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June 27, 2010

Kitchen Magic

By Elaine Viets    Housewife

My Grandmother Vierling had the tools of a first-rate cook: well-seasoned skillets, wooden spoons and a Magic Chef stove with more chrome than a '56 Buick.

That stove really did produce magic.

Grandma transformed tough, cheap pork chops into tender delicacies. Her biscuits were cloud soft. Her lettuce was hand-picked from her garden, dressed with white vinegar and slathered in bacon grease. Her pies brimmed with summer peaches and sparkled with white sugar.

There was a heart attack in every meal, but what a way to go.

300px-Measuringspoons1 There was one kitchen tool Grandma didn’t use: measuring cups.

I’d sit at her Chromecraft kitchen table and watch her orchestrate a six-course meal like a symphony conductor tuning up an orchestra. She’d line up her canisters, containers and pans. She’d spread out her pastry cloth and sprinkle it with flour.

Her hands would move from heavy white mounds of all-purpose flour to sweet hills of granulated sugar. She’d add a dash of baking powder and a pinch of salt. She’d cut off a dab of butter. In Grandma measurements, a dab was about a quarter of a stick. A dollop of lard was the size of a ping-pong ball. Then she’d add a glug of milk. A glug was probably a quarter cup.

The measurements weren’t precise, but the results were always the same: perfection.

"Teach me how to cook," I’d beg her. "I want to cook like you, Grandma. What are your recipes?"

"I don’t use recipes," she would say. "Just watch me make biscuits."

I’d try to follow her hands as they grabbed, dabbed, dolloped and glugged. She didn’t use a biscuit cutter for the dough. She made perfect rounds with a Welch’s grape jelly glass. Traditional biscuit

Those biscuits weren’t eaten with store bought jelly, either. Grandma made her own.

I’d observe her confident, self-assured cooking demonstration with the awe a pot scrubber reserves for a Michelin chef.

"Now you try it," she would say.

And I did.

I grabbed, dabbed, dolloped and glugged. I cut the sticky white dough with a jelly glass. My biscuits turned out hard as hailstones.

"Uh, I think my hands are bigger than yours, Grandma," I said.

She threw my failure outside to feed the birds.

"You just need to get a feel for it, that’s all," she said.

Oh, the food I ruined. I made the Magic Chef perform magic in reverse. I turned plump chickens into dried-out leather. I transformed firm Idaho potatoes into gray glue. My green beans turned to mush, but all canned veggies were like that.

I did learn something when I felt my way around her kitchen: Real cooks have the touch – and I was no cook.

Bisquick logo Grandma learned, too. When I begged her for one more biscuit lesson, she reached into her pantry for a yellow box of Bisquick.

"Here’s your recipe," she said. "Get out of the kitchen. Go do something useful with your life."

I hope my stories are half as good as her biscuits.


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My dad was like that with soup...a handful of this, some springs of that, whatever meat he was using, and veggies. It took me a long time to figure out his chicken veggie soup(no noodles) had chopped apple in it! He and my mom both endured the depression and could make a meal from whatever was in the house. Me? Well, Bisquick saved me many a time, but I still can't cook "by feel and taste" like they could...and even knowing the apple secret, I can never quite duplicate the taste. And maybe that's the way it should be :o) Catherine uses the same ingredients in her shortbread I do in mine, and she swears mine is still better. Go figure.Hope your Sunday is truly sunny, Elaine...we're due for more rain.

Ah, you've reminded me of my grandma -- great intuitive cook -- "you'll know it's right because it will feel right" brought delectable results in her hands.
I love "Here’s your recipe," she said. "Get out of the kitchen. Go do something useful with your life." You surely have!!

Now to all a good night. I may dream of Grandma's coffee cake . . .

My dad and I learned how to make jelly together starting when I was 12. We graduated to making cookies and then competing to make the best cookies. I could never duplicate his date squares - even following his recipe. He made brown sugar fudge that would start to harden as he poured it. I can't make fudge to save my life.

I miss him. I miss making a batch of muffins and bringing them to him for his seal of approval! I wish he had lived longer to do more treat baking for his grandkids.

night all . . .

