced me to one of my now favorites… Broccoli Rabe! It’s definitely not a southern green, but her idea was that as it was considered a bitter green, it was comparable to my southern turnip greens. I thought it funny how she considered turnip greens bitter, and how she even knew about them. To me, they both have very distinct tastes, and I’ve never thought either was bitter… and they both are eaten totally different. In the South, we cook turnip greens with ham hocks and enjoy with a slice of cornbread. When eating broccoli rabe here, it’s often eaten with sausage in a sandwich… a topping on pizza (one of my favorites) or as a side dish; my daughter- in-law often serves it daily. Some consider broccoli rabe bitter and blanche before sauteing in olive oil with lots of garlic, but I’ve never considered it bitter, so I prefer mine only sauteed in oil and garlic; I did blanche it once and it didn’t give me the taste I enjoy… so maybe it really is bitter and that’s the taste I like!

I think Easter was my oddest holiday for food names… hearing the likes of ham, rice and wheat pie! Being a girl of the South, those were the oddest names for food dishes and I wanted no part of them. It took a few years for me to begin tasting… as I felt like I was being left out, as they all enjoyed them. I can now proudly say I do make very good Easter pies… but only when the moment hits me to bake! I still want to eat them, but not so much taking the time to bake them!

It was a summer morning visit when Grandma Minnie taught me how to pick squash flowers… yes I said flowers, and she cooked with them. On the squash plant there are two blossoms… but you only pick the male blossoms for cooking, which grow on long, thin stems from the base of the plant. The female blossoms sit low to the plant… that’s where the squash grows from… you don’t pick them.

Squash Blossoms

The morning I followed Grandma Minnie out to the garden with a paper bag in hand… I was puzzled. I watched her cut off the male flowers as she gave me visual lessons on which flower to pick. After filling up the bag, and folded the bag closed before we went in the house, she shook the bag and held it up to my ear, and asked, “do you hear any buzzing?” I’m sure I gave her a puzzled look… “if you pick in the morning, the flowers are closed, so be sure there are no bees locked inside the flowers before coming into the house, or when you start cleaning the flowers, you’ll soon be swatting bees.” While I thought it funny to listen for the buzzing… I’ve never forgotten that lesson.

Grandma Minnie taught me many life lessons besides cooking… and one of the best was the day we stopped there with a pizza. She opened the box and immediately tore the lid off, tearing into 4 pieces… they soon became our paper plates! I thought that was the best, and even today when we’re out, I’ve often said, “let’s have Grandma Minnie plates.”

Hope you’ve enjoyed a few of my cooking memories!

For more cooking memories, click Family Recipes, and Memories

Continue reading my 2019 A to Z…  Cooking Famiglia Italian Foods and Memories


© 2020, copyright Jeanne Bryan Insalaco; all rights reserved


About Jeanne Bryan Insalaco

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This entry was posted in Daily Writings and funnies..., Family Recipes and Memories, Family Stories and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

4 Responses to Family Stories: How I Learned to Cook

  1. gentraveling says:

    Great post! I’ve heard many stories of how great my grandmother’s cooking/baking was. Plus, my grandmother’s name was Minnie too!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. ReginaMary says:

    Squash blossoms…oh, can we talk? I could eat them every day!!

    Liked by 1 person

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