When I was a kid, summers always meant a road trip to Tennessee. We would make a leisurely drive from Minnesota, stopping to see some interesting places along the way. When we finally made it to Cookeville, we would set up camp at my grandma and grandpa’s small red brick home. My sister and I slept on the pullout sofa in the family room where we would inevitably be woken up around 5:30am (sometimes earlier) by my grandfather. He would be banging pots and pans around in the kitchen, preparing to make gravy and biscuits which sat, getting cold, until we finally decided to get up and join the rest of the world. Occasionally, grandpa would turn on the TV, which was in our room, if he really wanted us to get up already.
My grandma also made biscuits and gravy, but I have more memories of the dinner she would make for us all on Sundays. Stewed beans, boiled potatoes, fried chicken, banana pudding, thick slices of juicy red tomato from the garden, fried apples...it was quite a spread. Everyone would come over and fill themselves up with her Tennessee soul food. We certainly did not go hungry. I wish I had spent more time learning from both my grandpa and grandma about food. Not just recipes, but what they really thought about it; what they cooked and why. And I would likely ask my grandpa what in the world was going through his head when he would eat butter stirred with homemade jam using nothing but a spoon.
My grandmother passed away yesterday. It wasn’t exactly unexpected. She had been experiencing all kinds of ‘failures’. Heart failure was most likely what ended her life. I was able to visit her a couple weeks ago, knowing it would likely be the last time we would see each other here on earth. It was a bittersweet trip, revisiting places from my childhood and remembering the days when both of my grandparents were alive. The day I left Tennessee, I knew that I would be saying goodbye to my grandma for the last time. I think she knew it, too.
Fortunately, I have only good memories of her to take with me now that she's gone. The photo above, for example, is my grandma seeing an ultrasound photo for the first time. I was about 5 months pregnant with Riley and she couldn't stop looking and smiling her small, delicate smile. I loved sharing that moment with her.
She was a true Southern Belle with the sweetest voice and Southern drawl you’ve ever heard. Della was delicate on the outside but we all knew she was stronger than any of us would ever be on the inside. I’m grateful for the memories I have of her and I know now that much of my love of cooking food for others stemmed from her. The picture at the top of this post will always hang in my kitchen. No matter where we are, she will be there reminding me that this "cooking thing" goes beyond blogs and recipes and food photography. It goes back to a time before strict recipes when the point was to nourish and comfort those around the table.
All I've wanted to do for the past 2 days is eat her food. All I could handle was making fried apples. Grandma made them all the time and so did my mom when I was growing up. As soon as the apples hit the melted butter in the pan, the aroma brought me back to my grandparents' Tennessee house. I could remember the way the air felt, thick with summer humidity, and the sound of grandma's little voice that was only barely above a whisper at all times.
- 4 or 5 apples, peeled, cored and cut into slices 1/2 inch thick
- 1 tablespoon unsalted butter
- 1 tablespoon oil (I used walnut oil, but you can use canola or another vegetable oil)
- 3 tablespoons sugar
- Melt the butter with the oil in a large skillet over medium-high heat (stainless works best, but cast iron would also be fine). Add the apples and cover until they begin to soften, about 5 or 6 minutes.
- Uncover and sprinkle the sugar over the apples. Stir to coat. Flatten the apples in an even layer and leave, uncovered, to caramelize on one side. Do not stir for about 5 minutes, watching to make sure they aren't cooking too quickly.
- Use a large spatula to flip the apples and caramelize the other side. Continue cooking until the apples have a nice brown color and are soft, about 5-8 minutes more, adjusting heat as necessary.
- Serve warm alone or with vanilla ice cream. These are also delicious with grilled pork.