January 5, 2012

Grandma Miller Meals

Baked chicken parts smothered in 99cent Kraft BBQ sauce.
Convection: 350 uncovered for 1 hour, reapply sauce for
final 15 minutes, add chopped green onions for garnish
 Realizing today that the blog is nearing its one year anniversary, it got me thinking. One of the first posts I did was about my grandmother around her birthday, which is at the end of March. As I was thinking about how the time has flown by, I realized that I was really hungry for a Grandma Miller Dinner. (The capitalization of the letters is out of respect.)

What is a GMD? You ask.

My Grandma Miller was an extremely frugal woman. She lived successfully in a pretty swank retirement community for most of my life on an incredibly fixed income. She would supplement her social security by doing things like seamstress work for her wealthier neighbors, wore her clothes for 10 years at least before recycling them into other useful objects, boiled her used plastic bags to "sterilize" them and then hang them to dry on a mini makeshift clothesline she put up in her kitchen.

The kitchen itself was cozy and always steaming with activity. It was a galley-style apartment kitchen with an attached eating area, which was complete with four vinyl seated chairs surrounding a plastic-covered (yes, I mean a sheet of plastic to protect the vinyl tablecloth) dining room table with a small plastic flower arrangement in the center. It was light and cheerful, with a large window adjacent the table. It was always ready for company.

The secret to Grandma's cornbread: Make the recipe on the box
adding double the sugar and one extra egg. Use a 8x8 or
9inch round pan, not muffin tins, 350 for 35 minutes
 My grandmother prided herself on her hostessing skills. Many times she told the years-old story (1945 at least) of the pastor, who came to their farming town for a visit with the pastor of the local baptist church. His reputation for his dislike of rabbit preceded him, and the townspeople whispered about it madly--it was a staple to them, and how could a man who should embody humility be ungrateful for any meal?

Grandma Miller, quiet in her usual way, did not participate much in the gossip. But she was always listening. Upon her first meeting with this man, she invited the new pastor to her home and whipped up her best rabbit dinner for a special welcome to their town, but did not share with him what the meal would be.

"That was the best chicken I've ever had!" He exclaimed as he leaned back in his chair after he had eaten three hearty plates of food, picking his teeth, "Mrs. Miller, you sure are a good cook."

"Oh, good!" Grandma Miller said, "That makes me so glad. The ladies of the baptist church will be glad to know that you like rabbit after all." She smiled sweetly.

My Grandmother particularly liked the next part of the story and she stifled giggles as she would tell it.

She said his eye grew wide, then almost wild. He again thanked her for the meal, stood up, looked around and stiffly walked out of the house. He did not eat with her, or any members of the church for the remainder of the visit.

At this final statement, she would allow herself to howl uncontrollably, enjoying the moment each time as if it had just occured.

Grandma Miller may sound like a trickster, but she was not. True, she may have been trying to teach him a lesson in humility as the other ladies probably wished they had been given a chance to do, but she may have merely been testing her skills as a cook: If she could pass off a rabbit dinner to a rabbit dinner hating guest, well, that made her the Iron Chef of Oregon City, OR, South Bend Road. And a for a rabbit dinner to be so satifying was a feat, too, because it was cheap.

Cheap was never a word my grandmother used. Not once. She talked about saving and not wasting--she was a newly married adult during the depression, after all--but she never said "cheap." In fact, she hardly used the word "money" either. To her, it was a moral obligation to use things completely, no wasting and no frivolity.

She took this to her kitchen, and seriously, even long after her farming days. Well into her 80's she made her own bread. In summer and fall, she used each and every vegetable and fruit that was given to her, either canning green beans (hard to do, but not for her), in making her own jellies and jams for the year, or just serving them fresh.

She purchased only the most inexpensive cuts of meat, too. Ground beef was the only beef she bought--it was less money and went farther in any dish than other type of beef. And chicken was only purchased on the bone and in the thigh and leg variety. For special occasions, she would pick up a turkey loaf, which was made up of various turkey meat, chopped and pressed into a 3-dimensional rectangle and frozen into a mini aluminum bread pan.

From all of these things, my grandmother, like she had done long ago for the visiting Oregon City pastor, could whip up a veritable feast. And she loved to do it. When I was small, we were asked over quite often to her house for dinner, and I antipicated each meal with feverish excitement.

My parents' red grapes, picked in their back
yard, made into homestyle jelly
She would lay out a plate of homemade bread or her own special cornbread for us on that table by the window. Next to it would be a bowl of homemade jelly and a purple melmac plate with Nucoa on it. She would bake some chicken legs and thighs, boil some frozen or canned vegetables (I particularly liked the mixed ones) and, for a final touch, she might even put a small fresh flower arrangement where the plastic one held the place the rest of the time.

It always tasted so good and I would eat till I was sick. It felt like the food supply was endless.

Tonight, I wanted that experience again, as I do from time to time. I did not make rabbit, or frozen vegetables, but I did make her special sweet cornbread, baked chicken legs and thighs and some sweet frozen corn, all served with my homemade grape jelly (my parents grow and juice the grapes--I am in charge of the jelly now) and real butter.

My four kids thrilled with delight over the meal, and notwithstanding my own feelings, that makes it all more worth the while.

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