When I was a young girl, my mother’s mother would cook green beans for what seemed like every meal. They would be fresh from the garden when in season or, during the winter, they would come from her reserves of “put up” vegetables that had been canned and stored. By the time I was about 10, I couldn’t stand the sight of a green bean. Though it took years to reawaken, my love of green beans did eventually return.
All of this cooking and storing of green beans and the bounty of summer took place in the makeshift “outdoor kitchen” that was nothing more than a concrete platform that was the roof of my grandparents’ storm cellar. The tools of this summer pop-up kitchen included a single garden hose, several dull paring knives, and a variety of galvanized buckets and tubs that had seen the better part of several decades. Beans, fruits, and vegetables of all sorts were initially washed and left to air dry on the shaded expanse of the concrete roof, which remained cool from the deep burrow below in the hot summers. Kids and adults alike gathered there in random pairs to shuck, peel, and prod those fruits and vegetables into a cleaner, more manageable form that would then be moved from the outdoors to the “real” kitchen inside. In her small kitchen, my grandmother would boil, serve, save, can, freeze, and generally use every scrap of food that came from the garden—a tended plot large enough to serve extended family and close friends. The preserved treasures would then move from the house, back outside and into the cool depths of the storm cellar to await their consumption—just below the makeshift kitchen, and alongside a family of spiders and crickets who made that dark place home.
I wasn’t conscious of it at the time, but by offering up that summer kitchen to any willing hand (and by serving all of those green beans), my grandmother was providing love and nourishment the only way she knew how—while teaching all of us kids the usefulness and practicality of growing our own food. Stories unfolded over those buckets of produce, and because of her patience and generous time sitting on the edge of that storm cellar, I learned that food could be used to pass down a love of nature, the earth, family tradition, and culture.
Each time I prepare fresh green beans, I laugh about how I often claimed to loathe a harmless vegetable. I think of my grandmother without fail, every time I cook them. I snap the ends, just the way she did—an action that I now adore. Each snaps brings up the feeling of cold concrete on bare, tanned summer legs.
For me, the kitchen holds this strong sense of memory. There is something profound in preparing a recipe the same way that my grandmother did—there is continuity and a sense of the familiar, of belonging to something and someone bigger than myself. The simple act of cooking beans leaves me awash in memory, with a full heart and a full belly.
This month, we are featuring two of my personal heroines—Davia and Nikki of The Kitchen Sisters—as part of The Factory Café Chef Series. Their radio series, Hidden Kitchens, explores how communities come together and connect through food, chronicling cultures, traditions, and legendary meals found in hidden kitchens around the world.
My kitchen, and now our café—hidden deep inside our factory—will always be a place to gather and a place to honor my grandparents, who nourished my spirit. I suspect that many of you have similar memories, traditions passed down through family, and hidden kitchens along the way—however those families are built.
We ask you to share your own Hidden Kitchen story in the comments below, or stop by The Factory Café and write your memories down and leave them on the table (#inthehiddenkitchen)—your story could be featured on the Alabama Chanin Journal and The Kitchen Sisters’ blog, as well as displayed in the café during the month of May.
My Grandmother lived with Aunt Martha and Uncle Lee, my mother’s sister and her husband, on a farm in eastern North Carolina, so I spent a great deal of my life there. They raised everything they ate and summers were spent “putting up”. When I was too small to work in the tobacco barns, I helped Aunt Martha and Grandmama pick vegetables, clean freshly slaughtered chickens, make butter and cook. In the afternoons we would sit on the porch trying to cool off, that’s where I was given scraps of fabric, a needle and thread and taught how to hand stitch a quilt. The one thing that we all did in the evenings, even my Uncle and boy cousins, was shell butter beans and snap green beans. I can remember having blisters on my thumbs from shelling those butter beans. We all worked hard, and I can honestly say it was some of the best times of my life.
