Some people are lucky enough to have been raised in multi-generational households, or at least with grandparents, aunts and uncles close by. While I have been very blessed with the latter relatives (phenomenal aunts and uncles who, to this day, are the finest kind of people with which to make mischief), I never really knew the joy of my grandparents.
My mother's parents, Ma Bernie and Pa George, passed away before I was born. My father's parents were around a little longer, but not very much: we lost my paternal grandmother, Ma Chris, when I was four. The most time I had with any of them was with my dad's dad, a man we simply called "Pa," who lived until I was nine years old. Even though I have friends at age 33 who still have their grandparents with them, everything is relative. To me, it seems like I had a lot of time with Pa. I cherish the time I got to spend with him because in many ways he was representative of all my grandparents.
In reality, I spent the majority of my formative years without my grandparents in my life. In the absence of their physical presence, however, I have learned to keep in touch with all of them through the delicious food they passed down to me. The dishes Ma Bernie and Ma Chris would prepare for my parents -- which they in turn cooked for me -- have special places in my recipe box and heart. They remind me of where I came from (Ma Chris) and help me understand a woman whose blood courses through my veins but who I was never fortunate enough to meet (Ma Bernie).
All four of my grandparents were ethnic and relatively poor, doing the best they could for their families in the western Pennsylvanian city of New Castle. Mom's parents were Polish and struggled to put food on the table, taking in boarders when necessary and even allowing illegal games of dice in the kitchen (about which my mother was warned to remain quiet). Pa George worked in a bronze factory and a radiator foundry, which put little money in his pocket but much soot in his lungs. Dad's dad was German and his mom was from a large Italian family with so many siblings that attempting to list them confounds my limited mental capacity. (There's even a second wife in there somewhere, and stepchildren and a sister who went to live with an aunt and uncle. Really, not possible to keep it straight. Each time we go back to New Castle for a visit, Dad explains it all to me again, but I promptly forget it once we're on the road back home.) Pa worked in a furniture store warehouse, and Ma Chris worked at Shenango China. I credit and give thanks to her for my pervasive and obsessive love of china and dishware.
It's fun to imagine the kitchens of my grandmothers. Ma Bernie's Polish kitchen, filled with what mom calls "white food:" potatoes, pierogies, cabbage. The only color in there is the crimson of the beets and the language of the illegal gamblers. I imagine Ma Chris' Italian kitchen as red with tomatoes and homemade meat balls, with sauce cooking for days on end and raisin-filled cookies in the oven. Both kitchens are little havens which I'd give anything to visit for a little while, just to spend some time with my grandmothers and watch them make, firsthand, those foods that have become so iconic to me. But life and health and fate can be cruel, so this is never to be.
What I do have are their recipes: notes jotted in the margins of old cookbooks, methods seared into the minds of my parents. I even reach for their sturdy cookware, which has been passed down to me, far more often than I choose any of the expensive All-Clad or colorful Le Creuset pieces currently beautifying my kitchen. My grandmothers' recipes are my connection to a generation otherwise lost to me. I can take sustenance and pleasure from the same ingredients they did and, in a way, it's like we're all standing at the stove together.
The following recipe is from Ma Chris. I am inspired to post it today because my mom made it for the family just this past New Year's Eve. (See what I mean about the longevity of these recipes?) As with all good dishes, this recipe doesn't have a title, per se. It's a wilted-iceberg salad with onions, hard-boiled eggs and brown-butter dressing. As with all good dishes that originated from my grandparents, this recipe has, over the years, come to bear its author's name: "Ma Chris Salad." There aren't many photographs of me and Ma Chris, but the following one of me, Ma, Pa and my older sister taken at Christmas 1975 makes me very happy:
Ma Chris Salad is a delightful exploration of tastes and textures. Its flavor and feel are as complex as the preparation method is simple. The iceberg lettuce, though wilted, has not totally succumbed to the heat of the brown-butter dressing and stubbornly retains just a hint of its watery crunch. The hard-boiled eggs add a softness and richness, the yolks nearly emulsifying themselves to bolster and round out the vinegar's tang. The onions add just a twinge of spice, which plays nicely with the sugar in the dressing. This salad is a wonderful addition to any meal, and given its brief and common ingredient list, can be made very quickly with items you most likely have in your kitchen.
Even if you don't have an emotional connection to my grandmother, I'm guessing that after this salad hits your plate and your palate, you'll wish you did.
MA CHRIS SALAD, aka ICEBERG SALAD WITH BROWN-BUTTER DRESSING
1/2 head of iceberg lettuce, sliced
1/4 medium white or yellow onion, sliced thinly
4 hard-boiled eggs, sliced
4 T. unsalted butter
1/4 c. white or apple cider vinegar
1 t. sugar
1/2 t. kosher salt
Pinch freshly-ground black pepper
1 T. water
Slice the lettuce, onion and hard-boiled eggs and put into a large bowl; set aside.
Melt and brown the butter in a small saucepan over medium-low heat -- make sure not to burn it. When it's brown and nutty, add the vinegar. Ma Chris used white or apple cider vinegar, but sometimes my mom uses champagne vinegar. Red wine vinegar would be yummy, too, but I'd steer clear of balsamic. Whisk the butter and vinegar together. Add the sugar, salt, pepper and water, and whisk to combine.
Pour the warm dressing over the salad ingredients; toss to combine. Serve immediately.
Makes 6 servings. This salad keeps well in the fridge, since it's wilted and benefits from additional time for the flavors to meld.