Each fall, Michele and Pasqualina, who came to Calgary from Sessano del Molise, a small town outside Naples, Italy, order cases of tomatoes from the farmers’ market. They store them under layers of blankets and wait until the stem ends began to wrinkle, signalling the ideal stage of ripeness to transform them into sauce to store for the rest of the year. They make enough to enlist a small hot tub-sized pot on a butane burner in the driveway; their neighbours gravitate to help or just chat, standing around the simmering pot like a campfire.
A text from my friend Vicki, their daughter-in-law, came early Saturday morning: The tomatoes have spoken. They’re ready. I was welcome to join in the blanching, peeling and puréeing.
Vicki knew I loved this kind of home culinary experience. I am, in a way, a collector of grandmas.
Women of my grandmother’s generation (and yes, men, but traditionally it was women doing the bulk of the cooking) became great cooks by feeding their families from scratch every day out of necessity. They witnessed the arrival of packaged mixes and convenience foods but didn’t always have the luxury of relying on them, or had already settled into a routine. They grew their own gardens, raised chickens in the back and made pies and pasta from scratch as effortlessly as we boil noodles from a box.
They ate greens in the summer and cabbage in winter and baked bread and buns themselves rather than run to the local artisan bakery. They embodied that idyllic image of someone who makes you feel loved and cared for by cooking for and feeding you.
My own grandma lived in a large bungalow overlooking the Detroit river in Windsor, Ont.; seeing her required a 3½-hour flight that we took once a year. I recall her most vividly in her teal tennis dress, pure white hair neatly coiffed, with an apron tied high on her waist. She was a fantastic cook, having fed four kids as well as her own siblings after her own mother died.
She made things such as roast lamb with mint sauce and spongy-tart lemon pudding cake, but was perhaps best known for her butter tarts, which were the very best versions of themselves: a slightly runny filling studded with currants, stored in layers in old waxed paper-lined cookie tins. I inherited her recipe box, tin measuring cups and method for making butter tarts – by far her things that were most meaningful to me.
Across the country, my sisters and I grew up on a fairly standard 1980s Canadian diet. My parents were (and still are) solid cooks; they made stew and spaghetti and a decent hash, sourced good bagels and always made birthday cakes from scratch. Still, I felt culturally deficient, having not come from a long family culinary history, so I sought out the stories and techniques of other great home cooks, particularly those with specialties I didn’t grow up with myself.
I met Noorbanu Nimji when she was in her early 80s, working on her fourth self-published cookbook (the first, A Spicy Touch, first published in 1986, has sold more than a quarter million copies and is practically automatically dispensed to all Ismaili newlyweds). In her kitchen, she’d snap a house dress over her good clothes – a full body apron, really – to soak gulab jamun (Indian sweets that resemble doughnut holes) in syrup, simmer chicken or pigeon peas with curry cream and deftly fold and fry samosas. I could spend hours in her kitchen watching and asking questions, absorbing her years of hands-on experience. When she finished cooking she’d snap off her house dress, revealing a perfectly tidy outfit underneath and we’d sit down at the table to eat together.
Friends whose mothers and grandmothers are frustratingly intuitive cooks, turning out perfect doughs and curries by feel rather than by following a precise formula, often invite me over to sit and watch, hoping an extra set of eyes will help document the quantities and method for future generations to more accurately recreate.
My friend Vanessa D’Souza’s mom, Theresa, made her brilliant green coriander chutney as we sat at the counter, watching as her grandkids help stuff handfuls of fresh cilantro into the blender with chilies, raisins, onion, ginger, almonds and coconut cream. She whizzed it into a smooth paste, tasting as she went, as Vanessa and I took notes. The sandwiches of Vanessa’s childhood were made of this chutney, spread on soft buttered white bread for school lunches and family picnics.
At another kitchen counter I watched Sara George, who moved to Mannville, Alta. from Kerala, India 50 years ago, make dosas on a large electric skillet with a fermented batter of rice and urad (small split lentils) dal spread thin with the back of a ladle. We filled them with sambar, a saucy vegetable stew. I sat in a sunny backyard as three generations of women – Susanna Choi, her mom, Catalina, and grandmother, Lela Ulloa – husked piles of corn from the market and scraped the kernels off their cobs to make creamed corn-topped Chilean meat pies called pastel de choclo. Catalina makes the best empanadas, they told me, but casually prepares her beef filling when everyone has gone to bed, in order to keep her technique a secret.
Those who were more frail and hesitant to cook sat at the kitchen table and advised me as I mixed and baked their signature dishes: Portuguese aniseed cookies with a splash of port and Danish aebleskiver (small pancake-like balls) cooked on the stove in a special cast iron pan with deep, round divots. When I wanted to hone my perogy and cabbage roll skills, I learned from a friend who learned from her baba, Nettie, who spent decades filling and pinching at church perogy bees in rural Saskatchewan. I also probed my Polish hair colourist – one of the best cooks I know – whenever I spent time in her chair. (Eventually, she too invited me over and cooked for me.)
Tapping into the knowledge of home cooks has expanded my culinary upbringing and extended our family table. Spending time in their kitchens connects me to them when I bring their dishes home to prepare in my own. These teachers may not be my own grandmothers, but it’s enough that they’re someone’s.