Our Holiday Favorites
Five Oklahoma grandmothers share lifelong memories of childhoods, holidays, and the foods that bring their families together
Grandmothers and the meals they prepare are the beautifully intertwined centerpieces of family fellowship during the holidays. Th e white aproned matriarch carefully setting the turkey on the table in Norman Rockwell’s Freedom from Want may not look exactly like your grandmother, but the love and pride emanating from both are identical. Th is time of year, many of us travel over the highway and through the traffic to Grandmother’s house to visit with family and of course, to partake in the home-cooked bounty of holiday food. Th ese traditional favorites vary from family to family, but no matter what they are, the holidays wouldn’t be the same without these well-loved dishes on the table where family and friends gather together.
Within the last ten years especially, and even before then for those considered “high foodies”, home cooks have become more conscious of where and how food is sourced for their homes. No longer the domain of specialty stores, standard supermarkets now feature “organic” and “non-GMO”. Farmers’ markets and locally sourced food outlets are becoming less associated with crunchy granola hippies and more populated by all of us. We ask where the rainbow chard was grown and how the beef was raised. We want to know if the eggs are organic and free range, or if they were laid by grain and grub fed chickens in city backyards. Th ese are now the questions and conscientious buying decisions many of us grapple with before cooking at home.
So when the holidays roll around and we pull out our mothers’ and grandmothers’ recipes, we notice the clear generational divide over ingredients. Unless your grandmother and her mother before her grew up on a farm and had all that natural goodness in their own backyards, chances are they gathered all of their ingredients at the nearest neighborhood chain or momand- pop grocery store.
Their recipes require canned green beans, canned corn, and frozen spinach. Noted in the margins are brand names for ready-made whipped cream topping, mayonnaise, sauces, and condiments of every flavor and style. Th e convention of the times demanded margarine or oleo instead of butter, “salad oil” instead of grapeseed, and the list goes on. Th is is what was available to home cooks in that generation, and you know what? I wouldn't have it any other way, not at all, because that is what makes the holiday meals. A steaming casserole dish of canned green beans, cream of mushroom soup, and French fried onions is a holiday meal staple.
Looking over countless recipes handed down by my grandmother and collected from the grandmothers of others, I see history. In faded pencil, we see a small “t” for teaspoon and a big “T” for tablespoon. We see the smudge of chocolate frosting from the first time your grandmother let you make the yellow cake while she stood behind you explaining the difference between “smidgen” and “pinch”. Th e evidence of life lived is all there: an oil stain in the top corner, a small rip in the side of the yellowed paper, and the splash mark from a tear dropped during the first holiday without her, all of you doing your best to carry on in her traditions. And all that changes what was once a simple recipe card into a repository.
Grandmothers’ recipes are their stories. Holiday food carries with it the memories of your families. Now, it’s your turn. We have been given a precious gift stored within those hand-painted boxes filled with recipes carefully trimmed from newspapers and hand-copied onto cards. We must pay it forward. And we have five grandmothers represented here to teach us how.'
Hot Crescent Rolls
The bright smile Virginia Young gave me when I first walked into her daughter Amy’s 612 Community Center in the Paseo warmed my heart. So did her words, “I hope you like bread!”
“There are two things that I am asked to make for the holidays, my strawberry salad and my hot rolls. My family really loves them,” Virginia, known to her family as “Baboo”, tells me.
Years ago, a friend’s recipe for crescent rolls turned into a family tradition at every holiday or special occasion. “I have been making them for so long now, the whole process is just second nature. I bloom the yeast in warm water, melt the shortening, add it all to the flour and mix,” Virginia explains each step like the teacher she is.
“So then you let it rise, punch the dough down, then let it go for a second rise?” I ask her.
“No, I make the dough and place it in the refrigerator overnight. The next morning, I roll it out, cut it into wedges for the crescent rolls, then they rise before baking. I may not be doing it right but it works.”
That’s just it. There’s no doing it right or wrong as long as your family is happy, and as long as the final product turns out as wonderfully as her rolls! It’s these kind of grandma tricks in the kitchen that make our family food favorites so special. Virginia shares a memory of her mother’s method when it came to cooking the Thanksgiving turkey.
“My mother had her own special way of cooking our turkey. She had it written down and taped on the inside of her cupboard door. I took it down after she passed and have had it ever since, and it really works! The method is not really what a lot of us would use, but I’m all for cutting down time on preparing Thanksgiving meals. Preheat your oven to 500 degrees, and put your fourteen pound turkey inside with a can or two of chicken broth. Close the door and cook for an hour and a half. Turn off the heat and don't open the door until the next morning.”
I’m fascinated. Virginia laughs that wonderful laugh of hers. “And it works too,” she assures me, as if I would doubt a grandmother.
