Food for Thought

52 Ancestors in 52 Weeks: Week 5 – In the Kitchen

Prompt: So many memories revolve around meals and cooking together. Do you have an ancestor who was a good cook (or maybe a notoriously bad cook!) What about a favorite recipe — where did it come from or who always cooked it? If that doesn’t spring any ideas, what about ancestors named Kitchen or Cook(e)?

I feel truly blessed, at age fifty-eight, to have both of my parents alive, in good health, and with their minds fully functioning and able to recall very detailed memories of their earlier lives. They have been kind enough to share with me some of their own memories related to “kitchens,” and I have included them in this post.

First, my own thoughts:

My Grandfather and Grandmother Laney

Grandmother’s kitchen: where it all happened. My Grandfather and Grandmother Laney in Joplin.

Of all of the ancestors that I knew personally, my paternal grandmother is probably the one who did the most cooking and baking and the one who seemed to get the most enjoyment from making food for others. A visit to her house always meant that there was an abundance of food and special treats made in advance.

She was in her element at Thanksgiving and Christmas. And somehow, she never seemed nervous or excited about coordinating the timing of all of the various items in the ovens, on the stovetop, and in the refrigerator and freezers. It would seem that the more people she was entertaining, the more she enjoyed herself. (I would have been terrified!)

Thanksgiving 1971 in Pittsburg, Kansas. Standing, L-R: James Williamson, his sister Elizabeth Williamson Laney (my grandmother), Opal Williamson, Bonnell Turnbull, Sandra Harding Laney (my mother.) Seated, L-R: Sons of Bonnell, Opal’s mother, Dave Williamson, Scott Laney, the author, Norma Ethel Lewis Laney, her son and my paternal grandfather, Omar Laney. My father was behind the camera.

Some of my favorite food memories from the holidays at her house are:

  • Home-Made Noodles. My grandmother’s were thicker than traditional egg noodles. The only thing that I have tasted since that is similar are Japanese udon, but her noodles were flat and served in a cream sauce and they had FAR more flavor!
  • Oyster Dressing. It’s called “stuffing” here on the East Coast. My grandmother’s was a delicious mixture of bread crumbs, oysters, sage, and celery. On those occasions when she was making it and my Dad was around, he might have added a pinch or two more of sage when she wasn’t looking!
  • Cookies and Candy. I think my grandmother must have started her Christmas baking and candy-making at Halloween. We had metal tins containing cookies, candy, fudge, and divinity stacked up three deep in our house between Thanksgiving and January. (One never left her house empty-handed.) I was partial to her peanut brittle, but other favorites included her peanut butter-filled chocolate drops, and candied pecans. My favorite of her cookies were her Russian Tea cookies covered in powdered sugar, her Scottish scones–made from her Aunt Jean’s recipe, and her oatmeal bars.
Fred & Red’s on Main Street in Joplin. The seven-seater “greasy spoon” was a favorite of the miners (of which there were many in my family) when it opened in the 1920s. It changed names and ownership over the years, but it remained a Laney family favorite.

And on non-holiday visits to her house:

  • Lots of great conversations, cups of coffee, and pieces of pie while sitting around the small table in her kitchen.
  • A full bowl of ice cream in our jammies before going to bed when we stayed over at her house.
  • Her reuben sandwiches—a favorite of my Dad’s too!
  • Also, fun times going out to eat at Fred & Red’s for their “Spaghetti Red.” This remembrance is not of my grandmother’s kitchen, obviously. But remembering this also reminds me that “eating out” was kind of a big deal when I was growing up. We didn’t eat out very often ourselves, and we rarely ate out when visiting my Harding grandparents, but we did more of that sort of thing when visiting my Laney grandparents, as I recall. I think it was something that my grandfather especially liked to do, and I surmise that they were perhaps in a financial situation in which they were able to “treat” us.

My Grandfather and Grandmother Harding

So many of my memories of my mother’s parents—Clifford and Ina Cathcart Harding—center around food because my grandfather was a farmer. He had a large farm outside of Lawrence, Kansas, but he also tended a large vegetable garden behind my grandparents’ house on their large property in town. Most of the meals eaten at their house—at least in the summer–featured produce from his garden.