Elaine, I think the name Magic Chef was very appropriate. I am convinced that magic plays a big part in cooking. A little water, some seasonings, add the magic touch and voila a meal.
Homemade noodles were a revelation to me when a friend of mine whipped them up with flour, egg and water. I had been convinced that they could only be come from a box from the grocers.
Recently a young friend of mine and I were discussing knitting socks. I showed her my self striping yarn socks. I told her that the colors changed automatically just like magic. When I started to explain to her how the companies accomplished the striping technique I stopped and told her that it was really magic. She agreed. We both like that explanation much better,
Elaine your grandmother was prophetic and wise. Your novels can magically take us to another world..that is magic!

Oh, Elaine, my grandma too -- what a baker! Alas, I was a picky eater. Not her favorite audience. I sure do miss her cinnamon rolls, though. Every single Saturday night she'd start the dough rising so they'd be ready for Sunday morning.

"I hope my stories are half as good as her biscuits."

Have no fear, Sunflower.

Oh, Elaine, how wonderful it was to read this... I always say I learned to cook in self-defense. My first husband used to say my mother only knew one recipe: "dumpster etouffee." Both my grandmothers never cooked in their lives. I think if I'd grown up with such a talented cook as your grandmother, I would've faded into the woodwork. As it was, I had no idea my mistakes were mistakes until I learned better, which was a blessing.

And I think I owned that same Magic Chef stove for a while, in Massachusetts. I bought it out of a Pennysaver and had it rechromed at an auto shop. It was gorgeous.

What a wonderful, smart Grandma!
My grandmother was never a cook. Loves to eat though. My father likes to say her idea of a balanced diet is pie in both hands. She's 90 and still healthy and happy so she must be doing something right. :-)
One of my fondest memory is visiting her one summer and polishing off an entire box of Jello pudding pops from the freezer.

Oh, the magic memories of Grandma's Kitchen! The adult me twinges and hears his arteries hardening thinking about it, the little boy smiles at the memories of roast beef and gravy, mounds of scrambled eggs, sausages that burst in your mouth when you bit into them, biscuits dripping with butter and grape jelly, and onward. Holidays were massive affairs, with unbelievable food on the table.

And Elaine, you nailed her cooking process perfectly: a pinch of this, a dash of that, throw it in the oven, an hour later Magic comes out. To this day, I can fake my way around the kitchen, and I make sure to have THE JOY OF COOKING handy at all times.

Grandma had an alternate use for her Big Spatula; with five extremely rowdy grandsons to deal with, the poor woman needed some sort of defense. A single swat to someone's rear and order was restored instantly. She had no shame swatting Grandpa when he get on her nerves, either. But as I remember them, they sure seemed happy....

My Gramma Minnie made coffee cake. She was gorgeous, model gorgeous, all that whitewhite hair. She taught me to knit and crochet and type, and had an apartment full of Reader's Digests--and I would copy out Laughter is the best mmedicine and Vocabulary words on her old typewriter.

ANyway, the coffee cake had chocolate and coffee in it--like, mocha. And it was fantastic. When she died, we found her recipe cards ,and we were so excited. Dibs the coffee cake, I said.

It was quite a battle to get the card.

But on it, it said
Coffee Cake

And so on. No quantities, no instructions.

We could never duplicate it.
And the number of people who actually tasted it are getting fewer and fewer.

Great post. I'm glad you listened to your grandma and became an author instead of cooking. Love your work. You definitely have a feel for writing.

Thoughts in Progress

My grandparents died when I was 4, so I didn't get to see Grandma cook. My great-aunt was a cook for the priests, my friend and I used to go see her in her tiny rented rooms for vanilla ice cream and molasses cookies.

My mom made mac & cheese from scratch - lots of it, to feed nine kids on Lent Fridays. I learned how to make it, after calling her on the phone. Mom: Ok, cook the macaroni. Then drain it, and pour milk into the pot. Me: How much? Mom: umm, so you can just see it through the macaroni.

I eventually got it right.

You write stories, I'll cook. My mom taught me. I do use measuring cups most of the time. We watch a lot of FoodTV. With little children it's great. All of the shows are G rated and the ads are too. Yael has made a wonderful stuffed tomato recipe from Giada De Laurentiis.

