By Shelley Johansson
A grandmother’s superb home cooking is at the heart of many people’s childhood memories. I can’t say that this is true for me, exactly. My maternal grandmother grew in up in a Mississippi orphan’s home during the Depression, and never had a mother to teach her how to cook. But married at 16 and a mother by 18, cooking was her duty and she by God got good at it. Nana, who was so beautiful she was offered a screen test as a young woman, loved family meals and expressing her love for us through good food. But to her, cooking was a means to an end, not something to be enjoyed. It was a chore that had to be done to get to the good part – the companionship of the meal.
As an indifferent cook myself, I can relate. In my family, my husband does almost all the cooking, simply because he’s more interested in both the process and the result. So we regularly enjoy varied gourmet delights like scallops with champagne sauce, whereas if cooking were my responsibility I’d develop a rotating menu of good but basic meals. But an arrangement like that just wasn’t on the table in that era. Heaven knows my Papaw would never have scrambled his own breakfast eggs if Nana or one of his three daughters could be summoned to do it.
Like many of her generation, Nana never wasted anything, especially not food. She was known to combine the last little bits of many different cereals into one box, so you’d pick up a box of Cheerios and get ten chewy Cheerios, three Rice Krispies, some of bran flakes and a handful of cereal dust of indeterminate origin. (The trick was to slide the mess back in the box and grab the Chex before she noticed). She would “crisp” stale crackers in the oven, make concentrated coffee to reconstitute and heat up later, and combine leftovers into a new and weirdly-textured dish that would inevitably result in still more leftovers.
She did seem to like baking more, but maybe that’s because the times I remember her baking she was doing it with us, her adored grandchildren. We made many trays of cookies together, but the most fun we ever had was making old-fashioned molasses pull taffy with all six under-10 kids helping. The kitchen was sticky for days. She seemed to think it was worth it.
As in so many families, when we all got together at the big house my Papaw had built in Louisville, the six grandkids would eat at the kids’ table. There simply wasn’t room at the huge round dining room table for us all. There was nowhere I felt safer or more loved than eating dinner in my Nana’s warm, comfortable kitchen, laughing with my cousins while the adults bustled around getting their meal ready.
My grandparents retired to Florida when I was a preteen, where they lived on the lagoon, with a boat parked at a dock in their backyard. Most of the family still lived in Louisville, so when we visited there were generally fewer of us at their house at once — so the kids and adults would eat together. The meal was often delicious seafood we caught under my Papaw’s guidance, and that Nana had learned to cook. Papaw cleaned the fish, but they both became experts at shucking oysters and opening scallops. We’d play cards after the meal – an aptly-named game called “Oh, Hell” – and the two losers would do the dishes. My grandfather almost always won. Nana, on the other hand, almost always lost.
Nana was incredibly creative, an artist without training. A gifted decorator, gardener and artisan, she would rush through her cooking chores to get back to whatever her creative passion was at the time – framing art, sculpting clay, creating wreaths, and seashell crafts are just a few that I remember. She was very much an extrovert and loved all kinds of get-togethers, especially dinner parties. In fact, she was so well-known for being able to throw a great party at a moment’s notice that this attribute was mentioned in her obituary. But the food was not what made these events memorable – it was her personality, her fine-tuned ability to make a party sparkle.
I still have a stack of index cards with recipes she copied from newspapers and magazines, carefully transcribed in her loopy, increasingly spidery handwriting. What’s less clear to me is how many of these recipes she actually tried. There was a brief period where she drove my mom crazy asking her to type dessert recipes she’d made up to enter into the Pillsbury Bake-Off. (They generally included at least two sticks of “oleo” and generous amounts of Cool Whip). But for the most part, she was a utilitarian cook, not an experimental one.
The one food I credit her with inventing, or at least perfecting, was beer muffins. My memory is that she started making these on a family trip to the Florida Everglades some 40 years ago, when I was about six and we were staying at a cabin that had non-potable water. So instead of using water to make Bisquick muffins, she used beer, and the result was delicious. Whether this is actually what happened is another question – memory can be a funny thing — and no one else in the family can recall how beer muffins entered her repertoire. Google gives me several recipes for beer muffins, which probably means she didn’t originate the idea. Maybe she got a recipe off the back of the box, who knows.
But it is unambiguously true that these muffins became a staple of our family get-togethers for decades. They were fast, cheap, delicious, and easy to make in bulk, all great qualities when you’re trying to feed a crowd. Like most quickbreads, they had to be enjoyed fresh. Day-old beer muffins weren’t worth much, although Papaw would sometimes eat toasted leftovers for breakfast.
The beer muffin era ended when my grandparents returned to Louisville in the mid-2000s, realizing it was time to be near family. After that, the extended family didn’t gather at their new, much smaller house – instead, we’d go to my aunt’s – and when we did get together Nana was no longer in charge of the meal. She continued to cook for herself and Papaw, a chore that went from unpleasant to downright oppressive after he was diagnosed with oral cancer. His surgery and treatment made eating difficult, and she had little guidance from the doctors on how and what to cook for him. I don’t know if she ever made beer muffins in these years, but for some reason none of the rest of us did, either.
After Papaw died she moved into a retirement home. She gleefully noted that she would never have to cook again. And she didn’t, although I know she missed throwing dinner parties. She passed away the day after her 92nd birthday, almost two years ago now. I rarely go a day without thinking of her with love and gratitude.
They say smell is the sense most associated with memory, but I say taste trumps it. So recently, I decided to evoke my grandmother by making beer muffins, the one food I truly associate with her. The recipe is simple and easy to adjust – about two cups of Bisquick, three tablespoons of sugar, and enough beer to make a thin batter, baked in well-greased muffin tins at 425 degrees. As the muffins were baking, I opened the oven door to make sure they were getting nice and brown. Enveloped in the sweet, familiar smell for the first time in at least 10 years, I burst into tears before eating three in one sitting, with plenty of butter. For me, beer muffins are childhood at Nana’s house, served up on a fragrant plate.
Shelley Johansson is the director of communications for the Johnstown Area Heritage Association.Her work has appeared in The Bitter Southerner, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, Johnstown Magazine, and DIY Musician. She earned an MS in Communications from the University of Tennessee, and teaches public speaking at Penn Highlands Community College.