Holiday Cooking with Grandma Georgia

As I prepare for our Thanksgiving dinner today, I am drawn into memories of Grandma’s kitchen. That were her habitat. Queen of her kitchen, she was in command of all the fixins. I recall helping to roll up the butterhorn rolls, a favorite task for granddaughters. Nobody went hungry at Grandma’s house. After the clean up, folks stretched out for a nap before we all drove the seven-mile journey to the family farm for a walk through the bare winter trees. It’s amazing how just cooking something from the past makes me feel close to family that is gone.

Today I will feature the latest publication that will be offered at the Christmasland event with Writers of the Wheat on December 3, 4:00 pm until 9:00, at the Sunflower Plaza in Wichita. Writers of the Wheat is a loosely organized group of Kansas authors who support each other in writing, as well as marketing, their work. Join us at the Sunflower Plaza, 417 East Gilbert in Wichita,  December 3. There will be something for every reader’s taste. It seems appropriate on Thanksgiving to share a cookbook.

Foreword

Georgia’s Recipe for a good life:

Work hard.

Love deeply.

Laugh often.

Georgia Wells Harris was born in southern Missouri October 3, 1891, the third child in a family of 5 children born to George Calvin and Edith Malinda Wells. By 1900, the family had moved to Kansas, utilizing covered wagon and train transportation. They settled in Skiddy, and later Dunlap. Georgia married Charley Harris on November 20, 1912. They raised four children, Frances (born 1914), Lester (1918), Wallace (1925), and Paul (1935).

No stranger to hardship and heartache, Georgia struggled to keep her family fed during the 1930s. Her farm kitchen remained stocked mostly with things produced in her garden or on the family farm.

Her oldest son Lester, an engineer on the USS Gherardi in WWII, was killed December 2, 1942 in a violent storm off the coast of Rhode Island. Charley died ten years later, and cancer took daughter Frances in 1959. Through it all, Georgia opened her heart and her home to family and became a role model in resilience, generosity, and compassion for others. I have precious memories of her hearty laughter, which was easy to trigger and very contagious.

She was an excellent cook, and queen of her kitchen. Many holidays the entire family gathered at her round dining table to feast on exquisite cuisine.

She died June 25, 1990, well on her way to her 99th birthday.

Her meager possessions passed to various family members. After her son, my father Wallace, died in 2010, her worn pink recipe file came into my possession. The lid had long since disappeared and it was stuffed full. Many tabs of the various sections were almost torn off, but I felt a connection to my grandmother, reading those recipes—most written in her own familiar handwriting.

I suspect the file is far from complete as a collection of the dishes she served, but it’s a nice collection. Some I have specific memories of. Most I do not. Some must have been given by friends, as the handwriting was not her own. Perhaps she gained several in recipe exchanges at her women’s “72 Club.”

I long intended to divide up the cards and share them with my sisters and cousins, but time got away from me. In 2020, the year that COVID stalled many usual activities, as October rolled around I pulled out the file and started studying the recipes. Who should get which ones? It was impossible to decide. That’s when the idea of constructing a book was born. We each will have access to every single recipe in her recipe file. Each of her living grandchildren will still get a selection of her hand-written cards, but with this book, we’ll all be able to use and enjoy her recipe collection.

Several recipes were incomplete, listing only ingredients, or confusing instructions. I imagined she was standing behind me saying, “Well, you ought to know what to do with those.” After all, she knew. Where I tried to add suggestions, my words are in italics.

In places, I have transferred her exact notes, regardless of punctuation and spelling, just like they are on the cards. I find them endearing. In other places, I did a search to clear up some uncertainties. I didn’t always find answers, but where I did, I shared them.

Some ingredients are unfamiliar to me, and may be pretty hard to find. Thus there may be recipes that are not practical or useful in today’s kitchen. But they are interesting.

In many ways, recipes are heirlooms. The people she credited with some of the recipes are different than those I think of when I make the same concoction. Names in ( ) are her referrals to the sources of the recipes, but they don’t always match the credits in my own recipe file.  The cookies I think of as Grandma Georgia’s brown sugar raisin cookies, she credited to her younger sister, Ola. I wonder who Ola thought of when she baked them?

The evolution of our table food is an unending process. Special dishes remind us of gatherings, good times, and laughter. Others help us remember people we love who are no longer living. Those we favor tend to get passed around.

During the COVID seasons, I was drawn to the family favorites and felt comforted by memories of loved ones long gone as I shared their culinary delights with my loved ones today.

Mixed into the section headings is a sprinkling of wisdom as Georgia viewed life. It seems appropriate to include some thoughts she left in letters and recorded conversations, as seasonings for the book, just as her principles seasoned her life. Let your mind roam back over the decades, and just try to imagine the earlier days. She would be thrilled if we applied some of her shared thoughts to life in this century.

For more holiday food ideas, be sure to stop by the Sunflower Plaza in Wichita December 3. Visit with talented local authors. Browse the book selections. Find something special for everyone on your Christmas list.

