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Survival skills rise from a Wisconsin girl's roots

Jamie Stiehm on

You may see me as a Washingtonian journalist, but there's a Wisconsin girl more than skin deep. Facing the pandemic alone has turned me back to simpler times for consolation.

First things first: bacon fat and real butter on the stove, just like Grandma Hicks used to keep. Eggs in the fridge, next to milk and cream for coffee. Wisconsin isn't called "America's Dairyland" for nothing. A century ago, a Stiehm ancestor had a butter and egg delivery service in Milwaukee.

So, you see, I am in spiritual touch with my roots.

I have her box of elegantly handwritten recipes right here. Eleanor Hicks keeps me company with a square timepiece that transports you in a moment back to a land of homemade praline cookies, spice bars and exquisite baked rhubarb right from the garden. Sour cream potato salad for picnics with coconut torte or heavenly hash desserts. That's just for starters.

Ice box cookies, anyone? (I can't remember what those tasted like.)

My grandmother's family lived in "town" and had a ranch in rural Kansas. As a girl, she worked there in the summers, making meals for the men. Hungry ranch hands ate a big breakfast at sunrise.

 

As a plump grandmother, she once told me her worst fear was running out of food when hosting parties or holiday dinners. She never did.

You may wonder about the bacon fat. That's a tradition in the Midwest. Smearing it in a pan often gets the cooking going. Same goes for the baking. My grandmother's ginger cookie recipe (heavy on molasses) calls for "bacon dripping" mixed with shortening. It gives a smoky aura to the sugar-sprinkled ginger cookies, a kick that you can't get store-bought. Bacon fat works in mysterious ways.

(Oscar Mayer used to have its main factory in Madison. No more.)

Pies deserve special mention, studies in custard and chocolate, strawberries and meringue. And what exactly is a "black-bottom pie" with graham cracker crust? My mother, her daughter, never made it. At summer's end came canning and making jam from the peaches, apples and raspberries in the patch I liked to get lost in.

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