Photo. Des Moines IA, ca. 1955

Women in kitchen, 1950s family gathering
Women in kitchen, 1950s family gathering

My grandma was a good “scratch” cook. She rarely needed written recipes, and her standard unit of measure was the smidgen. I would hear my mom or other female relatives ask how much of such-and-such she adds, and the answer was always “just a smidge.” It became kind of a family joke. How much chopped pickles do you add to potato salad to give it that nice kick? A smidge. Mashed potatoes aren’t quite right? Try a smidge more half-and-half. 
What Grandma meant, I think, is that she really didn’t know in terms of standard units. Everything was done to taste and based on past experience, starting when she was a little girl in Exline, Iowa, in the early 1900s. Some traditions probably went back to the British Isles, but nobody remembered.

Of Grandma’s two daughters, my aunt was the one who learned this style of cooking. (It went without saying that the family’s three boys would enter the kitchen only to park themselves at the table.) 

My mom never got the hang of cooking from scratch. For her, I think preparing a meal was just something a woman did, like laundry, and the main thing was to get it done. I think she was relieved to come of age in the post-World War II years when a greater variety of pre-processed, boxed and frozen foods became available. For me and my siblings growing up in Des Moines, that old-style, plain-but-made-from-scratch food—with just smidge of something special—was reserved for family gatherings, when my grandma and aunt ruled the kitchen. 

Place(s): Des Moines, Iowa

– David Bristow

Relationship:  Great-grandchild of im/migrant or more Great-grandchild of im/migrant or more