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As part of a three-year journey across the world, two cookbook authors travel through the southern states of the US – from New York, across Texas, to California – in search of America’s grandmas who put the “home” in home-cooking.
While on a mission to document and share our own grandmothers’ stories and recipes in the Grand Dishes cookbook (to be published next year), we travelled the world in search of inspiring grannies.
It was a three-year grandma recipe hunt, the final leg of which led us on a road trip across the US, from New York, through the Bible Belt past Tennessee, Mississippi and Louisiana, then across Texas to California.
Between sky-scraping cities, shores dotted with lighthouses and seemingly endless swamplands, we tasted our way through a nation that baffled and bewildered our British sensibilities. All the while, our safety net was the warm embraces, hot kitchens and simmering stoves of America’s cooking grannies.
Maral Brooklyn, New York
Arriving in New York, jet-lagged but wide-eyed, we catch the subway to Brooklyn where we’re welcomed into a small apartment by a lady with a big heart. Maral is from Azerbaijan. “What beautiful girls!” she exclaims before demanding we glug tea (made with foraged herbs from her native mountain home including wild mint and dried roses) and guzzle down a lavash she’s just whipped up.
The lavash, a sort of bread pocket filled with herbed meat that resembles a flattened calzone, is what Maral describes as a “snack”, but we’re full after sharing just one. While we eat she moves. She dances around the kitchen for four hours, chopping, whizzing, rubbing, marinating, bubbling and stirring until we have a table laden with far too much food for three.
We eat lamb dolma, which Maral asks us to prepare, and we stick our tentative hands into a great bowl of meat that smells of onions and herbs before wrapping small balls of the mixture in wet vine leaves. We savour peppers and tomatoes stuffed with lamb, a crab salad and bread rolled and griddled a moment before we dine, swilled down with vodka. An Azerbaijani dance-off follows in the living room. Hours later, we escape into the cool winter air of Brooklyn, our cheeks flushed and our hearts as full as our stomachs.
“Don’t stay in a hotel and spend your money; next time, you stay with me,” Maral says as she waves us off.
Sharon Outer Banks, North Carolina
Our road trip has officially kicked off and we drive past banks of sand where, as summer wraps up on the Atlantic coast, sea oats billow in a warm breeze. We’ve been tipped off about a local cooking hero and grandmother, Sharon. She lives in a hurricane-battered home that has stood for 60 years – its boards were once trodden by sailors doomed to meet their end at the nearby Cape Hatteras, where two major ocean currents clash.
“You just batten down and make sure as hell you have some potatoes, onions and a burner for cooking – it ain’t scary at all,” is Sharon’s reaction when we ask about the extreme weather.
She defies all expectations. A Southern American who welcomes us with warm, wide arms, intelligent conversation and an ice tea on her back porch. We talk politics (“I like to call our president ‘Mad Max’ – he’s seen too many Mel Gibson movies”), philosophy and love as we huddle over a stove to cook up a hearty stew of shrimp caught fresh that day.
Westelle Shelbyville, Tennessee
Two of our cameras have broken in one day, so we chance upon our next grandma via a Canon specialist called Gary in Nashville. His mother, Westelle, apparently bakes a particularly good muffin. The next day he shows up with a bright-red jeep and we ride out of Music City, through undulating hills of yellow, red and brown, in and out of small towns with signs praising the lord, family, friends and chicken nuggets.
She greets us at the door, a tiny figure behind a billowing American flag, make-up done and hair set. Inside the bungalow, old photographs cover every inch of wall space. A copy of To Kill a Mockingbird sits beside the toilet on a spotless marble dresser. In the kitchen, there’s a fridge so enormous that Westelle could fit inside.
As she whips together flour, buttermilk, sugar and an entire box of Kellogg’s Raisin Bran, we fall in love with Westelle. She says things like, “well ain’t you girls precious?” and talks of princes William and Harry as if they were family. Her hands are arthritic but she doesn’t complain. “I’ve had a good life,” she says, and we well up at her admittance, that at 92, it’s almost all up. Still, she wants us to stay for Thanksgiving because she’s cooking for 20 this year.
Dolores Lafayette, Louisiana
Dolores only tells us what we’re cooking on the day of our arrival in Lafayette, a swamp-surrounded town, deep in Louisiana. “Pig’s ears,” we hear and look at each other in alarm. She’s laid some out for us to try. So, of course, I crack out the “I don’t eat pork” line, on which I fall back whenever a slightly unsavoury snack is proffered. She chuckles.
It transpires that the 80-year-old makes her pigs ears from a cannoli-type crispy pastry, then drizzles it in sticky cane syrup and crushed pecans. Cane syrup is prolific in the area and has been popular since the plantation days when Dolores’s first ancestors arrived in the boggy wetlands of Louisiana.
“Growing up, we lived through segregation but I didn’t feel the racial tension half as much as I do now. Now it’s reached a peak with this president,” she says as we crunch down a sweet-savoury pig’s ear and discuss the real “pig’s ear” that’s been made of recent race relations.
Tootsie Lexington, Texas
We get into a spot of bother en route to Tootsie. An enormous red pick-up tries to overtake us on the wrong side, swerves dangerously out of control and cinematically rolls down a ditch while we – in slow-motion, shock giving way to extreme panic – stop and run to help. Thankfully, the driver is OK. Her car is not. It’s upside down and we have to pull the woman through the window. We’re shaking by the time the sheriff arrives and tells us that we’re free to go.
We carry on our journey, extremely slowly, through lush fields dotted with cattle, to small-town Lexington, where grandma Tootsie has been up since 2am smoking brisket over hot coals. Snow’s BBQ restaurant is pretty much the only thing going for this town. Drawing in queues of people who’ve driven from all over Texas to try Tootsie’s brisket, Snow’s is the only busy spot here, aside from the local cattle market.
Tootsie is all out of meat by 10am and so we find a chance to weasel a recipe out of her for stew. Every five minutes, someone comes over for a picture with her. A celebrity at the age of 84, she still has time to tell us about her life, the death of her husband and how her love of work will keep her going for years to come.
Tish Los Angeles, California
On to our final state and we’ve had a run-in with Skid Row – an apocalyptic portion of LA where 50 blocks of homeless people live in tents. We decide it’s a good idea to just “nip through” to get to somewhere on the other side. Ironically, it’s two grandmas aggressively shoving shopping trolleys that begin to chase us down the street. “I’m gon’ get me a new bag,” they cackle after us. They mean our bags.
We manage to outrun them, but only just. In need of a beer, we zip up to the lush roof garden of the LINE LA hotel. It’s here that we end up sat next to Alexa, who’s intrigued to hear about what we’re up to. Luck would have it that her mother, activist Tish, is a grandma and a keen cook. Within a few hours, we’re back in our hire car and en route to Hollywood to rustle up an insanely colourful salad with Tish, who whisks us through her protest reportage photography between blanching asparagus and expertly slicing at every vegetable and fruit known to man.
We dive into her Californian rainbow salad, proof that American fare is not all barbecue and biscuits, and a necessary antidote to the tally of fried chicken we’ve managed to clock up in five weeks driving through the southern states. Hats off to Tish and to California’s wholesome produce, just when we need it most.
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