I've done all the cooking for years and consider using measuring devices roughly the equivalent of asking for directions. Real men don’t need measuring spoons.

Thanks for the memories, Elaine. My mother was an intuitive cook, too, and I helped enough to learn all of her techniques except pie crust. Hers were wonderfully flakey, melt-in-your mouth light. Mine sit on the tongue like a lump of pasty lead. When she left the farm for a while, she learned to make "city" biscuits with a cutter that made uniform rounds with soft bottoms. I much preferred my aunt's hand-shaped biscuits with crusty bottoms, so I stood at her elbow till I learned how to do it her way.

Real Men do cook Rod...in more places than the kitchen I might add!

This reminds me of my grandmother's tea cookies, which no one in the family has been able to duplicate.

But oh how I wish the phrase would be "A dollop of lard a day keeps the doctor away" instead of a boring old apple.

Someday, Ramona, science will discover the healing properties of lard. Chocolate is now good for you -- it was supposed to cause acne when I was a kid.

Chocolate lard, Elaine. The ultimate fantasy food.

Xena: To many women these days big guys like me are only good for two things; sex and helping you move. My being able to cook really helps separating me from the pack.

I’ve never tried using measuring spoons in the boudoir; tell me more.

A lovely scoop of chocolate lard, Ramona. Now there's a food fantasy.

Get a room, you two! (and everybody knows, it's whipped cream in a can, for the bedroom!)

I have several recipes that I learned from my father that my family says they would kill for, but there is not one of them that cooks! The sons learned to cook while at home but the daughter could care less. She just liked to eat them.Besides I cant figure out how to write down the measurements, I never measure!!So I have one child who doesnt want to learn, one that has disowned his parents and no longer speaks to them, and one that has been in Iraq for four years, so the chance to teach one of them to cook the special recipes just aint going to happen.Anyone got any children that want to learn before I shuffle off these mortal coils???

I can't cook or bake without a recipe, and it takes me twice as long to do that as normal people take. Thus, I don't cook. When I do, maybe once a year (sometimes twice), I take all day in the kitchen for one simple meal.

I wish I could cook like my mom. Though she was never trained at a fancy school, she is a chef in my eyes (and stomach). The food we eat is incredibly good. She just makes things up out of the blue and they taste heavenly. Example: Thursday was the free community dinner at our church, and mom is in charge of the meals. Someone requested a certain type of chicken, she made it at home first, didn't like their recipe, so decided to make it different. The day of the meal, she made parmesan (sp??) chicken, but her own recipe she just made up then and there. Everyone was raving about it, asking her where she got the recipe; but she had just dumped a few things together without measuring.

Mmm...thinking about the chicken makes me hungry...

In an obligatory Home Economics class the wooden ruler was replace by the wooden spoon.
Noodle phobic was a constant in my life when I unknowingly put spaghetti into a pot of cold water.
The teacher became apoplectic but later cookbooks became my friend.

Cooking is an art, baking is a science. I know someone somewhere said this before me, but I can't remember who. All those grandma's, aunts, moms, etc. who looked like they were just dumping items into the bowl, you were seeing the end product of decades of experimentation, just to get it right. I'm guessing when they started out, there were many disasters that ended up in the dog dish. They just didn't want to tell you about it. But I'm supposing those who saw cooking and baking as a joy, were more successful in their experiments than those who saw it as a chore.

When I bake, I mostly follow the recipe since tinkering with proportions can screw up the chemical reactions for cakes and cookies. On the other hand, when I cook, I can be as creative as I'm in the mood for.

How about chocolate whipped cream in a can for the bedroom . . .

Not a lard person for cooking and never could make a decent pie crust - maybe that is why.

I never had my grandmother's macaroni and cheese but apparently it was wonderful.

For baking I always measure, for cooking dinner I do whatever amounts I want. I am making chicken soup from scratch today. Anybody know where I can buy some scratch . . .

My grandmas were both gone by the time I came around, but I had an aunt who didn't even have to actually cook things to make them taste better. No tomato I've sampled since has tasted as good as the raw sweet juicy slices she used to put out for us in the middle of a summer afternoon. And when she cooked--well let's just say she even made *toast* taste better, by buttering it first and then broiling it in the oven. (That's the proper way to make cinnamon toast, for sure. Toast one side. Then take it out, butter the other side, sprinkle liberally with a mix of sugar and cinnamon, broil until slightly crusty, then hold a napkin underneath to catch the sugary, brown, buttery drips while you eat three slices in a row, slapping away the competitive hands around you!)

