Early in my life, I remember watching Grandma Riley cook.
She was a beautiful, stately women and she definitely ruled her kitchen. Her hair was always wrapped in a tight, gray bun atop her head. She made cooking a full meal for a houseful of people seem as easy as spreading butter on bread.
After finishing one step of preparation, Grandma Riley would wipe her hands on her ever-present apron and move on to the next course. At some point in the day, the sweet smell of homemade gingerbread and fruit-filled hand-pies filled the entire house.
A few miles up the road, in Crothersville, Indiana, lived Mamaw and Papaw Bridges. When we visited grandparents in southern Indiana, we would slip easily from one set of grandparents to the other. It was joy — pure childhood joy.
Mamaw Bridges had a curio cabinet that was jam-packed full of salt and pepper shakers. As kids we spent plenty of time picking out our favorite set of fancy or silly looking salt and pepper shakers. Then we would go outside and play with cousin Dennis.
One of the joys of that old house was the front porch; sitting on the porch swing, cuddled up beside Papaw Bridges while Mamaw cooked. When we came back in the house, we were met with the comforting smell of homemade cornbread, fried potatoes and a pot of the best soup beans ever made.
My mom somehow absorbed the skills of both grandmothers.
We were “meat n’ potatoes” people. I think that came from Dad’s eastern Kentucky roots. Usually, the meat was beef or pork. It could just as easily have been squirrel or rabbit.
The potatoes might be mashed, fried, baked or boiled. There were always potatoes. Add peas, corn or green beans. Throw in a cake or pie and dinner was ready. Whatever Mom whipped up, it was delicious.
As a child it was usually meat ‘n potatoes, but when I became a teenager things changed. Dad was transferred to night shift so Mom became more creative in her cooking, and I became Mom’s guinea pig for cooking experiments. I still remember her first batch of stuffed cabbage. Wow! I had never tasted anything like that. Meat and spices mixed together? What a novel idea.
My little brother wasn’t as adventurous. He preferred to eat a hamburger — and only hamburger. Belinda, my older sister, loved Mom’s cooking — anything she cooked. Terri, my kid sister, was so young I don’t remember what she liked.
I mainly remember that whatever Mom made we ate. We ate like princes and princesses. She loved to cook and we loved to eat whatever meals Mom made, although Jeff sometimes was a little picky.
Belinda inherited Mom’s cooking skills. To this day, she excels at the traditional meat ‘n potatoes, casserole, crock pot or any other wholesome, time-honored cooking tradition. Belinda could feed me for the rest of my life and I’d die a happy — possibly fatter — man.
Terri, my kid sister, was always something of a mystery to me. She was eight and a half years younger. When I left for college, Terri was only nine years old. I really didn’t know her well.
Twenty years later, Terri and Kirk moved into their first house in Springboro. One evening, Debbie and I were headed to the Dayton Mall. Terri asked us stop by to see their new home and to have a little appetizer.
I got to know my kid sister that evening. I was amazed at how much we had in common. Her bookcase held most of the books I had on my book shelves at home. She fixed an amazing array of appetizers, wine and cheese. We forgot about the Dayton Mall as I grew to know the amazing woman who is my kid sister.
Her cooking skills have no limit. She inherited Mom’s love for cooking, but she has a touch of fearlessness when it comes to experimenting with culinary styles. I love visiting Terri and Kirk for dinner.
I have been blessed by generations of fine cooking: Wonderful grandmothers, a mom and sisters. My daughter, Jessi, has prepared quite a few tasty treats that made me shiver with pleasure they were so good.
I have been blessed, but never more so than when I met Debbie. No one makes beef and noodles like my Debbie. Her idea of a perfect, quiet evening is sitting on the couch reading cookbooks and watching The Food Network. Oh, I love it when she gets creative.
For some reason, this past Mother’s Day, my thoughts have wandered back to the women who have been a huge part of my life and the gift each of them had for cooking. Oh, my. How I love those women.
Grandma Riley, Mamaw Bridges, Mom, Belinda, Terri, Jessi and my sweet wife, Debbie, God bless you for being a part of my life and thanks for feeding me for the past 63 years.
Randy Riley is mayor of the City of Wilmington and a contributing columnist for the Wilmington News Journal, a sister publication to The Madison Press.