In the year that has passed since Mawga, my grandmother died, I have spent a great deal of time thumbing through the recipe book that she left behind. A small, black three ring binder; matte, plastic, unmarked, and which now holds the contents of its predecessor, a vibrant orange business, with jaunty illustrations of butter crocks and salt cellars and tea kettles. This newer version, you’d never mistake it for the vessel of gastronomic conjurations it contains. You might think it was an address book, if people used such things anymore. A booklet for business cards or bills, perhaps. Something filled with information for filing away. Things that no one actually wants to bother digging out and looking at again. As opposed to…well, the thing you reach for, not just out of habit, but of yearning, and of a craving. You would not know to look at this book and crave.
(Oddly enough, that previous portfolio seems to have been resurrected as a strange sort of literary journal/catalog in my grandmother’s remaining years. She refilled it with blank, lined pages and loaded it up with lists of titles she was looking forward to reading, book recommendations from various friends, Top Tens, and many other inscrutable literary lists whose themes utterly escape me. When I became aware of its existence, this thrilled me. In our souls, I think, my grandmother and I loved the exact same things: eating and reading.)
Despite the book’s bland camouflage and newer, sturdier spine, the pages are the same–blurry with stains, dog-eared and torn from marking a place, and, what I love most–intermittently scribbled with her enthusiastic notations and opinions: “Good!” for example, with regard to a certain oyster stew recipe that Mawga and my grandfather enjoyed. This in an incongruence that always makes me giggle and retch simultaneously. As far as I know, no one in the family but the two of them liked this particular soup. It was a foul, milky, bi-valve bath water. More for them, I guess!
Oyster soup aside, I love so many of her other recipes, so I thought it befitting to spend an entire week celebrating her life by preparing foods and cooking meals that are attached to some of my most beloved memories of her. I don’t know that these were all her favorite foods, but they are certainly the ones I recall with reverence and the clarity derived from a recollection distilled from a single, fixed point. That beautiful late summer day spent at their house by the creek, on Barre Road, with the supper of chili and cheese and hot dogs . The cozy evening with the steaming bowls of chicken and dumplings before watching The Dukes Of Hazard with my grandfather. Food, for me, are these delicious memories of bone-deep love.
I dined on cheese conies both at home and in restaurants when I was young, but I still believe Mawga’s version was superior. If you haven’t got a Mawga, if you happen to be in Ohio, Skyline Chili is the place for these things. If you don’t live in the midwest, you can try to cook it up yourself! It’s basically a hot dog on a bun and a little squirt of mustard, topped with “Cincinnati chili” (which is very different from regular chili) and an enormous mound of freshly grated cheese. Chopped onions are optional, I guess, but I personally think they are a must.
Oddly enough, there is no recipe for Cincinnati chili is my grandmother’s cookbook! Perhaps she made it so often that she knew the ingredients and instructions by heart? I found this one online and it was nearly perfect. Yes, it calls for cocoa and cloves and allspice, which sounds kind of weird if that’s not what you’re used to, but that’s what gives it its distinct flavor. I think that this one was a little tangier than I remembered, which my adult palate really appreciated–so don’t skip the apple cider vinegar. I don’t think hot dog brand matters, so use whatever your favorite is. I use potato buns, but go with your preference. The cheese is absolutely crucial! Grate it yourself and leave it out on the counter until it gets a little soft and skeevy with the room temperature. Pile it on top until you can’t see what’s underneath it anymore. You might not think with the cheese and chili, the mustard would even matter, but it does. You definitely miss it when it’s not there! If you have leftover chili, serve the leftovers on a plate of spaghetti. That’s a Skyline thing, too. I don’t care for it, but lots of folks love it.
My grandmother’s chicken and dumplings are not the most photogenic thing in the world (not even close) but they are without a doubt, the most delicious. Dropped, not rolled. Totally made with Bisquick. And no, we don’t besmirch their character with peas and carrots (ugh) or sprigs of herbs (no!) Mawga would be appalled. Actually she wouldn’t, she was pretty live-and-let-live. But I’d be kinda appalled.
This is another recipe that is not written down, but I’ve watched it made so many times that I could make it in my dreams. And it’s basically just a nice broth with some dough in it, so no biggie! While Mawga always boiled up a whole chicken for her dumplings, I am not nearly that ambitious. A packet of chicken thighs (skin on, bone in) in a big pot of water begins the broth for this dish. How big a pot? I would go with the biggest you have, because you want to have extra broth leftover to squirrel away in the freezer for future dumpling emergencies. Into your enormous cauldron, along with the chicken thighs and water, throw a couple of stalks of celery and a few carrots. You could roughly chop them, or just break them in half. Along with that, halve a few onions, and toss them in the pot, skin and all. Add a bay leaf or two and bring to a boil. I guess you could add some seasonings at this point, but I add those a little later in the process.
