Family Traditions | Jackson Free Press | Jackson, MS

Family Traditions

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Terri Cowart (on the right) sits with her grandmother, Stella Davis Cowart, or Mimi, holding Terri's oldest daughter Anna at her christening in 1983.

The smell of garden-fresh butterbeans and field peas simmered in a dollop of bacon grease and smooth, sweet corn picked, shucked and scraped off the cob was thickened with a little white flour. Fried cornbread dressing was served from a speckled metal roaster pan and hidden under a simple metal cover sat everyone's favorite, grandmother's chocolate cake. If you waited too long to serve your plate, you risked missing out on a slice.

In the middle of my grandmother's kitchen stood two card tables pressed together, covered with a simple cotton tablecloth. Any time our family came together for a holiday or reunion, food was served from this makeshift island. Hardly an inch of space showed. My grandmother's chocolate cake always sat on a corner end.

My heritage is southern—Delta southern, to be exact. So when my assignment was to explore other heritages and their favorite grandmother-prepared recipes, I learned I don't have the market covered with sweet memories of food and family.

Speaking with her strong Asian accent, Lily Qu talked about a large dumpling that her Chinese family would prepare together. Unlike the smaller ones we are accustomed to eating, Lily said the dumpling was large enough to last up to three days. Eaten only during holidays and the Chinese New Year, "the Dumpling represents good luck and family union," she said.

During the High Holy Days of Judaism, one of Bettye Sue Kline's family favorites, which her grandmother Lizzie Lamensdorf served is noodle kugel, "or some form of it." Mrs. Kline owned an exclusive ladies boutique in downtown Vicksburg for 25 years.

"We had a very active Jewish community here in Vicksburg. The B'nai Brith Literary Club was a social club for Jewish families. It was like a country club without the golf course," she explained.

The word "kugel" is Yiddish. It is a baked Jewish pudding or casserole served on the Jewish Sabbath or other Jewish holidays.

Tony Franco died more than a decade ago. Seven Catholic priests presided over the funeral of this very devout Italian Catholic. It was the love of family, my sister-in-law Donna Franco Cowart describes, when she speaks of her dad. His white spaghetti was a recipe Donna remembers enjoying as a young girl.

A recipe of her paternal grandmother, Vera Franco, that was usually prepared on Fridays. "Mama used this recipe of my grandmother's on Fridays during Lent, since it is a meatless dish." Admitting that she tweaks it a bit now to be conducive to her family's faster-paced lifestyle, it is still a dish she enjoys eating.

Conchs are large sea snails (the shell we put to our ear to hear the ocean). Conch is also what a person is referred to if they are a native of Key West. My husband's grandfather Walter Norman was a conch. He would tell stories to my husband of his childhood memories of seeing Ernest Hemingway drunk, of course, around the island. In 1979 he self-published a book "Nicknames and Conch Tales" that recounts this and many other tales from the Key.

My husband, also named Walter, spent many of his Christmas holidays visiting his grandparents in the Keys. He snorkeled while his friends back home were wearing jackets and boots. One of his favorite dishes his grandmother Berta prepared was conch fritters—the Key West version of hushpuppies.

Grandmothers and favorite foods seem to be synonymous with one another. What did your grandmother cook and you loved to eat? I think I'm going to bake myself a chocolate cake today.

Monte's Conch Fritters (with mustard sauce)
1 pound conch or shrimp
2 teaspoons Old Bay Seasoning
2 red bell peppers
2 green bell peppers
1 egg
2 1/2 cups self-rising flour
2 large onions
1 tablespoon cayenne pepper
Oil for frying

Rinse the conch and remove and discard the orange fin and the foot. Chop into the bowl of the food processor and mince. (I prefer the vegetables to be coarsely chopped by hand so there are crunchy pieces in the fritters.) Place the minced conch and vegetables in a bowl; add the seasonings, egg and flour.

Roll into small balls.

Bring the oil to 350 degrees. Add one fritter at a time, waiting a few seconds before adding the next. Fry only five at a time, removing and adding as they are cooked.

Cooking so few fritters at a time means that the oil is kept at a constant temperature rather than dropping a few degrees each time more food is added. This keeps the fritters crunchy rather than oily and soggy.

Fry each batch of fritters for five minutes or until golden and light. Drain and serve with the mustard sauce.
Makes around 30 fritters or 10 servings.

Mustard Sauce
3 tablespoons mayonnaise
1 teaspoon fresh lemon juice
1 tablespoon prepared mustard
Salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste

Mix all the ingredients together, and add salt and pepper to taste. Makes about a quarter cup of sauce.

Franco's White Spaghetti
10-12 cloves garlic, chopped
2 to 3 whole red peppers, chopped (or 2 to 3 teaspoons crushed red pepper flakes)
3/4 to 1 cup extra virgin olive oil
12 to 16 ounces thin spaghetti or vermicelli
Parmesan or Romano cheese, grated
Anchovies (optional)
Salt to taste (if not using anchovies)

In Dutch oven skillet, sauté garlic and pepper in olive oil until garlic is light brown.

Remove from heat. Boil spaghetti in large stockpot, according to package directions.

Remove 1 to 2 cups water from spaghetti and add to sautéed ingredients. Simmer five minutes. Drain spaghetti and return to stockpot. If using anchovies, add to spaghetti. Pour simmered contents over spaghetti and let stand a few minutes. Serve in bowls topped with Parmesan or Romano cheese.

Mimi's Chocolate Cake
1 1/2 sugar
3 eggs beaten
1 1/2 stick butter
1 teaspoon vanilla
3/4 cup milk
2 1/4 cup self rising flour, sifted

Combine sugar, eggs, butter and vanilla. Beat at a high speed for three minutes, then add milk and flour, a little at a time. Beat on low speed for another two minutes. Bake in three round pans at 325 degrees for 30-35 minutes. Pans should be oiled with butter or margarine.

Chocolate Icing
1 2/3 cup sugar
3 big tablespoons of cocoa powder
1/3 to 1/2 stick of butter
1/2 cup milk

Cook until it starts to boil. Stir with spoon while it continues cooking, until it becomes thick but not too thick to spread on cake (about 30 minutes.)

Chinese Dumplings
½ pound ground pork (can add shrimp as well)
3 onions or cabbage, chopped
1 cup of oil
1/4 cup soy sauce
1 teaspoon of salt to taste
Dumpling wrappers

Mix together and let sit for one hour in the refrigerator.

After it has sat for an hour, fill a dumpling wrapper with one teaspoon of filling and fold in half. Using your hands, seal the edges with a little water.

Place filled dumplings into pot of boiling water and stir to separate dumplings so they do not stick together. Boil for five minutes, stirring occasionally. Remove from water with strainer or spatula with holes. Eat while hot. Makes about a dozen dumplings.

Noodle Kugel
8 ounce fine noodles, cooked
1/2 cup melted butter
1/2 cup cream cheese, room temperature
1 cup cottage cheese
1 cup sour cream
3/4 cup sugar
4 eggs
1 teaspoon vanilla
1 tablespoon fresh lemon juice

Cook noodles according to package direction. After noodles are drained, but still warm, add remainder of ingredients, mixing well. Grease a 9x13 baking dish with butter. Pour in noodle mixture. Bake in a preheated 350 degree oven for 30 minutes. Add topping and continue to bake for an additional 30 minutes.

Topping
1 cup graham cracker crumbs
4 tablespoons sugar
4 tablespoons of melted butter

Combine together and spread on top of kugel (see above.) Serves 6 to 8.

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