My mother was the best gravy maker in her family.
I know this because her mother said so at a family dinner. “I could never make it as good,” she offered.
Coming from her, that was high praise. Grandma, you see, not only had her own café, she also was the head cook at her small town’s school. And she raised eight children.
She was – by anyone’s standard – a great cook.
She never measured anything but always got it to turn out right. Everything was a cuppa this, a pinch of that and a whole lot of what was in the cupboard.
If you went to grandma’s house, you were always going to have something good to eat. She baked like she was the only one on duty at an all-night truck stop. Her cookies were huge, her doughnuts were incredible and her lefse – which I haven’t had in decades – was so delicious we could have ended world wars had she been catering negotiations in Oslo.
Grandma never shared those recipes mainly because they weren’t written down. She promised to teach me someday but, to be honest, I was too busy taste-testing to pay attention.
Later in life, I took a doughnut-making class and realized they were so labor-intensive I’d never try again. Grandma churned them out like she was Krispy Kreme.
Because she wanted to make sure everyone had a little something sweet to end the meal, she always sent my mom out into the field to serve grandpa and the hired men when they were planting and harvesting. Bakeries didn't stock this much stuff.
She made cupcakes one day and, mom said, the men liked them so much they ate the cupcake covers, too.
Mom didn’t have grandma's broad repertoire but what she made she did very well. I don’t think there was a Sunday we didn’t have roast beef, mashed potatoes, some vegetable I didn’t eat and dessert.
She wasn’t about to surprise with rosettes, krumkake or assorted other things we associated with grandma. But she could always be counted on to make a mean chocolate chip cookie.
And then, of course, there was the gravy.
I don’t remember a time that it wasn’t delicious – truly. I have no clue what it was she put in it but she didn’t cheat and buy store-bought. I know, because one of her sisters dug through the garbage just to be sure.
I’d often ask what made it so good and she’d say, “a little of this, a little of that.” And, sure enough, it always turned out – the right consistency, the best flavor and the ideal sauce for anything on your plate, bad vegetables included.
A couple of years before she died, mom announced that she was no longer going to make a big Thanksgiving or Christmas dinner. “It’s too hard to get it all to come out on time.”
We insisted timing didn’t matter, but she stuck to her guns and we went out to eat at places with inferior gravy.
Those were probably the only times mom actually sat with us during the meal because she was usually so busy getting each course out.
On those mom-cooking occasions, she’d sit down when we were just taking our last bites. “I don’t know how good this meal is,” she’d say. It was a hollow statement.
One look at our faces revealed plenty.
After she died, I inherited her cookbooks, recipe box and assorted scraps of paper. I tried to find a clue to the gravy ingredients, but nothing.
Spills on various recipe cards suggested a lot of this was done by trial and error. One look at the spices in her cupboard was just as fruitless.
Was it paprika? Sage? Cinnamon? All-spice? Who knew?
I gave up before I resorted to looking up spice names on the internet.
I suspect, like so much of her life, the main ingredient wasn't something on a shelf.
It was just plain love.