Between Holly yesterday & you guys today, I had to make a batch of biscuits! I must have tried 50 biscuit recipes before I finally made my Mom write hers down for me. Cream of tartar was the 'secret ingredient'. Mom was an excellent baker but her roast beef was always overcooked!
I love to cook & bake but don't very often since DH died. The neighbors love it when I do tho, they get cake, cookies, pie, lasagna, soup, stew, whatever 'bug' has bit me.
After my oldest brother's divorce, he became quite a good cook. (I told him if he could do calculus, he could damn well follow a recipe!)

Gaylin, you can buy scratch at any feed store. But why would you want to cook chicken feed? LOL (yep, they call it chicken scratch!)

You've proved that old saying is true, TLCers. Food is love. Long after those scrumptious meals are gone, we still savor the memories and the love they represented.

For the last two days I've been picking wild blackberries on our farm, where there are (and I mean this literally) millions upon millions of them this year. We won't be able to get down here for the real ripening, but it doesn't matter because I now have about three gallons of berries for the freezer. Blackberry pie and blackberry jam are my husband's favorites, so I think I just bought myself at least a month, possibly two, of extra favors!

The women in my family mostly made meals, but the men made special stuff. My maternal grandfather made the most delectable, heart-shaped cakes, slathered with coffee-flavored buttercream icing. Heart-shaped because he had a sweet tooth, and he always got the end and the "humps" of the heart. They have the most icing, dontcha know. My paternal grandfather also had a specialty, but I no longer recall what it was, but my dad was the real gourmet cook of the family. He and I--the oldest of four--made baking powder biscuits, muffins, Swiss steak, stuffed pork chops, and mashed potatoes together. Except for the chops, these are all my favorites, still. My mom was good for desserts (being from the sweet tooth family), including German chocolate cake, carrot cake, and devils food, all from scratch. You haven't lived until you've grated a pound of carrots by hand.

But my great grandmother on my mom's side took the cake, so to speak. She was incredibly talented at everything she did, but her homemade bread was legendary. Every Wednesday we went to my aunt's after school and we just followed our noses, led there by the aroma of Little Grandma's fragrant loaves, fresh from the oven. She slathered her homemade honey of freshly cut, steaming hot slabs of it, and handed each of us one as soon as we dropped our school bags. Mmmm-mmm.

I didn't cook a lot until we did a wonderful kitchen remodel, 11 years ago, and then I went wild. Our two youngest spent the last years they lived at home sitting at the island watching me cook, or trying their hand themselves. And now my youngest daughter is a super good cook. She's always posting some new dish or other on her Facebook page, tantalizing her cousins!

Summer blackberries! I used to go picking them with my grandmother. Missouri's best blackberry patch was bulldozed for a subdivision.

My father was master of the jelly roll. Baking the sponge cake, topping it with jam and then carefully rolling it into shape was a joy to behold.
My mother's Lemon Meringue Pies were delightful with meringue peaks and wonderful lemon filling. Nothing today equals them.
And we did have a lard tin close to the stove.
My father loved to cook batter fried fish and Fridays were a treat.
No cookbooks were in the house but they did not seem necessary.

Someday, somehow we need to have a big TLC potluck party!

I love summer fresh picked blackberries! There used to be a huge blackberry briar near my parents house and my dad and I had special protective clothes, gloves etc and would pick them to make jelly, pie or just to eat. Then the city decided that somehow it was dangerous to the public! HUH. Blackberries haven't been as good since.

My from scratch (not chicken feed!) chicken soup turned out wonderful today.

Tonight I may make a batch of chocolate hazelnut butter! All this cooking talk has made me feel creative.

Mmmm, I'm thinking that when we get the windfall to finance a TLC get-away, we should commandeer a kitchen for some cooking lessons along the way . ..
Now to go "invent" some supper. First I'll change my IOCHFTS shirt so it won't get messy. I had plans to meet Pam at the Crooked Tree and wanted her to see how well her creative efforts have held up!

