My Nana’s kitchen was the hub of our family.
It was a relatively large extended family and attracted many “adoptees” and strays throughout the years.
As we were growing up, my siblings and cousins and I found the warmest and most reliably welcome haven at Nana’s. Her kitchen was always open. We were free to go straight to the fridge if we wanted. There were no formalities. We entered through the back door with a holler, “Hey there! Anybody home!?” We brought our friends and, later, girlfriends and boyfriends, and she wrapped them all in her warm embrace, as well. Automatically. Non-judgmentally.
Unconditional love filled the air, mingling with the aromas and warmth of one-or-another made-from-scratch dish, simmering on the stovetop or baking in the oven.
Holidays put the matriarch and her talents on full feast display. But you could get a taste of it any day of the week, as well: an after-work-and-before-dinner “How’s your day going?” pit stop. Also Sundays after church, when we kids were rewarded for getting dressed and out for services with our choice of hot, toasted Pop Tart on a napkin. (Such extravagances made rare appearances at our own home in those days).
My Nana lived 83 years and I’m pretty certain that very few days of her adult life didn’t involve a half-keg size, stainless steel stockpot simmering on the stove, filling the kitchen and nearby rooms with the rich warm scent of saffron, the exotic spice hand-picked from seasonal crocus blooms.
Back in the ’70s, Granddaddy convinced Nana to compile a cookbook of her favorite dishes. In those typewritten, hand-illustrated and mimeographed pages—among the umpteen soup and stew recipes—are snippets that tell little bits of her story: her grandmother’s fried bread filling and pig stomach from her childhood in rural Lititz, PA; dilled okra pickles and Tarheel hush puppies from their days in Rocky Mount, NC, where my granddaddy sold farm machinery for America’s post-Depression growth spurt.
Granddaddy contributed the title for the book: Cooking is Cleo’s Love. It might as well have been called, simply, Cooking Is Love. Because that’s what she taught us: cooking for someone, sharing a meal, is the Golden Rule and a way of living, personified.
My Nana was a dynamo in a diminutive package. The family’s never been the same since her passing. There is no address where we can gather. (By the way, the hub moved over the years from one house, to another, and another, and, finally, to the senior home where she lived out the last years of her life.) There’s no more open back door. No kitchen swirling with yummy scents. But I know that all of us move on with both a longing and an appreciation for a Nana kind of welcome: “Come on in, make yourself a plate, sit, tell me, ‘How’re you doing?’”