Sunday, December 24, 2006

Thank You Gramma Tretsven

In my family, my great grandmother Anna Bank Tretsven is a legend. She died when I was six or seven, while I was living in rural Iowa. I moved to Iowa at age 2, visited California one time, where she (and the rest of my extended family) lived, I think when I was four. I really don't have any memories of Gramma T herself but BOY do I know stories about her and her husband, Grampa T. But he's another story for another post.
Gramma T was the quintessential Grandma. A bit chubby, especially through the bosom, white short curly hair and glasses, a wide smile. Someone you buried yourself in when you scraped your knee or broke your heart. She had a breakfast nook with a built-in seat, and in the storage compartment below the seat were always brown paper sacks from the grocery, and an assortment of craftsy stuff (popsicle sticks, string, pom poms, pop bottle lids, markers, crayons, decals, and so on) to use to make masks on a dreary Saturday afternoon. Her four daughters and their families lived within this same block of property, onto which my great grandfather built little houses for each of them, and the connecting back yard was a playground for my mother, Mama, and their other 8 cousins. They would all run in and out of each others homes, with basically four mothers and a grandmother to keep them all in line. And, best of all, the most amazing stuff came out of her kitchen. I think her heritage was Danish, and Grampa T's was Norwegian. So many of the things the cooked had that flair - Ebelskiver (ball-shaped pancakes cooked in a special pan), pebber nooder (spice cookies at Christmas), rosettes (dainty fragile fried cookies dusted in powdered sugar), and so on. In any case, most all of us still know how to say the Norwegian grace before meals, and a few silly little ditties and songs associated with children. And Christmas. What we call "New Harvey Yuligan" (not spelled even REMOTELY correctly, I don't speak Norwegian or Danish) is a family tradition as well. If you can't sing New Harvey, you have to learn it and sing it BY YOURSELF in front of the entire family. A common family greeting at Christmas time is just "New Harvey", rather than "Merry Christmas!"
Gramma T was the one who could cook anything, and it was all traditional home-style cooking. Old fashioned everything. My Mama (not my birth mother) inherited her recipe box, which I raided with a new stack of recipe cards, painstakingly copying down recipes a few visits ago when I was up to visit Mama in Washington. I kinda wish I had the box itself though, with Gramma T's cards in it, as they have splots and smears of grease, spices, butter, and so on, from being on the counter when these dishes were prepared, hundreds of times over the years. I'm sure my Mama looks at them, with her handwriting, and gets a little frog in her throat thinking of her grandma making these things for her, from these very cards.
When I grew up, my mother did speak of some of the family traditions, and I knew a little about Gramma and Grampa T, but I learned the bulk of it from my Mama, once she came into my life. I certainly didn't learn anything about cooking Gramma T style from my mother, but have learned as much as I can since. My first great lesson was The Pie Shell. Evidently this isn't exactly the easiest thing to do and do well. My sister has gone through her share of attempts, cursing all the while, and I have had to do the same. The first time I tried making one, the air was BLUE with cursing, it cracked in about 5 places, wouldn't hold together and looked like crap. When I did finally piece it together in the pie dish, it was too thick, like a brick. The second time I tried to make it, I added too much water and it was hard as a rock, and not flaky at all, and tasted like I imagine homemade play doh to taste. The third time, I worked on getting it the right consistency, but subsequently have either gotten it too thick or too thin, and it just hasn't been easy or flaked just right. Most of the time, I feel Gramma T's little angel spirit staring over my shoulder, trying to calm me down and give me tips on what to do. "Don't TOUCH the dough, honey." "The water needs to be ICE cold, sweetheart." Or "Roll it from the center out, get the center nice and thin, not so much on the outsides!" Sometimes my own frustration gets the better of me and I haven't been able to listen to her.
At Thanksgiving, my Mama was here. She and I have been working to use a lot more whole wheat flour in our cooking, as it is healthier. But of course, that means I can't bake a bloody THING like my Gramma T, so I will make exceptions. As we learned, after trying the pie crust with whole wheat flour, it comes out like CRAP. I could even hear her saying, "Oh honey, you can't USE that for your pie shell. It won't stick together, and it won't taste good! You mark my words!" And she was right. It was a rock, tasted like cardboard, and I had to chunk out the entire first attempt while trying to roll it out in total vain. You aren't supposed to touch it with your hands, and if you do, it gets overly hard and won't roll out anyway, which is what happened. It fell apart, wasn't wet enough, required more water than the recipe calls for, and probably more shortening as well. So I just had to chunk it and start over. I finally made one that "worked" but it didn't really work. It was a dog.
So this Christmas, I was asked to make the Dutch apple pies for Christmas dinner tomorrow. I went back to the regular flour, I cut in the shortening first, then added the water slowly. It came together like a CHAMP. I just knew she was sitting on my shoulder, helping me put just the right amounts in, telling me when to stop with the pastry blender. And my Mama was on the other shoulder, going, "yep, that's right, Matilda, a little more rolling on the middle...". They look AWESOME. I am excited to taste them tomorrow.
I want Hootie to grow up remembering how GOOD her Mama's this and that always tasted, and I want her to be at her boyfriend's parents' house eating dinner one day, and she'll say to that mother, "My Mama makes THE BEST PIE, Ma'am!" and I'll just know it. I will feel that sentiment from wherever I am, and wherever she is, I'll know she's talking about me. I want to be that person like Gramma T, where she'll remember my hugs, and my songs at bedtime, the way I cook her favorite things for her when she feels tiny, and always iron her pillowcases and spray them with lavender spray every Monday morning when I change the bed linens, how I put out new little dishtowels every other day with embroidered or vintage patterns on them, how I do up her hair in pretty little styles, and play with her dollies and toys with her. I want her to always feel cozy about me, and when she's sick, she'll come home to me to get well. When she feels all sad and blue, she'll want to come be with me to cheer her up and help her feel better. She'll go away to college and long to come home for my pot roast or my pasta dishes, or my lasagna, or apple crisp. Or better yet, she'll want Gramma T's apple cookies, or nut bread, or her Moosie's dishes that I have learned to make. So every time I do something that Gramma T would have done, whether it be something taught to me by my Mama or something I know I have inherited from my family, I say a little thank you to Gramma T, though I didn't know her, for having been such a great pillar for our family to learn from.

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