Sunday, April 27, 2014

Food, Glorious Food

I am a foodie. Love to cook it, love to eat it, love to talk about it. I am a walking, talking officially certified foodie. Food is such an interesting, broad subject, and I find that most people are fairly opinionated about their food. We all know food is a very personal connection we have to home, family, and our childhood.  Our likes and dislikes all started when we took that first nibble of gooey rice baby cereal. The ensuing personal path we each chose differs from person to person. Some kids use food as a tool in a power game with their parents; others sometimes don’t eat at all. Apparently my brothers and I "bellied up to the table" every time we were called, regardless of what was served. There was none of this nonsense that if we did not like the meal, a better option would appear; there were no options. Eat what was here and be grateful for it, or leave the table. 

Growing up during the 1960's, our house was served typical country food—fried chicken, meatloaf, ham, roast, potatoes with gravy, green beans, corn, lettuce salad—basic menus.  Oh, and that ever-present pot of pinto beans. Growing up with limited resources for my parents meant you boiled that little smoked ham hock in with your pinto beans, and served it with a heap of homemade chow chow, chopped onion and crispy scratch made cornbread. (Pintos are not my favorite bean, so I always piled on the chow chow and ate lots of cornbread.) There was rarely steak and never fish. We seldom ate at a restaurant, and when we did it might be a burger at Myrtle Armstrong’s cafĂ© or The “Y” cafe. A “fancy” meal out would be at Meyer’s Fried Chicken in Amarillo. I always wanted to eat something exotic like pizza or Chinese food, but never got to.  (I have to say however, I would kill right now for some of that yellow gravy from Meyer’s over some mashed taters….)

See? Just thinking about those times at the dinner table as a kid has taken me back to that very moment when I could dig into my mother’s fantastic cooking. Mmmmm. But I have come to realize that every person has their own version of that memory. My husband’s family never ate black-eyed peas in Iowa, so he does not share my fond memories of a big, steaming bowl of those things cooked with salt pork and served with a big slab of cornbread. (And that was after I spent the morning picking them and the afternoon with a newspaper in my lap shelling those little boogers.) Like my dad’s biscuits and bacon gravy for breakfast and epic Thanksgiving dressing, every household has their family food legacies. I have some Hispanic friends who get all swoony talking about their mother’s menudo. (Gag, gag, shudder.) Or the friend who talks about her family’s traditional Russian meals with names that I don’t understand.  And even the friends whose mothers did not cook remember the pancakes or bacon-egg sandwich that their dads used to make.

When I think back to those days, Hartley had a tiny grocery that had a small meat market, and a few rows of staples. We did not have these massive grocery stores that we enjoy now. Our grocery trips were pretty simple, because at our house we had the four basic food groups: Miracle Whip, Velveeta, Spam and the garden. We had huge gardens and canned almost everything imaginable. My grandmother had a good two acre plot full of fruit trees and we planted that to vegetables too. My mother made jellies, relishes, pickles, canned green beans and tomatoes, froze corn and fruit. That is when I honed my sous-chef skills peeling, chopping, seeding, shelling and dicing.

My mother always had a plan for her meals—she said you needed a meat, a vegetable, and a starch at every meal. Desserts were for special occasions.  We always had a slice of bread and butter with our meal.  Various salads were common—carrot-raisin, waldorf, cabbage-apple, and at least a thousand variations of Jello salads containing fruit or vegetables. You could always count on knowing what the holiday meals were going to consist of. 

Thanksgiving: Turkey, Daddy’s dressing, mashed potatoes and giblet gravy, candied sweet potatoes, green beans, corn, a cranberry Jello salad and cranberry jelly, and a huge relish tray and homemade bread. Pumpkin chiffon pie with Cool Whip or fresh pecan pie followed. 

Christmas and Easter:  ham, mashed potatoes, ham gravy, candied sweet potatoes, macaroni and cheese, green beans, corn, a fruit salad, a jello salad, rolls, and that ever-present relish tray and loaves of delicious freshly baked bread. Dessert was usually homemade pecan pie, apple pie, and occasionally a chess pie. 

If everyone was home, they would have both ham and turkey, with all the above. Occasionally, she might make baked beans instead of potatoes to have with the ham, or occasionally throw in a broccoli rice casserole. The amount of food was ridiculous--we ate on platters instead of plates.  But we were young, and usually all "made a hand" at this table of plenty.

When I walk the grocery aisles now, I can get overwhelmed by the thousands of products available.  All of that pre-cooked, ready-to-eat stuff contains ingredients that have more letters than the VIN number on my car. I can avoid whole aisles, as they don’t have anything we eat on them. I don’t cook anything remotely like the way my mother did these days as it is not prudent for our health. (Mother’s food was usually delicious thanks to butter, salt, bacon/bacon grease, or sugar.) These days I just throw a piece of meat, chicken or fish on the grill, roast some fresh vegetables in the oven, chop up a salad, and call it. I really look forward to having company to cook for, as most recipes make more than a party of two can eat. That is when I might make a good chicken fried steak and potatoes or huevos rancheros for breakfast. I have my mother’s recipe book with all her wacky hand-written recipes on napkins, waitress tickets, grocery receipts, and more. I love my old Hartley Cookbook, and the Dalhart Community Cookbook, and my Beta Sigma Phi cookbooks.  Donna Bryant’s “Thumbprint Cookies” recipe, and Karen Brown’s “Chicketti Cassarole” recipe from the Hartley Cookbook are both favorites.  Helen Summerour’s “Snickerdoodle” cookie recipe from the Dalhart Community Cookbook is the best ones I have found. I have adopted Opal Baker's oatmeal coconut cookies recipe as my own.  It is kind of sad that I have most of my recipes on the computer or pulled from online these days, cookbooks may soon be a thing of the past—heck, at the rate we seem to going, COOKING may be a thing of the past!

