Sunday, September 27, 2009

I Love Baking Because My Mother Grew Up in Poverty

I always enjoy sharing about my grandma. I adore my grandma. As a child I would have gone hungry without her. (Not something I knew about until later though.... It also explains my affinity for all things seafood as my grandma is a right good fisherman!) My grandma will be 81 in November and she still works full time taking care of her "little old ladies" as she calls them. I always point out that she is a little old lady, but I've discovered that age really is just a number.

My grandma got married around age 18, had 4 children by age 30, and then her husband left her; the youngest was 4 and the oldest was 12. In the 50's it was basically unheard of for a couple to divorce. My grandma, I think, was ashamed, but she had 4 mouths to feed, not including her own! She is a smart lady, so while a one-room school seems strange to us for her it was an opportunity! She started young because her older brother was afraid to go by himself. I think starting at age 4, instead of age 6, is why she graduated at age 16 and went straight to work. It was at her job as a waitress that she met her husband. I think on how each event of her life leads to my own, so what may seem a minor detail to some, I can see how it could have vastly changed my very existence.

My grandma's first job after her husband left was driving school buses; it was a great job because her kids, especially the younger ones, could ride with her on the routes and that eliminated the need for a sitter. After a couple of years she moved on to become a church secretary. She stayed with that job for more than 35 years (30 at one church and several more at the next). For the first several years of her employment she earned $100/month. Her mortgage payment was $48/month and each child received a nickle a day or $1/month allowance. That left her with $48 for electricity/heat, phone service, health care, her car (which was a necessity as there were no buses near-by at that time), and FOOD!!!

My mother said that as children they ate like kings. My grandma, coming from a farming family, naturally grew the largest garden she could in her backyard (yards were so much larger then!) and left room for a small shed, a clothesline, room to play and fruit trees. Breakfast was often 1 egg, 1 piece of bacon, and some coffee cake. Coffee cake was a STAPLE, made as often as necessary with grandma's leftover coffee. This breakfast cost my grandma less than a dime for all 5 of them. The morning drink was 1/2 coffee and 1/2 milk. No wonder all the kids go through 2 pots a day!

But despite eating like kings the newspaper reports and charts and graphs and figures stated that a family of $XYZ income with N number of people was poverty and my grandma and her 4 children fell well below that line. The children would scoff. They had decent clothes, a house, the largest garden of any family on the block, and they had an egg and piece of bacon each every morning for breakfast! Dinners were usually one-dish casseroles assembled in the morning and cooked by the oldest daughter for dinner that night. At Christmas there were not many presents, but there were cookies and treats as far as the eye could see with one whole end of the dining room table being covered with tins of various sizes, shapes, and colors and filled with sugar cookies, molasses cookies, pecan puffs, mini-pecan pies, lemon bars, raspberry bars, chocolate chip cookies, peanut brittle, hard candy, and so much more.

The sugar cookies I make today are from a recipe that my great great grandmother made for her children. And when my great-grandparents immigrated to this country they brought that recipe, along with a few others, with them. Sugar Cookies are the first thing I remember making as a child in my mother's kitchen shortly after my dad left (and I mean shortly -- like that afternoon). I remember it so well even though I just 2 years old -- standing on the 70's green chair so I could reach the counter, clapping my hands and watching the flour burst into a cloud before my eyes, rolling out the dough with a heavy drinking glass, then using that glass to cut the dough into shapes, and putting pretty-colored sprinkles all over for sugary goodness. I do not remember how those cookies tasted, but I remember making them. And since I had my own child, really since before she was born, I have practiced baking throughout the year so that I can reach my goal every Christmas to fill one end of my dining room table with as many home-baked treats as possible.

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