Some specific memories:

  • Vegetables. I enjoyed being part of gathering vegetables for the evening meal. I remember being intrigued that there were different colors of tomatoes. I remember picking corn and pulling up radishes. I also shucked peas.
  • Beef. My grandfather always prided himself on choosing the most delectable cuts of beef for steak when we came to their house. Only later did I find out that he had studied “meat-judging” in high school. Not only that, but I learned that it was a team sport and that he and his classmates participated in judged competitions against other teams. In fact, his team won national honors in their category. I also found out that he later judged cows as well. (See below.)
  • Kraft Cheese Spreads. The kind that came in the small five-ounce jars. These were certainly available in our local supermarket at home, but for whatever reason it was not something that we had around our house. But Grandmother Harding knew that my brother and I loved it, and she always made sure she had it in her pantry when we came to visit. We spread it on crackers, often served along with a glass of juice in one of the glass jars in which the spread is dispensed. The jars made excellent juice glasses, and she was not the only person who saved them just for that purpose. Although the spreads are till available, I haven’t had them in years. The packaging is slightly different now. One can find these vintage “juice” glasses on eBay.
The Junction City Republic – Junction City, Kansas – 3 Apr 1930
The Belleville Telescope – Belleville, Kansas -9 Oct 1924

Growing Up in my Own Home

The author with a few of the many birthday cakes made for her by her mother.

My mother was an elementary school teacher. It is beyond me how she was able to come home after standing on her feet all day teaching young, inquisitive, energetic children, supervising them on the playground and in the lunchroom, and then come home and put a meal on our table every night. She probably does not fancy herself a cook, but I have many specific memories–all pleasant except one–of food in our home.

  • Tuna Croquettes. My mother often made this—my favorite dish—at my request. It was always referred to as “Favorite Meat,” a name I made up myself, I think. I just loved the tasty mix of rice, cream of mushroom soup, and cheese, rolled in cornmeal, and cooked in oil in a skillet.
  • Chili. My mother makes a mean pot of chili. I remember the smell of it simmering on the stove and anticipating putting grated cheese and onions on top. It is obviously a favorite of my brother’s as well; she often has a pot of it on the stove when he shows up at home during the fall and winter months.
  • Oyster Stew. When I was sick—and sometimes for a special treat when I was not sick—my mother would pick up a can for me. (Trust me, we lived in Oklahoma—not near any saltwater—so it had to be canned!) I love the buttery milky stew and oysters to this day.
  • Birthday Cakes. When I was growing up in small town Oklahoma, there was not a lot of variety of ready-made cakes in the bakery section of grocery stores like there are now. She made and frosted and decorated my brother’s and my birthday cakes. When I was older and supermarkets stocked more ready-made items, even if there were any bakery cakes, one would not have found anything as exotic as red velvet cake—my favorite—which she made many times.
  • Waffles for Lunch. On some Sundays, we had breakfast food after we got home from church. I loved this! My mother would whip up a batch of waffle batter and get out that behemoth of a waffle iron. (Like cars, everything in the 60s and 70s was made to withstand the ravages of tornadoes, earthquakes, or nuclear warfare–industrial, sturdy, and HEAVY.) For his part, my father would make a fresh batch of a topping we all loved to put on buttered waffles: a mixture of white sugar, confectioners’ sugar, and cinnamon. My brother and I dubbed this concoction “gun powder.” The mélange of hot waffle and gunpowder liquified by butter was heavenly. I always liked to tamp down the gunpowder into the butter and into the holes of the waffle with the back of my fork. The blend was intoxicating. Also, not combining the powdered sugar mixture with the butter, one could easily inhale the gunpowder, resulting in fits of coughing and uncontrolled laughter.
  • Liver. The one unpleasant memory. The few times that my mother would make liver for herself, I found the stench unbearable. But at least the rest of us were not expected to eat it. I guess it was an acquired taste, Mom!

I asked my parents about their own memories with regard to their ancestors and their kitchens, and these are some of their remembrances:

My Mother remembers time spent in the kitchens of each of her grandmothers:

Sandra Joyce Harding and her Grandma Harding

Grandma Harding [Jennie Taylor Cathcart] lived with Gramps [Reginald Harding] in a rural area close to Junction City—Wakefield, Kansas—that no longer exists with the building of the Milford Dam Project.

