My grandmother has about nine lives.
She was sent to palliative care this Fall while I was in Italy. My heart was torn up being away from home, away from her.
One weekend, I was on a trip to Verona and my family was at the hospital with her, assuming this would be goodbye. We planned ahead for them to call me so that she and I could talk to each other before it was too late. She knew I had been taking a cooking course, and I remember she told me,
Now, you be safe so when you come home we can cook together.
I choked through affirming her wishes. I wanted this to come true but thought it was just a piece of optimism, a nice gesture of what could’ve been.
My favorite gift this Christmas was standing beside her and scribbling notes in my journal while she shared our family “dressing”* recipe.
*Note, in the South, “stuffing” is called dressing.
She fussed at me when I asked her to take a picture with me. I told her she was beautiful and she sarcastically said, “Yeah, real beautiful.” She KILLS me. She is beautiful. She always fixes her hair and has a sweet, knowing, tight-lipped smile.
One time, I was trying to take a picture of the mix to remember what it should look like when I make it, and my camera got in the way of her hand.
She looked at me and said, “Get me my belt.” I died laughing.
I’ve always wanted to be able to cook, but it’s always been a fail. Emily’s always been the one who baked apple pies for occasions, and I’ve never fully had the confidence to be able to try my hand at it.
I feel blessed have a new world of cooking and food opened up to me after my experience in Italy. My cooking class gave me the confidence to approach the stove. Its assignments gave me knowledge of the best preparations, ways to store, cultivation methods, background, and nutritional value of vegetables. Reading and chatting with my chef gave me a glimpse into regional cuisine and the importance of each area of Italy’s specialties. My roommates gave me helpful hints and and recipes, as well as a new philosophy behind cooking. “Love your ingredients, Cat,” Leyla would tell me. As I would mix them, I would view each differently. I could see the dish coming together as the sum of its delicate parts.
Now that I have a limited knowledge of cooking, I have a passion to try and try and try. And I want the culinary to be a part of who I am, a part of my legacy, as it is a part of my grandmother’s.
In my mind, Mama’s name is synonymous with Southern Cooking. Ever since we were little, going to the Berry’s meant a real meal, an expansive spread. She makes everything from scratch. I knew the dressing, the peas, the barbeque chicken were good, but I had no standard or idea of the effort it took for her to make all of these. Her meals for our visits are a labor of love.
She makes gallons of her own stock. She shells her own pecans from her trees. For her famous dressing, she first makes both cornbread AND biscuits from scratch solely to be used for the recipe.
Her sister, Greta, is much younger than her, but they grew up cooking together on the same property where they both still live in Milan, Georgia (current population: 759 people, www.city-data.com). They live in houses right across the pond from each other, and they visit each other daily. Mama has had to be taken out of her house several times over the last few years due to her health, and she has always managed to graduate out of hospice or palliative care to come back home, where she raised my Daddy and his brother.
“All we did was cook,” Greta told me. My mind snapped into the reality of these sisters’ lives. These recipes are so precious; they are long labors, tried and true of years. How many times has this dressing been made and drooled over?
As women in the South in the ’40s and ’50s, they had to provide for their children, and, of course, cook. The recipes they use were handed down from their mother, Grannie Reaves. They were mothers. They ruled their kitchens, putting heaping plates in front of their growing boys in hopes that they would rise to be men of integrity.
(I’m proud to say that one of her boys is now my father, the most kind, intelligent, loving man I know. He still talks about their Fourth of July barbecues where they would slay then roast a pig all night.)
I felt so connected to my grandmother through this shared love of ours. I also realized I have so much more to learn. I thanked the Lord for healing her and giving me this opportunity to appreciate her in her element. Her being alive, cooking next to me in the kitchen, is truly a miracle from the Lord, and cooking with her was a Christmas gift from Him.
Now, I will take this recipe and practice it until I know it by heart and can cook it the same way Mama does. She makes her dressing juicy, tender, golden, and I am obligated to her to make it just as well.
I am the new generation who, by taking this recipe into my repertoire, have absorbed my family’s history. This is Evelyn Reaves Berry’s pride, tradition, identity, and I will pass it down to my children as her recipe.