Late Victorian and early Edwardian mannerisms found fertile soil and took root in my ever so proper Grandmother. When I see pictures of an erect Queen Elizabeth at a public occasion with hat, handbag, and white gloves I cannot help but think of my grandmother. In her day, she could have told the queen a thing or two about social duties and deportment; lessons my mother and aunt learned but did not always trouble to follow. The lessons that did stick came from the kitchen. Some of my mother’s core recipes that were passed on to me hark back to my grandmother, how to make gravy, how to make stuffing for turkey, how to make pie crust, how to make a proper cup of tea, and the one that has ruined me for anything else going by this name, how to to make brownies. As my grandmother epitomized proper, so did her recipes.
We are not alone in inheriting this-is-the-way-it-is-done convictions. As my generation married into families with their own perceptions of the right and proper way to do things, I witnessed the sometimes bumpy merging of family traditions at holidays; other families inherited a grandmother’s proper way around the kitchen. One Thanksgiving a sister-in-law jumped into the midst of the last minute kitchen to table melee to make the gravy. One of my brothers exclaimed in horror, “What are you doing!? But you are not making a roux!” She insisted with equal conviction that what she was doing was how one made gravy. The only way for one to make gravy.
While Grandma was very definite about the right and proper way to go about things, she was unfortunately blessed with boisterous and–in her estimation–barely civilized heathen for grandchildren; no doubt the result of the questionable genes introduced to the line by her son-in-laws. One or the other of us was always falling short of following Grandma’s code of conduct. She could put the full weight of a harrumph into the word “well” and that “well” was often followed by “…up our way”. If we had not met them, we would have thought ourselves a wild and uncivilized tribe in the untamed remote reaches of the continent in comparison to our prim and proper Canadian cousins to the north. It helped us to know that when she returned from visiting us in California she would take umbrage at something one of my cousins did or said and remark, “Well, down our way…” Prim and proper is not the way of a child or adolescent, we little hooligans were doomed to be a shy of perfection in Grandma’s eyes.
Grandma had a short fuse, not a short fuse to anger but a short fuse to indignation. Some of us tried to tread cautiously while others gleefully had a match at the ready. My dad had some good rounds with his mother-in-law but my uncle, her son-in-law, always knew exactly what to say to ignite her. When that fuse was lit, one could see a physical transformation as she tightened up from tip to toe at the impropriety of it all followed by a resounding “well…” Others prepared to duck and cover when, like an expert fly fisherman, he wound up and threw out a line. She would snap that bait and get reeled in, time after time after time.
My younger brother also was adroit in the sport of grandma baiting. On one particularly long trip, when he was old enough to be a cheeky high schooler but too young to drive, I was recruited to drive my younger brother and grandmother to visit my eldest brother in Santa Barbara. Grandma wanted to visit Hearst Castle along the way, and wouldn’t it be so lovely to drive down the coast. It was lovely idea, and it would have been a lovely drive were it not for the epic battle taking place in the car. Before we had even reached the coast they were in full swing, grandma–hackles at full rise–giving as good as she got. The coastal highway is breathtaking, it certainly took my breath away as I negotiated switch back turns above high cliffs plummeting from road to the sea. I silently drove white knuckled through the dramatic scenery while barbs and retorts and “wells”s bounced back and forth between front and back seats, neither of them noticing the deep green coastal forests, sparkling seas, and narrow gray road snaking precipitously along the edge of rocky cliffs.
With every nerve spent trying to tune out the din and get the combatants to safety, I finally pulled the car to a halt at San Simeon. We walked up to the kiosk to get our tickets and found, without reservations, that the only tour available was of the ground floor and outer buildings. Grandma had seen the ground floor and outer buildings, years earlier, and they were of no interest to her. Her heart was set on seeing the upstairs rooms but–in spite of the ticket clerk being treated to the sight of my grandmother drawing herself up from tip to toe in a full display of indignant disappointment–that was not an option. I suggested we go ahead and enjoy the tour that was available and in return got one of her “well” responses, “Well, I will just wait in the car.” We did not see Hearst Castle that day. I got back behind the wheel and the others returned to their seats and, as if we had not stopped, continued with their snarling and hissing like dogs and cats, miles behind us and miles to go.
