From Grandma’s Kitchen

From Grandma’s Kitchen

As we have passed the second anniversary Grandma Rikala’s funeral, we had originally planned to present a tribute in the form of a podcast.  But unfortunately, our equipment was not up to the task for the recording of mother and I as we shared our reflections on a Saturday evening.  We recorded in the house in Duluth where Grandma spent over 60 years of her life.  Rather than putting together an audio recording, I thought it be more fitting to put the words to paper as that was a form of communication that was well ingrained in my grandmother’s generation.

During our reflections, Mom mentioned the stacks of books that Grandma would have in queue as Grandpa and Grandma would often read the same books and swap with each other as they finished reading a volume.  Long retired from the ore docks, a familiar sight in the house would be Grandpa on the left and Grandma on the right in their respective Lazy Boy chairs engrossed in some novel that they borrowed at the library or purchased at the store.  I would often let them read a book that I thought they might enjoy from my own interest in books.  I lent Grandpa my book Citizen Soldiers, by Stephen E. Ambrose, when I was studying for a trip to France and was reading up on French culture, Impressionistic art, and of course, military history which became a deep interest of mine after reading accounts of D-Day, The Battle of the Bulge and personal memoirs military WWII veterans had written over the years.

Grandma loved her romance and mystery novels.  We got interested in the same series by Jean Auel who wrote a series of books set in Europe during the Upper Paleolithic era.  It was quite fun swapping books and later sharing her thoughts of the storyline.  She had in her collection several of the first editions of those books when they came out.  With many of Auel’s novels exceeding 700 pages in length, Grandma often said “there is too much detail…just get to the story.”

Grandma would also have her regular correspondence and stacks of letters in the dining room that she had recently received.  She had contacts in Finland, where she was born and still brushed up on her native tongue in her correspondence with distant relatives.  As family had mentioned in reflections and eulogies, she was never late sending out a birthday card.  She had a calendar specifically devoted to birthdays and anniversaries.  She always knew when to mail the card so it would arrive the day before, or the day of, your birthday.  Cards were a welcome sight as they always contained a twenty dollar bill.  It was the case from when I was about ten until the day she passed away.

I have often thought and remembered her in the past couple of years and the legacy she left.  As part of this, on a recent trip up to Brook Trout Camp around the anniversary of her funeral, mother and I made up one of Grandma’s specialties, and one of her most requested dishes taken from a cookbook made up of favorite recipes from the wives of the 22nd Armored Engineers, 5th Armored Division, that my grandfather was assigned to in World War II.  The cookbook still has survived all these years with check marks of recipes Grandma had made since the time it was published.  But, the wild rice dish was always one she came back to time and again.

She would often make it on evenings around the time I’d purchase her weekly grocery order after Grandpa’s health declined to the point of needing to be cared for in a nursing home and up until the day he passed away in 2002.  I still remember her recount of the day.  She said Grandpa was getting up to go to bed and only made it a quarter of the way up the stairs when he had a stroke and fell back and couldn’t get up again.  After a stay in the hospital and going through extended physical therapy, his legs were too weak to resume a normal life at home. Ironically thirteen years later, going up those same stairs Grandma found herself too weak to make it up past the halfway point when the paramedics were called and Grandma was taken to the hospital.  After a short stay there, she was never to return home again.

I remarked to mom the house still seems relatively unchanged by time.  It is still almost the way Grandma had it the day she left for the hospital.  I still somewhat expected to see her either sitting in her easy chair reading the newspaper or standing up by the stove in the kitchen.  I find it’s a rare treasure these days to be able to visit places of our past.  I remember memories from that house for as long as I have been around.  While Grandma never maintained gardens or lived on a farm, she had a natural green thumb.  She could keep plants alive for years.  She had a perfect south facing window that still grows plants that I remember from the early 1980s, around the time I was trying to bum quarters from Grandpa on his walks to play Pac-Man at Stadium Lanes under the shadows of the train trestles leading to Dock No. 6.

While making Grandma’s wild rice dish with my mom, I found it was enjoyable to cook in grandma’s own kitchen where she had prepared for me countless meals.  I kind of marvel all these years, I had never cooked in her kitchen before other to warm up soup on the stove while I stayed at her house shortly before I got married.  So, this was a special night and I enjoyed the time spent with mom assembling a memorable dish and attempting to make our podcast recording.

It also seems like the anniversary spawns a new series for the Galley podcast.  Two years ago, we got into making pies from a Betty’s Pies cookbook purchased on a tour on the William A. Irvin, a 1930s class steamship docked in the Duluth harbor.  It’s a relic of its time that’s kept in great shape.  The ship has quite an interesting history to it and Grandpa loaded ore boats like it for over 30 years on the Duluth ore docks.

Around the first anniversary at Brook Trout Camp, the Duluth Grill’s “Comfort Food series” was born.  We purchased both of their cookbooks for use in the series.  While this year finds us taking a reprieve of sorts from podcasting and becoming immersed in skill development in the kitchen from the likes of Giuliano Hazan, Rick Bayless and Sim Cass, to name a few.  We are excited by how these areas of study could impact the podcast for the future and hopefully we’ll be able to get the Chief Steward Josh back regularly for his added perspective.  We need to go where the spirit leads us and right now that is cooking, learning and trying new things.  We are planning on weekly Culinary Sojourns and blog posts.  We’ll get caught up on the podcast Culinary Sojourn piece when that ramps up again.

While time has a way of changing things, new traditions form and we try to retain old ones.  Every year about this time, we will remember a person who was as generous as she was hospitable.  Her home was always open.  You could rest your weary soul on the couch and grandma would always be there offering to make you a Spam and cheese or three or four other options that you had enjoyed in the past.  Plus, there always seemed to be a freshly baked and perfectly frosted spice or angel food cake for dessert and freshly brewed coffee.  Later, it became baked apple pie after dinner…usually right in time for the start of The Antiques Roadshow.

One of my best memories to cap off an evening was dusting off the record player and putting on some of the old 45s, like Something Stupid, Downtown, The Music Box Dancer or Ring of Fire by Johnny Cash.  The memories flowed in like the fog rolling in off Lake Superior.

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