“Now is that the secret to your dinner rolls as well?” I ask. “Leaving in the refrigerator overnight without a first rise?”
“No!” she beams that incredible smile of hers. “It’s brushing on melted margarine after baking.”
Here we go again with the margarine.
While most of us are caught up in the hustle and bustle of the holidays, I wonder if grandmothers feel more of the peace and contentment we are all promised by the season. I wonder if they are soothed by the memories of their mothers and grandmothers standing in front of the oven, shooing children (and grown men) away from trying to sneak a bite. Asking Virginia about this led to her showing us her mother’s and her mother-in-law’s recipe boxes, loaded with hand-written recipes and torn printed clippings sorted neatly behind alphabetized separators. Virginia glows, knowing that she is now the grandmother and that the recipe for her family crescent rolls has been added to the precious hand-painted recipe box.
Nance Family Egg Nog
Lovely. That is the first word that comes to mind any time I get the chance to see Nance Diamond. Nance is the mother of one of my closest friends, so I get to see lovely “Honey”, as she is known to her grandchildren, a few times throughout the year. Classic in style, full of grace, she lights up the room with her grandmotherly presence.
James C. Nance, Nance’s maternal grandfather, was not only a well-known newspaper chain publisher from Purcell, Oklahoma, but in 1929, he also served as the only bipartisan coalition elected Speaker of the House of Representatives in Oklahoma. Additionally, he served as president pro tempore of the Oklahoma Senate. Speaker Nance and his bride, Aylene Nance, enjoyed a holiday tradition of opening their home on Christmas morning and inviting family, friends, constituents, and folks from all across the state for his famous egg nog and Christmas cheer.
“My grandmother, Aylene Nance, would have little cookies and pretzels around for everyone on Christmas morning, and of course, the big punch bowl full of egg nog,” Nance recalls with a laugh. “And this would go on all day! I can’t imagine how everyone got home, back then, after drinking all that egg nog!”
“Grandad was all business. During the peak of their Christmas open house, all the men were in the basement, it was the bar area, discussing Oklahoma politics and whatnot. The ladies and children were not supposed to be down there. I was a senior in high school and Gene Rainbolt, who was attending the University of Oklahoma, was basically recruiting me to go to OU. Well, of course I was going to OU. Suddenly, I realized we had wandered into the bar area and I knew I was going to be in big trouble. Needless to say, I quietly wandered back out.”
As time went on and after the passing of Speaker Nance, the tradition of the Nance Family Egg Nog faded away.
“Several members of the family have tried to make it. A cousin in San Francisco attempted to make it but forgot to add the milk. It was all booze and eggs. I’m guessing it did not go so well,” Nance chuckles. “It’s time to bring this family tradition back, I think.”
It’s a rich Oklahoma family history woven into a granddaughter’s fond memories of her grandfather’s Christmas tradition. Nance Diamond not only wishes to keep that tradition alive, but as a grandmother, she strives to create new and lasting memories for her grandchildren and family. I’m quite certain the Nance Family Egg Nog will continue, and the stories of her grandparents’ open house will live on. Cheers!
Bonne Karim and Freddie Livesay
“Munga” and “Grammie”
Snappy Turtle Cookies and Date Spice Cake with Lemon Glaze
Born in 1915, Freddie Livesay’s one hundred and one years have not only made her an experienced grandmother and great-grandmother, but also have solidified Snappy Turtle Cookies as a family holiday favorite. “Grammie”, as her grandchildren and great-grandchildren know her, has for decades been the shining light of family holiday meals and memories.
“She always cooked our holiday meals. Even at 92 years old, I have a photo of Grammie with the Thanksgiving turkey that she just pulled out of the oven,” Bonne, Grammie’s daughter who is now a grandmother herself, recalls. “Grammie has slowed down a bit, and I do the cooking now, but her Snappy Turtle Cookies were something we all love.”
Love of the buttery cookie, coated in chocolate ganache and footed with pecan halves, is evident. Bonne’s eyes lit up the moment she began talking about them.
“Oh, I called my son and daughter and told them I was making the Snappy Turtle Cookies. I couldn't wait for you to get here so we could try them, and they are very envious!”
Grammie sits quietly with a sweet smile, wearing her favorite holiday apron. The stories she has about the good times her friends and family have enjoyed over her meals could fill a book. I asked Grammie how the recipe for her Snappy Turtle Cookies came to be.
“Oh, I found the recipe in a magazine or newspaper some time ago,” she responds softly with her lovely smile. Laughing, she adds, “It’s been so long I don’t remember!”
“Mom has been making them as long as I can remember, and that’s sixty plus years,” Bonne beams at her mother while holding her hand. “We will always have the Snappy Turtle Cookies.”
Bonne Karim is a holiday baker in her own right as well. Baking for her husband, children, and the two grandsons who call her “Munga” is always special, and her Date Spice Cake with Lemon Glaze has been her sweet holiday legacy.