We finally arrived safely in Santa Barbara. To my consternation, that night my younger brother got to stay with my elder brother and attend a college party. I got to stay in a motel room with Grandma and watch Lawrence Welk. Given a choice between a college party or Lawrence Welk with Grandma, there is no contest as to where I would have chosen to be at that moment. Bless her heart, looking back at it now I think she meant it as a special and rare one-on-one time. Truth be told, we did get on quite well that night and had a proper chat. I was too tired to show my disappointment in missing out on a college party and–given that her goat had been captured and penned quite enough for one day–there were no “well” moments that evening. And in retrospect it was a pleasant night I can look back upon fondly.
This is not to imply I was a favorite by any means, I often lit Grandma’s indignation fuse and was the frequent target of “well”s delivered in my direction. Among my cousins and brothers, only one was up to her standards and that one, in my opinion, was the one least likely to wear that badge. But wear it he did, and nothing that little hooligan did or said put a tarnish on it. I thought the gig was up when we took Grandma to visit him at his college apartment. He was in the midst of his hippie phase, a phase that put a lot of emphasis on free spirited personal freedoms but none on bathing, cleanliness, and housekeeping. Grandma was about to get an eyeful. Surely she would come face to face with reality and finally see him for the unkempt, disappointingly short of standards grandson he was. I waited for it, and sure enough we did get a “well” moment, but it was not the “well” moment I expected when she said, “Well, our Michael’s roommates certainly are slobs.”
Aside from “Our Michael,” each of her grandchildren were cause for consternation and each of us have our own deep well of memories about our encounters with our grandmother. Ever so proper Grandma had her strong opinions, expectations, and disappointments triggering many a “well” moment, but she did love us dearly and she did succeed in instilling some sense of propriety in me. I learned enough to have great shame when I lazily pour boiling water over a teabag in a mug rather than brewing it in a preheated teapot, but to this day I maintain the proper way to drink tea is in fine porcelain as she always did “up her way.” I am offended and tighten up from tip to toe when offered a cup of tea in a clunky chunky coffee mug. It is just not proper. And to this day, the only proper way to bake brownies is to bake them like Grandma’s: rich, moist, and chewy.
Grandma’s Proper Recipes
Brownies Up Our Way
Preheat oven to 325 F
2 squares of chocolate*
1 cube of margarine*
1 Cup of sugar
2 eggs, one at a time until glossy
1/2 Tsp vanilla
1 Cup Flour
Add: Nuts (optional)
Pour into greased square pan and bake 20-25 minutes
*This was the old Baker’s brand squares of unsweetened chocolate. 1 square is roughly an ounce. Gourmet chocolate was not a thing back then, and I am not inclined to stick with tradition for the sake of sticking with tradition.
** Yuck margarine. My mother always cooked with it unless she was making buttery shortbread. A cube of margarine is how they referred to a stick of margarine back in the day. I relished saying “I told you so” to my mother when science proved me right, that hydrogenated margarine was bad for you. Replace with a stick of butter, roughly 1/2 cup or 8 Tbsp.
Pie crust Up Our Way
3 Cups flour
1/2 Tsp salt
Pinch of baking powder
1/2 Cup shortening or margarine
1/2 Cup cold water
Sift first 3 ingredients. Cut in shortening until fairly fine. Add water in hole in center, stir with fork. (DO NOT OVER HANDLE)
Roll and cut as needed.
I hate to think what Grandma would say if she saw me reaching for a package of pre-made crust in the grocery store. It would be “well” worthy.
Stuffing Up Our Way
Brown bulk sausage and set aside. Sauté celery and onion. Mix sausage, celery, onion, and sage with bread cubes. Salt and pepper to taste.
Grandma cooked the stuffing in the bird, she did not cook the stuffing on the side, and somehow we all lived to tell.
A Proper Cup of Tea Up Our Way
Put tea kettle on to boil, before water reaches boiling point, pour hot water into teapot. When tea kettle just reaches a boil, empty teapot, add tea, and pour boiling water over tea. Let seep 4-5 minutes and give the pot a few back and forth twists. Grandma was fine with teabags.
Grandma would undoubtably have had her tea in an elegant Aynsley cup and saucer poured from a proper tea service. Well, I have sunk to the depths in using a mug but it at least it must be a porcelain mug.
Gravy Up Our Way
Heat drippings over high heat on stove, whisk in flour to make a roux. Cook until thickened. Add water slowly and whisk vigorously to avoid lumps. Add pepper and lots of salt (gravy needs a lot of salt) to taste.
In a New Orleans cooking class, the instructor swore that the best implement for making a roux is a flat whisk. My mother always used a spiral whisk that could smash the flour lumps while she whisked the liquid into the roux. I use a flat whisk for other sauces but always the spiral whisk for gravy.