Sunday, November 22, 2009

Channeling My Inner Gramom

Today I have prepared for that seemingly forgotten holiday - Thanksgiving.  You remember Thanksgiving decorations, do you not?  With the Native Americans and the Pilgrims?  The funny hats, and buckled shoes? The headdresses with feathers?  I went to a few stores today, the weekend before Thanksgiving, and saw nary a hand print with a beak and gobbler on it, not a cornucopia in site.  But Thanksgiving is not forgotten by those of us who love food.  Through snowflakes and Christmas trees, I wandered the shelves, looking for the ingredients to make potato filling.

Potato filling is a wonderful and uniquely Pennsylvania Dutch concoction which I took for granted as a child.  You see, I was not aware that it is not an everyday thing for most of the world.  Most restaurants and school lunches in my hometown include potato filling - a delicious blend of potatoes and bread stuffing - on the menu.  But here in Maryland, and even in my Penn State dining hall, no one has heard of it.

Even as a kid, I knew the best potato filling was made by one person - my Gramom.  Though she cooked a lot when I was small, her batches of potato filling (and pretty much everything else) were fewer and farther between as I grew older.  Soon, she made the coveted dish only once a year, after repeated badgering - on Thanksgiving.

I attempted to make it myself, of course.  I called her a few years ago for the recipe.  I went to her house and searched through decades of cookbooks and hand-written recipes on scraps of worn, stained paper.  Unfortunately, potato filling was one of the things she just did.  She threw the basic ingredients together in a pot, and ended with a culinary masterpiece.  The exact quantities of these ingredients were a mystery.  My own potato filling, enjoyed by college friends at our annual "friends Thanksgiving" received compliments.  But it wasn't the same.  It wasn't even in Gramom's league.

Now, Gramom is gone.  It is amazing how I still miss her daily.  I think it is a shame that such a wonderful recipe should die with her.  And so, I pulled out all the old cookbooks I inherited from her, as well as my sister's verbal account of her method - which includes the basic ingredients but not the quantities - and I attempted to reconstruct the masterpiece.

I had thought is would be a lost cause until I took out the last book in the stack - a PA Dutch Grange Cookbook with "Mabel Graeff" written on the front cover.  This, I believe, was inherited by my own Gramom, perhaps when she was just a few years younger than me.  No index, just a list of general recipe types - "Salads" (a very small section, as the PA Dutch are not known for their low-cal concoctions.  Though I didn't flip to the section, I can guarantee all recipes involve potatoes or macaroni, with limited greens as a garnish.) "Breads", "Meats", "Casseroles", "Recipes for a Crowd", and "Desserts" (of course, this section is nearly half the book.)  Where would potato filling fit in?  I decided on the crowd recipes and flipped hopefully to the section to find it right there - "Groff's Potato Filling".  First ingredient, 20 lb of potatoes...umm...I think a recipe for 70 may slightly exceed my needs, despite my family's "everything to excess" motto.  Sadly, I returned to the choices.  I tried casseroles, but did not find it.

And then, in Gramom's own hand writing, a list of her favorites.  First on the list: PA Dutch Potato Filling, page 527.  Eagerly, I went to the section of the book in the worst condition - where the pages, though still mostly in order, had come loose from the plastic binding.  Naturally, page 527 was the only page missing.  I flipped a bit more, hoping to find it, and did not.  As I began to place the fragile book back into its plastic bag, a page caught my attention. And there it was, page 527.  Now, this, I knew was not her recipe.  But I think it is the one that started it all.  When she was in her late teens or 20's this was the recipe she used.  She tweaked and refined and eventually stopped bothering with the recipe all together.  Combined with sis's account, I confidently went to the store and bought ingredients.  I have just spent over an hour preparing things, trying to replicate that recipe I know so well, yet do not know at all.

Only time will tell now.  On Thursday, I will pop my filling in beside the sweet potatoes and crecent rolls for the final test.  Will it be perfect?  I think not.  But it will be close, I know it.

Because somehow, I think, Gramom helped.


Tiffany said...

nice story.

Maureen said...

What a lovely tribute. Happy Thanksgiving!