There’s a sort of culinary mysticism that enshrouds grandmothers. They are always master cooks creating unforgettable meals, and also gatekeepers of the mystical techniques used to create these magical meals. They are part of a chain of unbroken familial culinary lore, storing the wisdom of the ages and unleashing it upon our dinner tables and palates. Or something like that.
Grandmothers are supposed to have mouthwatering comfort food at their beck and call, leaving indelible memories embedded through certain smells or flavors. They weave magic from simple ingredients, creating family favorites that to this day remain favorites despite everything else changing around them. They are an anchor; their meals are a legacy.
Especially as we face a continuing disintegration of traditional home cooking and the persistent rise of processed foods, quick dinners, and food delivery, there is the tendency to look back on our grandmothers’ generations with a certain sense of nostalgia and romanticism. They lived, mostly, before the rise of mass produced, industrialized food options, when what you ate was what you could cook yourself with the ingredients you had on hand. Recipes were passed among housewives willing to share or guarded with a sort of religious fervor and only passed down to worthy family members through practice. That is, if there was even a recipe at all…
Many food writers of my generation write stories about the ways they are working to preserve their grandmother’s recipes, their techniques, and their stories of cooking and kitchen work. And, this is valuable work. There is a wealth of undervalued knowledge found in grandmothers (and not just a wealth of cooking knowledge). But what if your grandmother didn’t cook, didn’t know how to cook, or didn’t even like cooking? As the famed Noma chef René Redzepi writes in You and I Eat the Same, “Could it really be that everybody had an incredible cook for a grandmother? Were none of the great chefs forced into this profession because the cooking they grew up with was such shit?”
My grandmother (on my mom’s side) didn’t enjoy cooking. The food legacy she left was her distaste for the kitchen work that led my mom to often cook and bake for the family (of ten!); by the age of 10 she had taken over the entirety of the family baking. And, in truth, this was indeed a legacy as my mom is an excellent baker (and cook). Almost all of my memories of my grandmother’s cooking were the persistently overcooked roast, the always overcooked vegetables, and boiled potatoes. That’s it. I don’t remember a dinner at her house that did not have these three components.
My grandmother didn’t pass down recipes, save a rare few. She didn’t pass down a passion for cooking. She was pressed into a job she did not enjoy simply because she was the wife, the woman of the house, and this was what was expected of her.
This is also a legacy, just not the typical one that is invoked when grandmothers and cooking come together. She was pressed into the kitchen because of her gender, pushed to produce meals each day despite her lack of enthusiasm or desire to do so. My friend Ian Mosby writes about how the past is often used to critique the current industrialization of food (for example, food writer Michael Pollan’s “only eat what your great-grandmother would recognize as food” rule) and reminds us that this is a chance to not only examine what and how our grandparents ate but also “the role that food played in defining their lives and work, more broadly.” Yes, we should be learning from our grandmothers and the vast knowledge they have, which is so often undervalued (because, again, of those patriarchal norms), but let’s also interrogate the ways in which our grandmothers and great-grandmothers were inserted into the kitchen and food histories of our families through patriarchal norms that dictated the women of the family belonged in the kitchen.
And, in many ways, although my own mother was an excellent cook and a trained chef, this legacy manifested in the way she approached the kitchen. She, too, inherited kitchen duties because she was a woman, first from her mother as a child, and then from my father who couldn’t cook a lick and who also came from a family where the women were expected to do the cooking. We grew up expecting that mom would cook each day, except for when it came time to grill something outside – that was dad’s domain. These rolls are not uncommon, still; in a recent article Lyz Lenz writes of how, through trying to please her husband’s expectation for home cooked food, “cooking became more repression than liberation, more act of obligation than act of creation.”
These roles and experiences of women in our mothers’ and grandmothers’ generations (and our generation) are persistent and important to include in the narratives of our food. In an article on his own grandmother, Ian writes of how she “spent her life thinking about food as a necessary evil, something that she needed to concoct or consume in order to get on with the other things that she wanted to do.” It was a job that had to be done, a burden rather than a joy. In these narratives there is a chance to complicate the romanticism of our grandmother’s cooking, a chance to interrogate the ways in which our mothers, grandmothers and great-grandmothers were inserted into the kitchen and food histories of our families through patriarchal norms that dictated the women of the family belonged in the kitchen.
All of this doesn’t negate the ways in which our mothers and grandmothers fed us, the love they shared through this task and others, and the ways in which their work and presence held up our families up in material and emotional ways. We can be nostalgic about our grandmothers while still recognizing the ways in which many of them made the best of situations they had little control over. Or, it’s okay to simply admit that many of our grandmothers weren’t good cooks, didn’t love cooking, or simply put the minimum effort into it. These stories are part of the complex, real lives our grandmothers lived as they navigate(d) patriarchal norms that compelled them to cook.
Dutch Canadian Rye Bread (Roggebrood)
This is my grandmother's recipe for the Dutch rye bread she would make; it was a favorite of mine and often what we had for breakfast when we visited her. It has distinctly Canadian twist as she would use either Sunny Boy or Red River cereal in place of rye. The cereals add a mix of grains and flax for a hearty, healthy bread that would have been similar to ones she grew up with in Holland. It's dense, moist, and textured with a chewy edge that is best when slathered with good butter and a slice of Dutch gouda cheese (the one with cumin in it!). It's not a fancy bread but a functional one that is quick and easy to make. It could be 11am and you're wondering what to eat for lunch, and by noon you're tucking into freshly made bread; it's that kind of recipe. And, it's delicious. Absolutely and totally delicious. I highly recommend it with butter and cheese, especially gouda but even cheddar!
- 3 cups Sunny Boy cereal (see note)
- 2 cups flour
- 1 1/2 teaspoons baking soda
- 3 tablespoons molasses
- 1 1/2 teaspoons salt
- 2 eggs, lightly beaten
- 3 cups warm water
Mix it all together. That's it, that's all that's in her recipe. For me, what I found worked best was to combine and mix the dry ingredients in the mixing bowl. In a separate bowl, mix the water and molasses to ensure that there won't be clumps of molasses in your dough. Add eggs and molasses water into dry ingredients and mix.
My grandma used to say that the consistency should be runny, like pig slop. I don't know what pig slop looks like and I'm guessing most of you don't either. It should be quite wet, like a grittier pancake batter, and should be the color of your mocha in the morning (or darker if you're using blackstrap molasses).
Pour into two greased 8 1/2" x 4 1/2" (6 cup) loaf pans.
Bake at 350F until the middle of the loaf is set and firm, about 35-40 minutes.
My grandmother used Sunny Boy cereal, which is a mix of rye, wheat, and flax, but this is hard to find outside of Western Canada. My mom tells me that when she couldn't find it, she would use another classic Canadian cereal brand, Red River, though it wasn't quite 'right', though it's the exact same combination of grains. I could only find Red River, so I used that. But even Red River cereal is only found in Canada, so I also tested this with a more commonly available cereal, Bob's Red Mill 6 Grain Cereal. This is a good substitute if you can't find Sunny Boy or Red River cereal, as it's top two grains are wheat and rye and it includes flax seeds, though the grains are more finely ground and it doesn't have quite the same texture. I also tried some blends of grains and I think the ideal mix might be 1/3 Bob's Red Mill and 2/3 Red River. Without any of these, you could cobble together your own mix of grains using a combination of approximately 40% steel cut wheat, 40% steel cut rye, and 20% flax seeds.