 

French Bread Pizza-zz

Favorite dishes in our family originate in many places. Grandmother kitchens, as well as mother kitchens, mother-in-law kitchens, and those of friends have produced satisfying and tasty concoctions that remain favorites through generations. It’s surprising how often friends will exchange recipes that work their way onto the list of favorites.

I thumbed through the cards in my file and noted several that have achieved staying power. One was a main dish that has a name begging creative upgrade: “Hamburger on French Bread.” Through the years we have referred to this as “Topped French Bread,” or “French Bread Pizza.” Nothing seems to stick with permanence.

The recipe card was written in my mother’s handwriting, noting that its source was the mother of our good childhood friends, Fredia. Sixty years ago, my sisters and I belonged to a 4-H club and enjoyed getting together for learning projects with friends that we still keep in touch with today. I recall Fredia as an active 4-H project leader, sharing several recipes that had staying power, just like the friendship between our families.

On my latest trip to the grocery store, a display just inside the door offered French bread loaves at a special price. I took it as a sign that the “French Bread Pizza-zz” was next on the Comfort Food list. For many years, French bread loaves were offered in foil wrappers that could be used in the oven. No longer. But I discovered that the long narrow loaves fit nicely, in a diagonal orientation, in 13” x 9” cake pans, which is what I used to prepare this favorite main dish.

Here’s what you need to make this satisfying dish:

  1. Cut a loaf of French bread in half, long ways.
  2. Mix a pound of lean ground beef with 1/3 cup evaporated milk, 1/4 cup of crushed crackers, 1 egg, 1/4 cup chopped onion, 1 1/2 tsp prepared mustard, 1 tsp salt and 1/8 tsp pepper. A handy tool is a potato masher.
  3. Spread ½ of the meat mixture on each half of the bread.
  4. Wrap in foil, or place in a 13 x 9 pan and cover with a tight-fitting lid.
  5. Bake 20 minutes at 350 F.
  6. Sprinkle ½ cup grated cheese on each half of the loaf. Bake 5 minutes longer.
  7. Slice into desired servings and enjoy.

This recipe is a keeper. My grandson’s comment at dinnertime: “We need to make this more often!”

 

Brown Sugar Raisin Cookies

Perhaps every grandmother bakes cookies. Mine sure did. And there was this one recipe that in my mind was unique to Grandma Georgia. Her recipe for Brown Sugar Raisin Cookies wouldn’t have stood out as special to me, just looking through recipes. Though I am fond of brown sugar concoctions, I have never really taken to raisins. But this cookie wouldn’t be the same without them. In her recipe file, she labeled them “Ola’s Cookies”. Her youngest sister was named Ola. She must have thought fondly of Ola whenever she baked a batch of these cookies. I think of Grandma Georgia. To me, the flavor speaks of delicious odors filling her simple house, her hearty laughter, and her ready hugs. These cookies say “Grandma” as clearly as anything ever could.

I must tell you that the mix of flavors–lemon, brown sugar, and stewed raisins– grows on you and it’s nearly impossible to eat just one. I will also let you know that for years after Grandma Georgia shared this prize recipe with my mother, we could not figure out her secret. Ours never quite ended up the same as Grandma’s cookies. However once upon a time she divulged her little secret (a bit resentfully, as if everyone should just know how to do this.) She always baked a test cookie before she put a sheet of them into the oven. After baking one, if it didn’t turn out light and fluffy, she added more flour. So we learned that recipes aren’t cut in stone. They are meant to be adjusted to preferences and current conditions.

Suffice it to say  that the cookies turn out much better (more like Grandma’s) if the dough is very stiff to start with. You don’t want them spreading out too much during the baking process.

Grandma Georgia’s Brown Sugar Raisin Cookies

  1. Preheat oven to 350 degrees.
  2. Measure a cup of raisin into a saucepan. Cover them with water and simmer them gently while you prepare the rest of the cookie dough.
  3. Cream together 1 cup Crisco and 2 cups brown sugar. Note: I learned a few months ago that genuine Crisco has a component of palm oil in it, which is not environmentally friendly, given that much land in tropical countries is altered to produce the palm trees to meet palm oil demand. I used 1 cup of real butter instead with no detriment to the finished product.
  4. Add 2 well-beaten eggs, 1 tsp vanilla extract, and 1 tsp lemon extract. Beat well.
  5. Measure 3 1/2 cups sifted flour and sift with 2 tsp soda and 2 tsp cream of tartar. Mix the dry ingredients into the dough.
  6. Drain the raisins after they are soft and plump. Add them to the cookie dough, and add 1 cup nutmeats, if desired.
  7. Mix well with your hands. “Makes them soft,” wrote Grandma Georgia.
  8. Drop by spoonfuls onto a baking sheet.
  9. Bake 10 – 15 minutes in the pre-heated oven.

This recipe makes 4 to 5 dozen delicious cookies that provide a taste into the past, a simple, wholesome life filled with love and laughter.

A bit of Grandma’s life wisdom:

“When I was younger and my feelings got hurt or a problem was hard to solve, I would get my hoe, and I would hoe and hoe, as hard as I could, until the problem didn’t seem so big. I used to have a wonderful garden!”

Georgia Wells Harris, November 1983

http://www.amazon.com/dp/B08T85DXDQ/