When I was born to my very young parents, it meant four generations under one roof for a time: me, my mom, her parents, and my great-grandmother, whom we all called Mammy. Mammy spent her days downstairs in the summer kitchen of the old farmhouse, rocking in her chair, drinking re-heated coffee from the single pot she made each morning, and tending to her tasks: cooking for herself, mending, and so on. (Mammy gave me my first sips of coffee, heavy on the milk and quite sweet, which is how I still take it, while we played tic tac toe at the kitchen table.) When my grandparents sold the big farm and moved up the road to a smaller farm, they built an addition with a new kitchen so Mammy and Grandma each had their own places to work. I loved the days when Mammy would bake. She would get out her mixing bowl, a wooden spoon, and–most importantly–her measuring cup, which was really just a coffee cup that I never saw hold any coffee. There were no markings on it, and I have no idea what its volume truly was, but it was her standard, and it always worked. When the baking was done, we’d often go out of the front porch, and Mammy would lean against the post while I perched on the edge of the water trough in the yard, my bare feet dangling above the grass, and we would enjoy our treats. After we finished, I’d call on all of my might to prime the iron pump and draw the water to wash the crumbs from my hands before heading back inside. I had my great-grandmother until I was 17, longer than many have their grandparents, and I am lucky for it. I wish I knew what became of her measuring cup. I am still curious how much it held.
Your story brought back memories of my great grandmother Lovingood, she had a cellar just like the one you described. She had a small market next door and I remember her slicing bologna and hoop cheese for us and huge jars of pickled pigs feet – I never could bring myself to try those. Outside the screen door of her kitchen she had mimosa trees that were perfect for climbing and having snacks she made for us.
I remember a thousand hours in my Mam ma Mildred’s kitchen. I remember standing on a chair in her kitchen, wearing one of her aprons, with sunshine pouring through the windows and the screen door slamming just perfectly like a screen door should. We would make teacakes or cookies or fudge or a cake or pie together. The shafts of sunshine were full of floating flour because I was sifting! And she would let me help her measure out the flour and sugar and lick the bowl.
She had a big garden and an orchard. We ate like kings the year round. She grew and “put up” every kind of vegetable and all winter long we would have vegetables and vegetable soup from what she and my Pap pa Woodie had planted, hoed, picked, gathered, canned, and frozen. And they gathered fruit and nuts, wild and tame, and Mildred turned it all into something scrumptious.
She carried food to people all the time and, sometimes, I went with her. If you were sick or had a death in your family, or your house caught fire or your husband lost his job or any tragedy struck, she and her friends would arrive on your doorstep with a basket of food and a homemade quilt or afghan and you would not be hungry and you would not be cold.
I remember how her kitchen smelled. I remember the sweet smell of blueberry jelly and the spicy, prickly vinegary smell of pickles and relish. And I make those things now, in my own kitchen, for a few reasons.
One reason is because I want those smells in my kitchen..
Another reason is so I can give jars of the jelly or pickles away.
Most of all, I do it for my child. My daughter and I cook together. We make Mam ma’s cakes and pies and fried okra and homemade ice cream. We make tea cakes and jelly and pickles and everything in between.
I’m trying to give her in my kitchen what Mildred gave me in her kitchen: gifts; so many gifts.
The best gift from that kitchen was the gift of time. There was the feeling that there will always be all the time in the world; that there is no need to hurry; that all we need is time and we have all the time we need, all the time there is, buckets and buckets of time and the fun will never end. I am so thankful for that gift because, although they gave it to me over 40 years ago, I get to keep it and use it when I need it . . . forever. No matter how long I live, I can call up that memory and feel that feeling of the everabundance of Mildred and Woodie. I want to give my daughter that gift.
There was the gift of seeing and participating in the time and the effort that went into the making of all that food. And, then, the gift of sitting down together and looking at each other and the food we had all worked together to put on the table. And eating it together. Then it was just what it was. It was like breathing to me. It was what we did and how we did it. And that is how it should have been for me then. And I laughed and played and ate my way through it all. Now, I know it was the best food I would ever eat, because it was more than the thing. The food grown in Mildred’s garden and prepared in her kitchen fed the spirit because it was filled with the value of the sweat, time, patience, effort, . . . love. . . . that went into the labor of making it. She knew that. That’s why she did it.
Mildred’s life had its rituals and they were very strongly tied to the seasons. She needed to grow things and make things. She needed to grow flowers and vegetables and cook and can and freeze and pickle and preserve and serve and give.
Thank you so much, Natalie, for this opportunity to share these memories that are so very precious to me.