A TLC cooking party sounds wonderful... I just wonder who would get to wield the wooden spoon?

Talk about scratch! Wild blackberries have thorns, baby! There were times I was stuck in five or six places and had visions of dying in the heat there, with my bucket in hand.

Marie, NO ONE uses a wooden spoon on my 'peeps! We'll use it to stir, if that's okay with you!

I have scratches as well, Karen, from picking raspberries at our CSA farm. I also got 10 lbs of Jersey blueberries (the BEST - they are huge and sweet as candy) that I've been freezing. But I confess I also made blueberry muffins and a Blueberry Betty recipe I found in an Amish cookbook I have - which is basically lots of blueberries, covered with flour, sugar, and a stick of butter. Yum.

Oh, and I made a pot of sauce and meatballs today. Not terribly summery, I know, but I had a craving. So I blame this blog for all the cooking I did today. :)

Laura, as far as I'm concerned you are well within your rights to blame to blog, too! ;-)

The older I get,
the more I appreciate both my Alabama and Long Island Aunts who cooked some great meals. Sadly, I was so young back then, I appreciated McDonald's french fries more. :(

Yesterday I made classic Pavlova: meringue, strawberries daubed with Cointreau orange liqueur and sugar, and fresh Whipped sweetened cream. AND chocolate trifle with choc cake, devil's food custard, same strawberries as above, dark raspberry jello, and choc whipped cream. I dipped the rest of the strawberries in the left over chocolate...

Hey, it was my birthday party...I made what I wanted to eat. :-D


Oh my, does that ever hit home! My friends think I'm being coy when I explain that I don't usually work with written recipes. I am attempting to develop a food blog and took a "food writing" class. The instructor, who was amazing, pointed out that not everyone had been cooking for 30 years (way to make me feel old!) and that I had to discipline myself to record and post actual recipes with actual measurements! I'm trying...

You just reminded me that my neighbor has my Amish cookbooks! Hot bacon dressing for spinach salad recipe is in one of them.
I've let all my magazine subscription lapse except for Cuisine at Home.

Wow, what a day to be late to the party! William, my grandmother, who grew up on an Amish farm but then spent her late teen years in the wicked hotbed of Long Beach, California, took nightschool cooking classes at some incredibly great night school, and was a superb cook. But she could wield a mean flyswatter when needed to keep my brothers in line!(Truthfully, it usually only took one swat--but as the younger party, I learned fast and don't recall ever being the object of such a swat.)

She had cookbooks but didn't use 'em, for the most part, although, judging from the wear and tear in them and all the bits and pieces of paper tucked in her Fanny Farmer, she must have used it very well in her earliest years. She did write down some of her recipes, but like many others have said here, it wasn't always automatic to use her recipe and get great results--the magic resided with her.

My kitchen in Madison was the site of the best breads I've ever made, Saturday after Saturday, all kinds of breads, many experiments. After moving to L.A. and having terrible luck with bread-baking, I heard a food science expert saying that each kitchen has its own mix of yeasts/bacteria/molds in the crevices, shelves, air, developed over years of cooking, and that this accounts for the success (or not) of the more fragile bakery exploits of the occupants. Need my grandma to fix this kitchen . . . .
Karen, sure wish I was your neighbor--I'd volunteer to pick all those amazing berries when they're ripe!

Happy birthday, Marianne! Sound yummy!!
and Karen, brava for setting the "no hitting" policy!

Peach: "there were many disasters that ended up in the dog dish"... Honey, my mother's German. They did not waste food so we had to eat our mistakes (and hers).

Growing up, it took years before I realized that food came in different colors: green, orange, red, yellow...what we mostly saw was black from having been burned to a fare-thee-well. My mother burned everything, and maybe that's why I want my steaks rare. When I hit first grade and started going to other kids' houses for meals, I learned food came in pleasing colors other than charcoal briquettes. Quelle surprise!

But I digress. When my sister learned to cook, she developed this disturbing habit of substituting ingredients. Now that's fine when the recipe calls for butter and you use margerine/oleo, but I'm telling you, you cannot substitute baking soda for baking powder. I remember being force-fed my sister's poison biscuits because "we don't waste food!"

Just saying.

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