We all grow up with family traditions, activities collected over generations that (generally) bring us together, connect us with each other. Often, however, we subscribe to certain rituals out of habit rather than in honor of a special occasion or person. Even so, those traditions usually open our cache of memories, spilling secrets and happiness (at times, mixed with sadness).
When you’re young, you quickly become aware of relatives who like you and whom you like, and others that you must merely tolerate. I always felt loved and welcome at the homes of Mom’s relatives, aunts and uncles and cousins. Uncle Delbert, my Aunt Margie’s husband, delighted in introducing baby me to new foods, so he’s responsible for my love of bleu cheese and pepperoni. He was a great story teller and Aunt Margie was so sweet and kind to us all that everyone had a good time at their place. Uncle Grover, Aunt Midge’s husband, also welcomed us whole-heartedly and had a wealth of stories to share. I remember the day my cousin Karen was allowed a sip from his beer, and later I tried that with my Dad as well. The problem was that she was nine years older than I; no way would my mother have allowed that! My Aunt Midge was 12 years older than my mother and she taught Mom most of what she knew of cooking, baking, and sewing.
Mom was a great cook, if you like simple, down-home, Southern cooking. Meat and potatoes were her specialty. She learned a lot over the years, watched cooking shows, collected cookbooks, and tried so many recipes. Even her mistakes tasted better than most people’s deliberate creations. Her mother never owned a cookbook but was a good enough cook that her kids grew up strong and healthy. All of Mom’s sisters were also great cooks, and each had their specialty. When we went back to visit Aunt Midge and Uncle Grover, we knew we’d have great times, great food, and would come home with home-baked bread and home-made apple butter and cookies and . . . Yumm!
Every Easter, Aunt Midge would make a huge ham for her family (just her, Uncle Grover, and my cousins Karen and Karla) and Karen noticed her ritual. Having wiped off the ham, my aunt would chop off about a fourth or a third of the ham, at the small end. Then she would slice the ham crossways, add cloves, pineapple slices, and her special sauce, and would place both hams (in their own pans) in the oven, enchanting the air with the delicious aroma of baking ham. When my cousin questioned her about chopping off a hunk of the ham before cooking, Aunt Midge said simply that that’s the way her mother did it. If it’s good enough for Mom, it’s good enough for me.
Her curiosity unassuaged, Karen visited our grandmother some weeks later and during their conversation my cousin asked her about the ham ritual. Thinking it was a family tradition handed down from mother to daughter, or that it was a southern tradition, or even a remnant of our Scots-Irish heritage, Karen eagerly anticipated the answer. The balloon deflated when my grandmother replied that it was not some age-worn tradition with a mythic import at all. The reason was a practical one: as a young housewife, she had only one large baking pan and so she had to cut off the end of the ham because it was too big for the pan. Then she put the smaller piece in her small pan. Case solved!
I still chuckle at that story, for it shows us the folly of inflating potential meanings far beyond their original intent. If you don’t have a ritual, start one. One of our rituals involved Mom’s excellent pot roast. We knew it was done when the pressure cooker exploded, throwing that little metal whatsit like a missile. But that’s another story . . .
©2015 Linda L Labin, PhD