Lower heat and put the lid on, and leave it be for about an hour or so. Fish out the vegetables and throw them away, we’ve drained all the life from them at this point. Remove the chicken from the pot and once cool enough, pick the meat from the bones and set aside. Put the bones back in the pot and add your seasonings; I usually use a tablespoon of Better Than Bullion, which Mawga never used but I bet she would have if she’d known about it, and some black pepper and maybe some Lawry’s seasoning salt. I also add more water to the pot at this point or maybe even pour in a carton of store bought chicken broth to supplement it (which begs the question, why bother to go the home-made route at all?) Leave it on the stove at low heat for the rest of the day to make your house smell amazing. If you have thought ahead, then you will have made this broth on a Saturday. Turn the heat off and the whole thing cool off. Pour through a strainer to remove detritus and bones, pour back into pot. Rearrange your entire refrigerator to accommodate your broth pot on Saturday night. On Sunday afternoon, place the pot on the stove, skim the fat off the top, portion out the extra broth (whatever you deem extra) into tupperware and freeze. Heat the remainder (leave, oh, 5-6 inches of broth in the pot?) up to a boil. While it is heating, make your dumplings with the directions straight off the back of the Bisquick box:
Dumplings: Mix 2 cups Bisquick and ⅔ cup milk until soft dough forms. Drop dough by spoonfuls onto stew (do not drop directly into liquid). Cook uncovered over low heat 10 minutes. Cover and cook 10 minutes longer.
To serve, place a little of the chicken meat into the bottom of the bowl. Or you could forgo it altogether, the chicken is beside the point if you ask me! But some people feel like it’s not dinner if there’s no meat in it, I guess. Ladle a portion of broth (which will have thickened up considerably) and as many dumplings as your eyes think your stomach can handle, on top of the chicken. My favorites are the soggy dumplings, while Mawga preferred the fluffy ones, but I really have no idea how to control the sog vs. fluff ratio. You get what you get!
I think my grandmother probably fancied herself a good, Christian woman—and she was!— but I also like to think our Mawga was a magnificent kitchen witch, as well. And while I don’t suppose she was ever thrilled with my spiritual path, I do believe that she was happy to know that I, like her, thrilled immensely to the delightful magic of dreaming up meals, enjoyed the playful ritual of experimenting with recipes, and reveled in the spellbinding peace to be found in a room full of loved ones with sated appetites and full bellies. I dare say she even dabbled in a bit of cookbookmancy! Purely for dinner divination ideas, of course. Her “brown bag tuna salad” (original recipe via a newspaper clipping, circa 1973, but recopied by her, above,) while certainly not glamorous, would definitely be among the first noted in her culinary grimoire, for as often as I recall them freshly prepared and waiting in the refrigerator.
I served the tuna salad on Wasa crackers with her deviled egg recipe (boil eggs, scoop out yolks, mix yolks with mayo and mustard and a little white pepper, spoon back into egg white shells, dust with paprika) along with some garlicky herbed, roasted sweet potato wedges, and while I know beyond the shadow of a doubt I never saw sweet potatoes in any form on her table, I know she’d appreciate the practicality of using up something that’s been living in the veggie drawer too long, and not letting it go to waste.
I thought I’d be much sadder about it all than I actually was after spending a week cooking from her book, but it’s been such a joyful experience, recreating these meals, and with them, my happiest memories of her. Even this macaroni, a recipe not hers, but one that she requested I make (and then pushed away, because she had no appetite for it) is a lovely bowl that recalls her trust in me to care for her as best I could during her last few months, and to prepare something cozy and delicious and heart-warming. The recipe, by the way, is from Serious Eats. It could have been a little creamier and oozier, but that’s my problem with most macaronis, I think. Baking it gives you those delicious, chewy, browned edges, but then it also dries every thing up. I’d rather prefer to eat it oozing straight out of the pot, before it goes into the oven!
At any rate, here’s to you, my marvelous Mawga—may we enjoy many warm suppers together in the next world, and until then I’ll be using what you taught me and honing my skills, such as they are. I know you’ll be impressed. Or you’ll at least pretend. And I’ll love you for that through every lifetime.
It has been over >a year since you left us, Mawga, and the world is a much less delicious place for your passing.