Grandma's Home Cooking

“Eating like your grandparents did.”
“Cooking like your grandmother.”

I often hear these phrases or similar ones when cookbooks are reviewed on NPR or in advertising of processed foods. I regularly come across articles titled “Cook <insert dish> Like Your Grandma”.  I can’t even count how many blogs use their grandma, or my grandma in their titles.  We, as consumers, are set up to harken back to memories of our grandmother’s who really cooked for us.  According to these many sources “our” grandmas cooked from scratch, butchered the chickens, ground the wheat, baked the bread, as well as grew and fermented the vegetables. Everything was delicious and wholesome, and don’t forget the steaming hot pie for desert.

Okay, warning, this is a rant.  Or, an argument to stop the broad statement that imagines our country’s food history was wholesome--just a few years ago. The grandmothers of homecooking are the domestic goddesses from pre-WW2, not “our” grandma’s, instead our great-grandmas and great-great grandmothers.  

Let me stop and say I am not dis-ing grandmas--or their cooking.  I am upset about using grandmas for setting a fairytale scene for our twentieth century food culture.

There are a few people I have met at market who remember their midwestern grandmas who fermented vegetables but these people are generally old enough to be my grandmother. And, they themselves don’t know a thing about fermenting.  They tell me their misty memories of odor, and basements, and taste.  And, incidentally there are women in my peer group who are now grandmothers.  My generation’s grandmothers didn’t necessarily cook.  My grandmother, who did have a small repertoire of homecooked meals, was part of what has been labeled “the greatest generation.”  She is part of the generation that whole-heartedly embraced the convenience of processed foods; instant mashed potatoes, check, Mrs. Smith’s pies, check, Campbells soup, yup. These great ladies did what they needed to do, but it wasn’t necessarily whole food cooking.

All this is to say the majority of current grandmas are now a generation of people who by in large are the third, and soon fourth generation to grow up having learned to assemble meals by combining products vs. preparing whole foods for the table.  

So, why does the fantasy continue?  My guess is T.V. and its driving force--advertising.  It works.  Somehow perpetuating the grandma myth fills a need.  Is it the basic need for comfort and more importantly nourishment?  Are we as a society so deprived of true nourishment in our bodies as well as our hearts, that maintaining this early twentieth century view of grandma satiates our hunger and fills the yearning, longing, and at times a collective pining for a simpler time.  Is that just human nature? Have people always seen their memories through the murky lens of “the good ole days.”

The advertisers will keep using grandma. However, I would love to see the rest of us food writers put the phrase to bed, to snap out of the mythology! It is all ages of people who are bringing back wholesome nutrient dense food to our tables.  These cooks are small farmstead or artisan producers, creative chefs and food writers, they are “new” homesteaders, they are the foodies, and they are the young mothers, whose grandmas are often learning to cook right along side them.  

These domestic arts are being researched in old cookbooks, they are being found in cultures that still have a more traditional diet, and most exciting are all the new flavors created in the old ways.  Our forbearers did not have the vast palette of ingredients that are now both available and affordable.  Nor did they have the time, it is hard work to keep everyone fed, let alone to innovate. For these great flavors, the time is now.