Legacy

By November 22, 2007 November 28th, 2007 thoughts

I would love to say that I grew up cooking at someone’s knee. That I spent endless hours of my childhood in a steamy, bubbly kitchen dusted with powdery-flecked-shafts-of-light and me perched on a stool watching my grandmother’s every move, waiting for those moments when an oversized spoon was touched to my lips for me to learn taste. I could entertain you with tales of unrecordable family recipes and booming, day-long family feasts. Here, have a seat in my kitchen and have a cup of tea while I bake a pie, and I’ll tell you all about it.

Well, no. Not quite. I do love to cook, but that story is not my story, although we do have unrecordable recipes and booming, day-long family feasts.

Me, Mattie and my cousin Brian
Me, Mattie and my cousin Brian – Thanksgiving 1997

Mattie taught me that kind of cooking — the kind that doesn’t have a recipe. Although she didn’t actually even teach me. Mostly, she cooked while I watched and asked questions like, “How much flour did you just add to those pan drippings to make gravy?”

And her answers sounded like this: “What do you mean how much flour? You look at how much drippings you have and you add enough flour. If it tastes right, you added enough.”

She wasn’t being mean, or rigid, just sensible. As if to say “Don’t worry about measurements — just cook.” Like I needed to concentrate and just do it right.

So I watched, and ate, and watched, and ate. The best fried chicken I have ever to this day put in my mouth. The flakiest fluffiest biscuits. Sweet potatoes that tasted more like pudding. The most comforting chicken pot pies. And sometime after college I started trying some of her recipes on my own. This usually involved a long phone conversation with Mattie where I took extensive notes that didn’t make sense as I wrote them. They involved instructions like, “Then you add your bake powder. Taste it. If it don’t taste right, add some more.” Some recipes required 2 phone calls.

But I bumbled through, and kept trying to serve people dishes that I called “Mattie’s (insert food here).” And after years of earnest practice, I can actually make consistently good buttermilk biscuits having never had a recipe in front of me. I can make fried chicken that mostly comes out right, but sometimes doesn’t. And much of the time, I have good gravy to add to the meal, but sometimes not.

In trying to cook like Mattie, I have come to understand a life lesson that applies to far more than just cooking (as any good life lesson will): if it doesn’t taste right before it’s cooked, it certainly won’t taste right after it’s cooked.

And that’s always the key — getting it to taste right, or getting it to taste just like Mattie’s. No other taste will suffice. I make fried chicken that Bob thinks is great (because really, fried chicken is sort of inherently great), but I’m unhappy if it doesn’t taste just like Mattie’s. That mysterious blend of inexact amounts of salt and spices and secret ingredients.

The first year Mattie didn’t cook Thanksgiving, it took 7 of us to replicate her meal. Seven people. To put together a dinner usually made by one person. And she was coaching us every step of the way. But we were all very proud of ourselves because it tasted pretty much just like Mattie’s. Which is in itself something to be thankful for.

Today will be our first Thanksgiving without Mattie. I spent the day yesterday making “Mattie’s Cornbread Dressing” and “Mattie’s Turkey Gravy” (my assigned tasks for the group’s “Mattie’s Thanksgiving Dinner”) and I probably called my mom 6 times to ask for clarification of one thing, or to discuss options for interpreting another. After all was said and done and it turned out mostly Mattie-esque (the gravy tastes a little of too much flour, but once it’s on food, it’ll be fine — good enough), I had time to reflect a little bit. Thanksgiving for my family, and hopefully for yours, is a happy time. A time of thanks, of course. So I know I should be winding this down by talking about how grateful I am for Mattie. How lucky I was to have so many years with her humming her way around my grandmother’s and my aunt’s and my mom’s kitchens. How very fortunate I am that I can make her biscuits.

But I also feel sad. Sad that Mattie’s cooking is no longer an activity but a subject. That her gospel purring is no longer something to listen to but to talk about. That her seat at our table is no longer a presence but a legacy. Plain and simply, that I won’t get to be with her today.

I hope your Thanksgiving is as full as I know mine is going to be. That you get to spend time being happy, reflective, grateful, and loved. Full of emotion. Full of thanks.

Mattie and my mom
Mattie and my mom – Thanksgiving 1997.

Join the discussion 10 Comments

  • PunditMom says:

    Thanks for sharing that story. I love when you write about Mattie. Enjoy your “Mattie’s Thanksgiving!”

  • Kathryne Perrill says:

    Laurie, this is a wonderful piece. Your mom shared it with us, and we are so touched. Mattie was definitely a part of my life too as I spent A LOT of time at the house on Eden Terrace. She was “always there.” I loved her too. I guess I just took her for granted because she was a part of my childhood. You have a GREAT family! I know you know that! It makes me love you too! I hope your Thanksgiving was still a good one even though I know all of you missed having Mattie there. I hope the twins will be able to have little memories of her too.
    Love, Kathryne

  • Betsy says:

    That was beautiful, Loretta. Really, I feel choked up and I can’t blame that completely on my lack of sleep and other new mother issues. I feel thankful for the people that I’ve had in my life who are no longer here, but darnit that we all have to die one day. All of us. Everyone we know. Gone.
    By the way, I’ve had your biscuits and they’re fabulous.

  • Adam Cohen says:

    Nice…hope ya’ll had a great one.

  • You can teach someone to cook, but you can’t always show them how to make it turn out right. Kind of like with love, and isn’t cooking often an expression of love? As full of dinner as I am, that’s the best I can come up with tonight.

  • Mary says:

    I have no words, just feelings! Feelings about Mattie, about you and YOUR wonderful words.

  • Ami says:

    Laurie,
    My grandmother also died this year. She taught me how to bake. And I can’t tell you how much flour goes into the challah or how much oil. I can’t tell you exactly how spices are measured.

    Her mother who I never met taught her how to bake. As a child my grandmother would come home every Friday to fresh challah and honey.

    At my grandmother’s funeral, the rabbi remarked how important it is to tell the stories of our loved ones who are gone.

    So now when I bake bread with my boys I tell how my grandmother taught me how to bake with a big ceramic bowl exactly like the one we use. And I tell them that her grandmother taught her how to bake.

    I hope that you also share Mattie’s stories and life with your girls as you make biscuits, fried chicken and Thanksgiving meals.

    Thanks for the thoughts and reminders of thanks.
    Ami

  • I am smiling at this beautiful post and so wishing I could make buttermilk biscuits.

  • ruth Cohen says:

    I’m a little late. I just finished reading your beautiful ode to Mattie.

    Thanks for sharing.

    I love you.

    Aunt R

  • Vikki says:

    Thank you for this beautiful story ??

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