Food and Family: Celebrating a Grandmother’s Legacy

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By Jan Larraine Cox

Like so many others, Martha, my maternal grandmother, emigrated in the early twentieth century from Eastern Europe with her sisters, never to see her parents again. The parents funded the voyage so that their daughters could have an easier life in America. All four girls settled near each other with the husbands they met in America. 

Grandma was motivated to please her husband, children and grandchildren with dishes made from fresh homegrown vegetables, chickens raised in the backyard, and delicious kuchen and pies made with the unforgettably flavorful apples and plums picked from the fruit trees Grandma and Grandpa had planted. 

An innovative cook who could work wonders with simple food, Martha made the best salad tossed with her own dressing of mayonnaise, mustard, onion, salt and pepper. Her family specialty was cabbage rolls with a mixture of ground meat and rice and smothered in a tomato sauce with extra cabbage chunks then baked to perfection. On another day she would prepare the legendary pierogies which she stuffed with sauerkraut, plum, or a mixture of cheese and potato, and then fried in butter, seasoned with salt and pepper. One of her daughters married an internal medicine doctor, and he was just as enthusiastic as the rest of the family to devour these treats. 

When Grandpa came home from work, we would play the accordion or one of two guitars he kept in the front closet. As teenagers, his own three kids played these instruments in a trio. 

We cousins would play games in the backyard or the basement on a hot summer day. If the moms felt like driving forty minutes to Huntington Beach Park on Lake Erie, then the cousins would climb down the steps to the waves and sand, our material to build sand castles. We would fill a little pail with lake water and use it to cement the turrets on our fortresses. 

My paternal grandmother also paints a colorful memory in my mind. Bertha’s family had emigrated from Switzerland, and true to her upbringing she dressed in feminine outfits with her hair just right in the braided bun style of her day and of course black “grandma” shoes with thick two-inch heels! She especially doted on her two granddaughters, as her only child had been a boy. She made us dolls from wildflowers, probably a holdover from the depression era. She enjoyed watching us play from a porch swing or lawn chair. We entertained her and were rewarded with treats she kept in the cookie jar. Those were the days! 

These memories are special because grandparents are content to devote their energies to taking their grandchildren under their wings and nurturing them. How enriching, to share family memories with children who can appreciate and remember them!