By Cheryl Sternman Rule
With Mother’s Day around the corner, I wanted to take a moment to honor grandmothers, those women a branch up from moms on the family tree. I’ve asked three cookbook authors, all representing different ethnic heritages, to reflect on how their grandmothers’ food traditions influenced their own.
“I totally believe that grandmothers are the keepers of the culinary flame, especially for immigrant families,” says Patricia Tanumihardja, author of the recipe-packed, story-filled The Asian Grandmothers Cookbook (Sasquatch Books). “Language and food are the two most important ways that culture is passed down through the generations.” When her mother Julia was growing up, Pat’s Popo (Chinese for grandmother) would always prepare Julia and her siblings an afternoon snack of roti bakso, or sweet bread stuffed with pork. Julia, in turn, prepared the dish frequently for Pat, passing along Popo’s tradition. So even though Popo passed away when Pat was an infant, she remained a presence in the family’s household through that beloved snack.
For her cookbook, Pat interviewed grandmothers whose roots spanned the Asian cultural spectrum, from Chinese, Japanese, and Indonesian to Korean, Filipino, and Thai. She believes strongly that immigrant grandmothers are the torchbearers of a family’s culinary heritage. “Grandmothers are the closest link to an immigrant’s homeland. They cook for their grandchildren, and they speak to them in their native tongue.” If her own grandmothers were still alive today, she says, she’d “celebrate them on Mother’s Day,” too.
Monica Bhide, a Washington, D.C.-based food writer and author of several books on Indian cooking (her most recent is Modern Spice), recalls spending many hours with her grandmothers, Savitri and Kaushalya, chopping vegetables, peeling oranges, and shelling peanuts. One of the biggest lessons they imparted, she reflects, was to always cook enough for company. Though she was raised largely in Bahrain, Monica’s roots are Indian, and many members of her extended family lived together in the same home in New Delhi. Her grandmothers would work alongside their servants (not uncommon in many Indian households) for hours, preparing the evening meal for 20 or more family members each night.
Today, Monica has happy neighbors, largely because she has taken her grandmothers’ lessons to heart. “I make extra food, even now,” she says. “I have older neighbors, whom I love. I take them dinner every other day.”
Jennie Schacht’s Jewish paternal grandmother Henrietta lived to be 101. “She was a powerhouse of a woman,” Jennie remembers. “I absolutely adored her.” Henrietta did The New York Times crossword puzzle in 15 minutes every Sunday, and regularly turned out Ashkenazi Jewish specialties such as brisket, noodle kugel, and blintzes from the railroad-style kitchen in her tiny apartment on Manhattan’s Lower East Side. “I loved her blintzes,” Jennie says. “I could practically tell you how to make them just from having observed her so many times.” Grandma Schacht (as Jennie called her) also taught her how to flute a pie crust. “I can still picture her thumb pressing in to form the impressions.”
Jennie’s newest book, Farmers’ Market Desserts (Chronicle Books), includes a plum soup recipe her father raved about throughout her childhood. Her headnote to the recipe even reads: “One childhood role I had was to re-create my grandmother’s best hits for my dad.” That soup was one of them.
“Grandma Schacht would be enormously thrilled that I’m writing cookbooks,” she says, “because she just cared about food so much.”
This Mother’s Day, toast your mom, but raise an extra glass to your grandmothers, too. I’ll be toasting my Grandma Sarah and her soothing chicken soup, and my Grandma Eve, whose Sunday morning breakfasts always included bagels and butterfish. To grandmothers near and far, offer thanks for their lingering presence — in your lives, in your hearts, and at the table.
Cheryl Sternman Rule is a food and nutrition writer whose work has appeared in numerous national magazines, including EatingWell and Body+Soul. She is the voice behind the food blog 5 Second Rule.