Jennie was very much a family person with her siblings in Junction City and their own family of five—Gladys, Daddy, and Maxine. She was an early woman entrepreneur in that she established a poultry farm related business—a very demanding job. My memories with her in her kitchen were when I would go ‘on vacation’ to stay with them and of us eating an early breakfast, then following her around as we did the morning feeding schedule, and marveling at all the many various sizes of the chickens and turkeys. I did not enjoy reaching into a nest of a ‘setting hen’ in order to gather all the eggs. Pecking my hands intimidated me. [As well it should have. She was and still is an accomplished pianist and organist: her hands are precious!]  And the Tom Turkeys, with their strutting posture and loud warnings of ‘gobble, gobble,’ made me want to the avoid them…special memories of helping  her mix two of my favorite cakes: the yellow sponge cake and the angel food cake. I assisted by cracking the shells of the large turkey eggs, and then Grandma patiently taught me how to separate yolks (put in the sponge cake) from egg whites into the second mixing bowl. Also, she let me use the hand held mixer….the egg shells went into the compost pile out in back.

Agnes Curry and Tom Cathcart

My Grandmother Cathcart [Agnes Curry Cathcart] lived in Winchester, Kansas.  She had a very different personality than Grandma Harding.  At times I would feel as if she just tolerated Clifford [her brother] and me.  When we visited—always along with Mother—[there was] no sharing food preparation to assist her—for us kids or even her daughter, Ina, at least that I can remember.  Perhaps that was due to the fact that her kitchen had no running water except for one single faucet, nor was there electricity…Thus, the one faucet served as a source for water BUT without a water heater (gas or electric), hot water was obtained by heating water in a teakettle or in an extended tub that was heated by both burners…on the intriguing coal burning stove…with a chimney pipe going up to the ceiling.  This house in town had NO amenities.  When they moved into town [from the farm], the Cathcarts did not have a well.  However, Mother’s [Ina’s] first remembrances were of their house on the farm.  I never knew where it was located. [There are] photos [of her] on the front porch wearing her button shoes and in the yard with her older brother, Mark and Aunt Vida Cathcart Linton.

Vida, Ina, and Mark Cathcart

A vacation in Winchester was livened with all these cousins who kept us entertained by coming into town with their riding horses or when we would get to go visit Zoe and family.  The prior vacation I mentioned was one whole week of being away from the Iola routine, primarily away from Clifford.  I was always told I came back ‘spoiled rotten,’ but I know I learned a lot from a kitchen that was more like ours.

The type of egg beater my mother remembers using in helping her Grandmother Harding make her special cakes.
This early 20th century cooking range with stove pipe is similar to what my mother remembers her Grandmother Cathcart using not only for cooking but for heating water for bathing as well.

My mother also summarized conversations she and my father had this week, prompted by this “assignment.”

Now for the relatives in Pittsburg, Kansas [the Williamsons] – – mainly focusing on your dad’s visits [to his grandparents as a child] but you and Scott [my brother] were there several times when it was Granddad [Williamson] and Opal [his second wife.]  Same situation about no conveniences until later when Opal married him.  But she helped solve some of those challenges later along with the financial assistance of [my father’s] Uncle James [Williamson] (your dad’s surmising.) All of the relatives so far mentioned–including your Grandmother Harding and Laney all preserved their garden produce by canning – – green beans, cucumbers for pickles, tomatoes, etc…our [her own and my father’s] experiences were so much the same as my grandparents in Winchester and his Granddad’s place out a ways from town near the Crawford Country Club.  We surmise that since the mother of Elizabeth Ann and James [Anne Braithwaite Williamson] was the chef at the club, then your Grandmother learned a lot from her by going there after school or in the summers in order to assist.

The Williamsons had a well [in Pittsburg], but even after they upgraded, long before our family visited and stayed over night, they had updated to indoor plumbing. Of course, both your dad and I recall the challenges of going to the “out house” provided with only a Sears & Roebuck catalog!!

6 thoughts on “Food for Thought”

  1. What a great story, full of neat details & fun. You are blessed to have both parents still around & willing to reminisce, like you said. I love the part about being careful not to inhale the “gunpowder “! 🙂 And oyster dressing – yum! My mom would make it, too – a small batch for the few family members that liked it.
    My kin are from the same neck of the woods as yours in SE Kansas (Coffeyville, Longton, and Howard, mainly), so it’s fun to hear others’ stories of that area. Thanks for sharing!

    Liked by 1 person

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