It didn’t matter what stressful event was happening in our lives – be it a failed math exam, a broken engagement, or the Cuban Missile Crisis, our Grammie Gloor would always say, “Ehhhhh, no matter what, you have to eat a little something.”
With that as our life’s motto, it is quite surprising that we don’t all look like Jabba the Hut.
What Grammie was really saying was that food is the thing that brings us together. Preparing a meal for others brings joy to anyone who likes to cook. Sitting together over a meal creates an atmosphere of love and closeness that is often hard to get otherwise.
It’s the attitude of people in the Midwest.
I grew up eating plain, simple, and good food. I am fully aware that not everyone who lives in Nebraska eats the way we did. I’m sure there were and are vegetarians, or people who avoid fried food, or those who enjoy cooking and eating a fine French meal. Maybe even people who eat seafood that doesn’t come from a can. Hard to imagine.
The food I grew up eating – both at home and when we ate out – was simple, delicious, often not particularly healthy, and it’s what I crave to this very day.
While Bec and I didn’t set out to eat more beef and fried food in one week than we generally eat in six months, it’s what happened. It was part of our effort to get back to our roots.
It started on our first day, a mere four hours after we got into the car. We stopped at Ole’s Big Game Bar in Paxton, NE. Paxton is a town of about 550 people in western Nebraska. The story goes that at 12:01 a.m. the day after the end of Prohibition in 1934, Ole opened his bar. He was, and continued to be for the next 35 years, a devoted big game hunter. The bar illustrates his devotion to this sport. As you dine, peering down at you are such taxidermied creatures as an elephant, a polar bear, a giraffe, as well as multiple deer, moose, and elk. It borders on creepy, albeit fascinating. The food, however, is delicious. Bec and I enjoyed the Sunday buffet, which included chicken fried steak and fried chicken. Why only eat one fried item when you can have two? A lettuce salad featuring iceberg lettuce. No arugula or watercress here. We enjoyed every bite.
While in Columbus, we ate at the restaurant at which our family celebrated nearly all important life events – birthdays, anniversaries, graduations. We had a glorious night catching up on the news of our cousins in the best way possible – over yummy food at the Husker House. In honor of Mom and Dad, we drank ice cold martinis. The piece de resistance – following a meal of a prime rib bigger than a basketball – was a grasshopper. Grasshoppers are dessert drinks made with Crème de Cacao, Crème de Menthe, and, if made correctly, ice cream. Mom and Dad served them each year at their annual Christmas party. Grammie, who rarely drank, would drink two or three of these yummy cocktails BEFORE dinner. Her cheeks would get pinker with each sip.
We ended our heart-stopping dining on our way home when we ate dinner the final night at Chances R, a steak house in York, NE. Figuring we had eaten enough beef, we elected to eat something healthy like chicken. Never mind that it was fried. Details, details. It was thoroughly yummy.
Again, not everyone in Nebraska eats this way, and certainly not as often as we did last week. We had to fit a whole lot of cholesterol into a short period of time so we needed to do some serious eating. To balance out our diet, and to prevent us from having to make a beeline to a cardiologist as soon as we got back home, our cousin Kate prepared a delicious meal of tequila lime chicken, and her meal included VEGETABLES. Our cousin Chris also kept us full and content without causing us to keel over. And we enjoyed fresh oysters while in the Old Market of Omaha. So there.
When our families got together, there was always food involved. Casseroles, jello salads, cucumbers with sour cream and dill, fried chicken, potato salad, macaroni salad. Lots of food. And always delicious. Feeding our bodies fed our souls. It’s the Midwestern way. Even today, when my family gathers, it’s almost always over a meal.
Some of my favorite things to make to this very day are recipes I collected from my mom and my aunts – particularly my Aunt Leona. When I make Mom’s wilted lettuce or Leona’s frozen cuke salad, it takes me back to my roots in the same way as looking at old pictures does. Food memories.
Bec and I enjoyed our culinary experiences almost as much as we enjoyed spending time with our relatives. The best part was that we mostly got to do the two together.
Leona’s Frozen Cuke Salad
2 qts. sliced cukes
2 T. salt
Mix and refrigerate 2 hours. Drain and rinse.
½ c. vinegar
1-1/2 c. sugar
Onion to taste
Green and red pepper to taste
Bring to boil, then remove from heat. Cool the syrup slightly and pour over cukes. Refrigerate another 24 hours.
Put in containers and freeze.
Leona’s note: We prefer to keep in frig and eat.