I wonder about parents now, feeding their kiddos fast food meals and fruit drinks that aren’t really fruit, all the while complaining about the GMO foods, and demanding free range chicken. Some kids eat more meals in the back seat of the car than they ever do at a table. They don’t consider that all our non-GMO vegetables were bathed in pesticides to be able to make a crop, and  I wonder how people would react if they knew that “organic” veggies and fruits they are eating were probably fertilized with cow or chicken poop. I am sure there would be an outcry, spreading poop on the fields would be outlawed, and we would be left with mountains of poop sitting around to deal with. 

The bigger picture is that the only real bonding time for a busy family is often at mealtime. We always turned the TV off and sat at the table to eat. Even until my girls were grown and left home, we tried to eat together at least once a day. With school and sports, at times it was just a rushed lunch--but it was a little window to talk with each other. It really doesn’t matter so much what the food is, it’s about the love and connections we make while eating it. What are some of your favorite family food traditions? Are you continuing your family traditions? Leave me a comment below.

Peace friends--


  1. Donna, what a great read! And nothing has taken me back to the memories of my own childhood as much as reading about the holiday meals at the Miller House! I think about all of the pot luck suppers at church or a meal after a funeral -- Hartley Cooks are some of the best in the world in my opinion! I remember how some of the kids would look at the spread on the long tables eyeing the various casseroles of spaghetti, green beans, baked beans, potatoes, corn, ground beef, etc. and look up at their mother and ask "which one is yours, Mama?" Food brought to sell in the concession stand at all of the basketball games -- heavenly! Frito pies -- still one of my favorites! Thank you for the opportunity to reminisce (I'm sure I misspelled that!) A great trip into our past!


  2. The first one is that our growing up like we did taught all of us a life lesson that continues to this day -- that is Food = Love!

    Our “Tribe” (community and families of Hartley) clearly demonstrated their caring and love of each other and the community through food! You could not go anywhere, do almost anything with more than two or three people that food didn't enter the equation somehow.

    I am convinced that the practice came from all our parents and grandparents having had to endure the crushing hard times that were the depression and dust bowl days. I remember grandmother(s) talking about how very hard it was to feed their children during the “dirty thirties” and how precious food was then. In those days and times if you had food, you shared with anyone with whom you came in contact and they returned the favor. I’m sure you can or should remember the tradition of us having a chicken coop/yard was a holdover from that time as we could at least have chicken and eggs in our house. Dad always planted a garden so that we could have fresh vegetables and like you said mother and grandmother’s canning kept us in jelly an relishes.

    I remember that almost as long as mom and dad were alive, someone would seem to stop by and drop off a big box of freshly picked corn, a sack or two of black-eyed peas, or some okra or squash. I remember thinking that a vegetarian must be someone who only eats Pinto beans over cornbread with freshly sliced tomatoes some fried okra or yellow squash and fresh green onions (with a generous topping of chow-chow)!!! I could clearly understand how it would not be much of a sacrifice to have to eat like that all the time!

    And then there is the baking --- Holy smokes. Mahogany chocolate cakes, Oatmeal cookies, those pumpkin chiffon pies, etc. Mom managed to master grandmother Miller’s white bread recipe! After I left home, whenever I would come back to Hartley, I could almost count on there being three loaves of freshly baked bread (maybe still warm from the oven) and talk about something making a house smell like home --- and again with the LOVE!! The last time she and dad came to California to visit us, she made me go to the store and buy some bread pans, some Crisco and some flour and yeast so she could make some bread! As I recall, mom also kept a pound or two lard around almost exclusively for making pie dough!! That is all I need to say about that….

    You and I are certainly kin as I too am a foodie!! Can you blame us? I am proud to try to continue that tradition of Food = Love because almost anytime we get together, there will always be food involved sooner rather than later!!

    And like Karen Brown said what I wouldn't give to be able to head the community center for one of the “pot luck” suppers (pick a reason) tonight!!! Hartley cooks are the best in the world and we were all blessed to be able to know them and enjoy their fabulous food.

    And finally, it really bothers me now days when I go to a restaurant or someone’s home and everyone is totally absorbed with their phone and there is no conversation, laughter or noise of almost any kind!! Even at someone’s house, the phone is never out of reach of most people. Quite frankly it almost offends me when I see someone answer their phone in a restaurant or look something up when we are sitting at the table. I know I am old and not as cool or current as other people, (I don’t own a smart phone!) but even if I did, I would refuse to answer it at the table unless it was a real emergency. Just me… Clif