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Old School Simplicity

Grandma cooked fresh before fresh was cool.

July 18, 2001|SANDRA LEADER | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

I remember the exact moment I discovered that I had a passion for good food. I was 8 years old, sitting in the kitchen of my grandparents' simple one-story, wood-frame house in Longview, Wash., eating a lunch that consisted of sliced tomatoes, buttered whole-wheat bread, summer sausage, milk and oatmeal cookies. Unpretentious though that lunch may have been, I realized then that the food I was eating was unusually delicious. In one respect, nothing was out of the ordinary: Almost everything my grandmother served was familiar and commonplace. But somehow the flavors and aromas were intensified, purified, heightened. It was as if the foods were more essentially themselves. There was, as they say, more there there.

As a child, I didn't know how to explain this. It wasn't that my grandmother was a sophisticated gourmet. Her style was basic--typical Midwestern. She did have good technique, and what she knew she prepared well. But her real secret (if you could even call it that; it was simply necessity to her) was that she made everything from scratch using only fresh, home-grown ingredients or, in the winter, items that had been home-canned or frozen at the peak of freshness.

These were the '50s, you understand, before Alice Waters revolutionized American cuisine by advocating the virtues of cooking with fresh, seasonal ingredients. Most home cooks were content to use canned or frozen fruits and vegetables from grocery store shelves, and they regularly employed packaged, prepared foods, such as Campbell's soups, as essential shortcut components in main or side dishes. In some places in the country, this remains a common practice.

But on their little spread in southwestern Washington, my grandparents, neither of them educated beyond the eighth grade, grew or raised nearly every morsel of food that went into the mouths of the five children they still had at home. They had moved there from Nebraska in 1944 when my grandfather got a good-paying job at the aluminum mill in Longview, a logging town on the Columbia River. Eventually sidelined by a neck injury, my grandfather stayed home and worked the flat, fertile four acres that nestled up against a jagged evergreen-covered hill nearly tall enough to be considered a mountain. My grandmother cooked and cleaned for a wealthy family in Portland, Ore., 45 miles to the south, to bring in a modest income.

Grandpa Art, a stocky man with gnarled hands and a thick head of hair that turned white when he got older, was in charge of the livestock: some 100 chickens running free in a good-sized coop behind the house; half a dozen pigs rooting in a pen nearby; several cows and a couple of steers grazing on a couple of acres of surrounding pasture land. These domestic animals kept them supplied year-round with eggs, milk, poultry, beef and pork (and suet to render for soap).

It was not unusual to see lengths of summer sausage hanging in their fruit room (a euphemism for the dark, closet-sized space where home-canned goods and other foodstuffs were stored), and they also smoked their own ham and bacon. Additional protein occasionally was supplied from the dank slough that sliced the land at the base of the mountain, where my grandfather caught catfish that my grandmo ther immediately floured and fried.

My visits were punctuated with events that I loved--helping milk the cows, mastering sending the warm, fragrant stream of liquid splattering into a tin bucket--and those I hated, such as coming unexpectedly upon the steaming carcass of a freshly slaughtered pig hanging from a prominent branch of the maple tree in their frontyard. Once when a number of chickens had been designated for the freezer, I was drafted for feather plucking, an activity I fortunately never had to repeat.

I rarely missed joining Grandpa Art in the separating room where the morning and evening milk, fresh from the cows, was poured into an uncomplicated large metal machine that my grandfather, with my assistance, hand-cranked until the cream came spewing out one spigot and the fat-reduced milk another. The memory of the sweet-sour smell (the aroma of buttermilk is similar but not quite the same) in that small room lined with gallon milk jars still makes me nostalgic.

Dairy products were an essential part of the family diet and were used generously in all types of dishes. Grandma Clara, a stout woman with peaches-and-cream complexion, made her own cheese and churned her own butter, which, when combined with her homemade whole-wheat raisin bread and jam, transformed toast into a special treat. Cream, milk and buttermilk were staples in everyday cooking, appearing with every imaginable vegetable (creamed new potatoes and peas), in salad dressings (a cooked dressing of buttermilk, vinegar and bacon fat thickened with flour on a leafy green lettuce and potato salad) or with poultry, (creamed chicken on mashed potatoes), and, of course, in rich, silky homemade ice cream.

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