Monday, February 9, 2009

Memory Monday: Family Food

This article will be a two-fer: both part of my Memory Monday series and an entry for weekly blogging prompt #6: “Let readers in to your kitchen. Discuss your family’s favorite foods. What was a typical Sunday dinner in your childhood house? What did grandma make that had you coming back for more? Were there any dishes that the dog wouldn’t even eat?”

As it so happens, I had intended to write about family food a couple of weeks ago, but when I heard about the death of Aunt Joy, priorities were changed and the subject was postponed. Speaking of Aunt Joy, as I mentioned in that article our favorite dish was Boozy Fruit Salad. Aunt Joy also thought I was old enough to learn how to cook, so she taught me some of the basics of cooking; the main dish I remember learning from her was mashed potatoes (mashed potatoes may seem like a simple dish, but good mashed potatoes are another thing altogether). I also have fond memories of my grandmother Sallie Brinlee’s wonderful breakfasts, which I wrote about in Visiting with Grandma Brinlee.

The first dish that came into my head when I got the idea to write this article was an incredibly delicious candy made by my Aunt Irene, my mother’s next-youngest sister, who gave my mother the recipe. The candy is associated with Christmas in my memory, which is probably correct, because this candy is very labor-intensive to make. The problem is that I cannot remember the name by which we referred to this candy; it is probably something like chocolate pecan balls. I thought for sure that the recipe would be in my mother’s old recipe box, but I went through all of the recipes in there and could not find it. As I remember, the candy consisted of a small ball made out of condensed milk, powdered sugar, vanilla, and pecans dipped in chocolate and paraffin. These calorific little confections were so incredibly delicious that it was nearly impossible to eat just one. It was difficult to hide them, because in the warm winter weather of Texas/Southern California, it was best to keep them in the refrigerator. I remember going to great pains to calculate exactly how many I could sneak from the refrigerator without it looking like some s-e-r-i-o-u-s filching.

So, along with Missing Photo Album Number 4 (one of my mother’s old photo albums that I cannot find), the mysterious candy recipe will continue to haunt me until I find it.

With the exception of a few special treats and holiday foods, food was generally not a very exciting item in our house; my father was a meat-potatoes-boring vegetable or salad kind of man, and did not even care much for fried chicken. Memorable foods included: divinity fudge and any cake with my mother’s white icing on it (both items that benefited by the dry climate of northeast Texas and the San Bernardino desert), her Christmas fruitcake (a back- and arm-breaking production that she taught me how to make), and tuna gravy on toast (which was actually what we ate when we had to save money, but it was a treat to me). The most disgusting dish I can remember was my mother’s stewed tomatoes, which included bread and sugar. The less said the better.

After my parents divorced and my mother and I moved to Texas, she got more adventurous in her cooking, and I think we began to enjoy our meals more. As I leafed through her recipe box, I noticed a number of the recipes had adjectives such as “Mexican,” “Italian,” and “spicy,” something which would not have been served in our household when I was little. When I went off to college, my roommate taught me how to cook, and we would find interesting recipes (a lot of which included eggplant, a favorite of mine) to prepare. Together with out boyfriends, we put together some decent meals and even invited a couple of professors to dinner. I would take recipes home to Mom that didn’t include any ingredients that couldn’t be purchased in our small town grocery store. The biggest change I remember was that we ate a lot of dishes with mushrooms.

I did discover one truly wonderful food while I was still in high school: kolaches. Almost anything called “kolache” is delicious, but these Bohemian (Czech) kolaches are close to heavenly. Bohemian kolaches are the puffy yeast dough kind with various fillings (cream cheese, poppyseed, prune (known as lekvar in some places), or other type of jam) rather than the crispy tube or star pattern type more common among the Slovaks (different part of Texas) and Rusyns. We were on a band trip to Houston to perform in a big State Honor Bands concert (we were the class AA Texas State Honor Band that year), and someone’s grandmother had sent along a basket of these heavenly clouds. The memory of the one kolache I ate haunted me for years, until I found a good recipe for these kolaches in the Joy of Cooking cookbook my mother bought for me for Christmas; I knew it was the right recipe when I saw that it called for lemon peel in the dough – that is what makes the dough taste so wonderful.

Here is my mother’s recipe for “Easy No-Cook Divinity”:

In small mixer bowl, combine frosting mix (Fluffy white Betty Crocker dry mix), 1/3 cup corn syrup, 1 teaspoon vanilla, and 1/2 cup boiling water. Beat on highest speed until stiff peaks form, about 5 minutes. Transfer to large mixer bowl; on low speed, blend in 1 lb. confectioner’s sugar gradually. Stir in 1 cup nuts. Drop mixture by teaspoonsful onto waxed paper. When outside of candies seem firm, turn over. Allow to dry 12 hours or overnight. Store candies in airtight container. Makes 5 to 6 dozen candies.


  1. Greta, I loved reading about your cooking adventures. I had to laugh because my husband loves breaded tomatoes and would even trade for that in the high school cafeteria! Weird! And his mom put sugar in everything. I've eaten kolaches and agree--they are divine! Your creamed tuna on bread was my creamed chipped beef on toast. Sure enjoyed your post. Thanks!

  2. Greta, you brought back some great memories of my days in the kitchen with Grandma. We never made Kolaches but, I agree, they are good. The little chocolate covered pecan balls were made every Christmas by one of the ladies in the family. I've never tried creating them. You've made me want to pull out a similar recipe I have and give them a try.

    Did you ever find your Mom's recipe? I'll share mine with you, if not.

  3. Hmm, I'm sitting here wondering about how long it took for you to decide how many of those chocolate covered pecan balls you could appropriate before someone would become wise. My sister was the chocolate lover when we were children. My mother could never find a place to hide the chocolate that Marcia couldn't find. This was a fun post to read!

  4. Becky,

    I won't make fun of your husband for his strange taste in food, because I'm sure that I like some foods that others would find strange, too! Thank you for your encouraging comments.


    Yes, absolutely, I would love your recipe for the chocolate balls! My daughters and I can try to make them at Christmas time. They must be a Texas thing. And I highly recommend the Joy of Cooking kolache recipe - though it's labor-intensive, too.


    Thank you for your kind comments. You obviously understand the "art" of filching food, if only by observation. I think my daughters have inherited the talent - I never see them taking the food, but then it's all gone.

  5. Greta,

    Your posting stirred up so many food memories. Stewed tomatoes with bread and sugar is a dish my grandmother used to make. Although I have not had it in a long time, I'm craving for it now. (Smile)

    My grandmother also put sugar in everything like rice, grits, and stewed tomatoes.

  6. Divinity, kolaches, breaded tomatoes...mmmmmm! Brings back a lot of memories of my mother's kitchen and now I must go....I think I have some stewed tomatoes waiting to be breaded and..yes...sugared! ;-)

  7. Professor Dru and Cheryle,

    Wow, I never suspected that stewed tomatoes have so many fans! Though I like the idea of sugar on rice and grits. As a matter of fact, I think grits are under-appreciated; I like a lot of foods of that sort, from the coarser end with grits to the finer end with Farina (anyone remember Farina? - We can only find it in a couple of stores here.)