“It’s a fruit cake for those who don’t like fruit cake,” Bonne jokes. “I found the recipe in a cookbook when the kids were kids, Joy of Cooking, I think. The recipe called for a mocha icing, but I like a lemon glaze instead, so chose to do that.”
Her spice cake comes in the form of mini loaves and cupcakes, sweetened with soft dates and raisins with the occasional bite of pecans. What really caught my eye was the throw-back to using red and green maraschino cherries for decoration. Nostalgic to some, they’re simply a part of Munga’s Date Spice Cake to her family.
In the 1980s, Bonne gathered her holiday recipes, including her Date Spice Cake, and compiled them into little booklets. Later, her son Farooq made a fancier version. Bonne still references them during the holidays to make her family favorites. How marvelous it must be to have those recipes collected, the recipes from Grammie and of Bonne’s own. How marvelous it is to have one hundred and one years of life, love, and holiday memories to hold in one sweet, gentle hand.
Wilted Lettuce and Cranberry Orange Relish
I am often asked where I learned how to cook. The first time I ever saw a recipe was in my mother’s big three-ring photograph binder. The sticky photograph pages protected by clear plastic sheets featured clipped recipes from the Sunday newspaper, peeled labels off the back of spent spaghetti sauce jars and baking powder cans, and handwritten recipes with titles like Blueberry and Pineapple Jell-o Salad with Cream Cheese Topping and Aunt Barbara’s Goulash. The first recipe my mother—now known as Mimi instead of Mom, thanks to my two nephews—taught me how to bake was gingerbread. The recipe originated from the back label of a jar of, coincidentally enough, “Grandma’s Molasses”. My love of cooking, especially of baking, exploded!
Mimi brought to our family the recipes she grew up with in Pennsylvania, heavy on the Pennsylvania Dutch styles and with a little bit of Ladies Home Journal and Southern Living thrown in for good measure. Closest to my heart is her Wilted Lettuce, a warm, deeply flavored concoction of sweet vinegar and cream, featuring lots of bacon. But we cannot overlook Mimi’s Cranberry Orange Relish, welcomed at every Thanksgiving and Christmas meal for its bright, fresh taste. If there’s any left, it’s also perfect for topping turkey sandwiches the next day!
“Do you have a meat grinder?” was Mimi’s first question when I asked if she could make her Cranberry Orange Relish for this piece.
Ah, the family meat grinder. Every year, the night before Thanksgiving, Mimi would haul out the old fashioned metal grinder, clamp it to any countertop corner available, and begin hand-cranking fresh cranberries and oranges. The tiny pops and explosions from tight, red, ripe cranberries were like an alarm for me. That pop meant that the holidays had finally arrived. It was time to find some pants with an elastic waist.
“Well, there’s no other way to do it. I mean, you can pulse it in the food processor but the grinder, the grinder is what makes it that relish consistency.”
The wilted lettuce recipe, originally passed down by my mother’s namesake, has been a favorite with our family for as long as I can remember. It comes down to one basic ingredient. That ingredient is iceberg lettuce.
Those of us who grew up in the seventies or eighties knew that when your mom asked you to hand her the lettuce to make a salad, she was talking about iceberg lettuce. Iceberg doesn’t get a lot of play these days, but just like with a classic wedge salad, iceberg lettuce is the only choice for Mimi’s Wilted Lettuce recipe. You take hot bacon grease and crunchy bacon and pour it over lettuce while adding a hot cream, egg, vinegar, and sugar dressing. It’s Pennsylvania Dutch-stick-to your-ribs good!
Now that I’m all grown up into a professional chef, and now that I understand the patience required to teach others how to cook, I have an even greater appreciation for my mother teaching my brother and me. I see her patience and love at work again today when I visit my parents and find my two nephews in the kitchen with their grandmother, both of them wearing one of her frilly aprons. My elder nephew leans over one of Mimi’s recipes, partially covered in flour, and reads the directions aloud, “Measure one scant cup of sugar. Mimi, what does scant mean?”
My younger nephew hand-rolls balls of butter cookie dough in the palm of his hands, ready to coat them in cinnamon-sugar for snickerdoodle cookies. Mimi stands in between her two grandsons, smiling.
We love you, Mimi!
A bushel and a peck and a hug around the neck are the lyrics from a classic Doris Day song that one grandmother, very close to this chef’s heart, sings to her grandchildren. Those words also remind me of sifting through her recipes over the years: a pat of butter here, a peck of salt there. As you cook and bake this season, may you be reminded of the loved ones who have made those preparations before you, for you, and by your side. May you feel love by the bushel.
Merry Christmas and Happy Holidays to all of you Mimis, Honeys, Mungas, Grammies, Bapoos, and Grandmas!