I often think of my life and my sisters and brothers, of our parents and grandparents, my children and grandchildren..of our roots.
As I grow older, I find myself reaching farther and farther back into my roots, of trying to understand who I am and what made me this way. I think I may have been shaped, more than I could have imagined, by my paternal grandmother and her love of good food.
One year when Bob was still alive and in good health, we bought 45 heads of cabbage (on sale for 9 cents per pound) and spent two days shredding and salting it down, and then packing it into a huge old crock that had belonged to my younger sister’s mother in law. As I stood working in the kitchen, near the kitchen window, I kept wondering if my grandmother and her mother did the same, in Germany, where they came from. I don’t remember ever seeing my grandmother make sauer kraut (I know she bought it in small cardboard containers from the grocery store on the corner, across from the streetcar’s end of the line). The reason I know this is because my sister Becky wrote about being sent to the grocery to get 25 cents worth of sauer kraut, sold in little containers much the same way Chinese food is to this day) and she would sneak bits of it on the walk back to Grandma’s, where grandma complained about the grocer short-changing her. Becky sent that story to Reminisce magazine, where it was published.
Grandma did make a lot of applesauce, enlisting the assistance of her daughters-in-law and some of the older grandchildren to peel all the apples. She had sour apple trees and they’d can a lot of apple sauce. During World War II when sugar was rationed, they’d can the applesauce sans sugar. For years following the war, we’d still have unsweetened apple sauce in the basement cupboards. We were allowed to put a spoonful of sugar onto our applesauce serving. I don’t actually remember the applesauce making, but I remember well the Mason jars of applesauce stored in a mud cellar in our basement, which had built in cupboards along one side.
Family folklore also has it that my grandparents made their own moonshine—and grandma fed the mash to her chickens, something I have no intention of ever trying.
My grandfather made grape wine from his own small arbor of grapes—that is something Bob and I have copied. We had a small arbor of concord grapes in our back yard in Arleta. Generally, I made and canned grape juice—about 30 quarts full in a good year. One year when Bob wanted to make his own wine, I said “have at it” – We found amber wine bottles for ten cents each one year at Pick and Save and bought fifty bottles. A good friend of ours named Stan made labels for us – “The Keeper’s Vine”, so named because I collected lighthouse stuff. I thought the wine was terrible but Bob drank all of it (not in one fell swoop, fortunately).
What makes us what we are? Do we ever really know?
One night when I was in the mood for some kind of snack—and all the cakes and cookies had been eaten up –in a fit of inspiration I made chocolate pudding—from scratch—cocoa, cornstarch, milk, sugar, butter and vanilla. I don’t think I have made pudding from scratch since I was a teenager, where I had free reign in the kitchen.
As I was stirring the dark, glossy mixture, I began wondering what people did before Jello and Royal came out with pudding and gelatin in cook-it-yourself boxes, which in turn were replaced by refrigerated containers of Jello—gelatin or pudding in little plastic containers. (I have been shocked lately to see the price increases of boxes of Jello gelatin or pudding).
Bob and I were so enchanted with our cooked chocolate pudding (that I poured into old fashioned dessert dishes and then refrigerated) that the next night I made tapioca “from scratch”. Actually, I don’t even like the taste of pre-made commercial tapioca. Does this mean that the old ways are better? Tapioca pudding is one of my favorite comfort foods to this day—even though I don’t remember my mother ever making it. Actually, I think I was the one who began making tapioca pudding—all you needed was sugar, egg, milk and some dry tapioca granules –following the recipe on the side of the box. A box of tapioca was one of those items always on my mother’s pantry shelves.
I have yet to taste a pre-packaged dairy case tapioca pudding that can begin to compare with homemade, still slightly warm, tapioca made from scratch.
I think my attitudes about most things made from scratch—whether it is a loaf of bread or homemade sauer kraut (which we’d can in quart jars) – and still had perhaps half a dozen jars of sauer kraut – when we moved to the desert – are surely reflections inherited from my mother and grandmother.
Bob and I had our own orange and lemon trees in Arleta—which I didn’t can (citrus juices can be iffy) —but we made good use of, with fresh citrus fruit almost always available. I make all of my own jellies, jams, chutneys, and preserves. I don’t remember my mother or grandmother making jellies or jams. On the other hand, my paternal grandmother made strudel dough from scratch, painstakingly, stretching the paper-thin dough over the kitchen table which was covered with a table cloth, until the dough reached over the table on all four corners, unbroken, awaiting the filling. I am the first to admit, I don’t find making strudel especially appealing, not when very good filo dough is available in the supermarket, and then all you have to do is making the filling.
My grandmother also made all of her own noodles, letting the noodles dry on the backs of her wooden kitchen chairs. Lazy descendant that I am, I just buy packaged egg noodles, but like my grandmother, I make my own (from scratch) chicken noodle soup, boiling a chicken, deboning it, removing all the pieces of fat, then returning it to the pot to cook with noodles, homegrown parsley, and maybe a carrot or two, or some sliced mushrooms.
My Grandma Schmidt never had a cookbook or wrote down a recipe—and here I am, with some five or ten thousand cookbooks and a couple hundred filled recipe boxes. But then, my grandmother’s cooking was strictly German and Hungarian; she never made Chinese or Korean or Thai food; she never prepared a Mexican dinner and although she knew what sauer kraut was, she would have been perplexed, I think, over Kimchi (or making sauer kraut from scratch!)
I think knowing your roots is a good thing—my friend Mary Jaynne can trace hers to the American Revolution and is a
member of the Daughters of the American Revolution. Not only can’t we trace our roots beyond and names of our grandmothers parents and grandparents, we haven’t any thing to trace beyond that. The only reason I have the names of her parents and grandparents is because I had an assignment to do a family tree in high school – and was able to ASK both grandmothers for that information.
My paternal grandmother was reluctant to tell me anything about her roots. Quite possibly, World Wars I and II may have had something to do with that reluctance. She and my grandfather managed to immigrate to the USA before World War I began; perhaps she feared it could come to our shores.
A cousin on my mother’s side of the family, the same age as I, has been delving into the ancestry of the Beckman family and through her research unearthed some interesting facts about the Beckman side of the family. For one thing, she found a copy of Aunt Irene’s death certificate. Irene was the oldest of my mother’s siblings, who died when my mother was only about 17 years old. We always wondered what had caused Aunt Irene’s death – it seemed to have been covered up and not talked about. From her death certificate, we learned that she died from a ruptured appendix. That was a revelation to my cousin (also named Irene but always called Renee by my family). Out of a large family of nine children, my mother lived the longest life, dying at 83. Her mother, Grandma Beckman, lived to be 86 years old.
On my last visit to my hometown of Cincinnati, I spent one day with three of my Beckman cousins. My cousin Renee gave me, as a birthday present, our grandmother’s cookbook. We have been able to trace some of Grandma Beckman’s recipes back to this cookbook. In going through her cookbook, titled Our Home Cyclopedia, and published in 1881, I realized that most of the pages appear to have been unused—however, when I reached the section of “Pies” the pages are stained and show a lot of use.
Same thing with “pickles” – but the greatest treasure is near the end of the book where the publisher had left a dozen or more pages blank, for the lady of the house to make her own entries. In my grandmother’s elaborate penmanship, are her own recipes—from blackberry wine to Stuffed and Baked Mangoes (bearing in mind, friends, that Bell peppers were commonly called “Mangoes” in Cincinnati a hundred years ago—and still when I was first married in 1958. Grandma must have loved her Apple Sauce Cake as the recipe, in her handwriting, is badly stained, along with the one after that, for Angel Food Cake (written as Angle Food Cake in Grandma’s handwriting). Another well-stained recipe is one for making blackberry wine, which I would like to try if ever I have enough blackberries!
Born in 1881, Grandma Beckman’s cookbook provides some interesting insight into her background. I know so little. I remember her making corn pancakes, like a fritter—that she made when she was taking care of us children. I imagine it was one of the times my mother was in the hospital—most of my childhood was peppered with my mother’s frequent illnesses and hospital stays at St Francis Hospital in South Fairmount.
Clues to my maternal grandmother are sparse. I have one old photograph of her, holding a baby, surrounded by children, standing in front of an open door and what appears to be a log cabin. They seem to have been very poor, but even so, my mother and her closest sibling, my Aunt Lorraine (Rainey) went to a Catholic School. Perhaps there weren’t the constraints from tuition that existed when I went to high school. I have to imagine there wasn’t any tuition for students attending elementary school at a Catholic school back then. I don’t think there was any tuition for students when I was going to grade school. High School was another matter—but I digress.
For most of my life, my Grandma Beckman lived with her daughter, Helen, and son-in-law, my Uncle George. I think she visited other daughters or sons from time to time—Renee remembers such visits. I don’t. I think this Grandmother played favorites, favoring her sons and a few favorite daughters. (I don’t think my mother was one of them)…and yet it was my mother who put my grandmother into a nursing home and faithfully visited her, and it was my mother who made all of the arrangements for her mother’s funeral. I don’t think it was a matter of who was a favorite and who wasn’t – my mother had a strong sense of duty whether she liked it or not and it fell to her to take care of one of her sisters and her mother when duty called. Where did my mother get this sense of obligation if not from her own mother?
I hope my cousin Renee is able to provide more background into our Beckman family—it would be interesting to know. On the Schmidt side of the family, we can only reach so far back and no further; WW2 intervened and destroyed many of the areas in Europe where we might have done some tracing.
I’ve come a long way from reflecting on my life and what I remember from my childhood. Perhaps someone else will have to get into genealogy and climb our family tree.