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Grandma, the Food Artist

As a kid, there was only one thing she loved more than grilled cheese: grandma's cabbage with noodles.

Becky Ponder

“Spend some time with Grandma in the kitchen,” Mom shooed me off one day when I was five. “Watch her work. She’s an artist in action!”

Artist in action? I knew my mother wanted to keep me busy—but at five, the kind of cooking artistry that impressed me was a cake decorated to look like Barbie. Home cooking meant grilled cheese or peanut butter and honey on toast. 

I wasn’t interested in learning any culinary skills other than the one I’d mastered—picking cherries out of a can of fruit cocktail so I could save them to eat at the end. Was Grandma’s cooking all that special?

Other people thought so. Mom told me stories about the comfort Grandma’s food brought people during the Great Depression, when she always kept an extra pot of soup on the stove for the hungry who came begging at her door. 

Even years later, Grandma still baked bread to give away to friends and neighbors—using a family recipe her mother had brought over from Germany. Everyone raved about how delicious it was. I just didn’t get it.

This was not the sliced, spongy, perfect Wonder Bread I liked for my sandwiches. It was thick and heavy and laden with all kinds of whole grains, like rye and pumpernickel. Yuck.

Still, I was curious. I skipped into the kitchen to see this “artist” at work.

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Grandma wore her black hair up in a French twist and a big white apron over a summery dress. The apron was a must—I’d heard her scolding my mother more than once for not wearing one.

Making the bread wasn’t easy. Grandma let me crack an egg, but I dropped so many bits of shell in, she shook her head. “I’ve got another job for you to do,” she told me. I stood by as she mixed the dough, kneaded it and filled the loaf pan.

“Yeast will make it rise,” she said. “We can’t let it get too high. So you need to punch the dough down.”

Punching the springy, soft dough was lots of fun. Like playing with Playdoh. I also loved watching the bread pop up in the oven, and afterward, drawing shapes in the flour on the kitchen counter with my fingers before wiping the mess clean.

Our baking sessions continued every week. Grandma made German apple pie, with perfectly crimped edges and latticework on top. Food didn’t need to be slathered in icing to be beautiful. I finally understood what my mom meant by “artist.”

As a special treat, Grandma gave me little cinnamon and sugared slices of leftover pie crust. A step up from fruit cocktail. “More?” I asked.

“You’ll ruin your appetite for dinner,” Grandma said.

“Grilled cheese?” I asked.

“Something you’ll like,” Grandma said. “A recipe from the old country.”

Grandma shredded a large head of cabbage, then she threw that, some onions, butter and salt into a large skillet. The bits of cabbage shriveled up and sizzled while Grandma poured a box of noodles into a pot of boiling water. When the noodles and the cabbage were both ready, she stirred it all together.

She never once peeked at a cookbook or the clock. Everything was in her head. The dish originated in Poland, where cabbage, unlike so many other foods, was a plentiful and cheap source of nourishment for peasant families.

The recipe had made its way to Germany, and her mother brought it to America and taught it to her.

I sniffed at my plate. No weird sauce, only simple ingredients, noodles and buttery glaze. I took a bite. Now this was something to rave about!

When my family moved, we’d continue our cooking sessions whenever Grandma visited. I still wasn’t crazy about her bread, but sharing those loaves with new neighbors got us a great welcome.

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Today, I realize that Grandma’s “old country” recipes were really ahead of their time. We all know the benefits of whole grains, and cabbage has Vitamins K, C, B1, plus calcium and potassium. Studies say it may help prevent cancer.

I’ve modernized my grandmother’s recipe to be even healthier, with whole grain pasta (yes, I like whole grains now), fresh herbs and olive oil. It’s one of my son’s favorite dishes.

“It doesn’t seem like a recipe,” he told me recently. “Just seems like cabbage cooked with a few noodles.”

Well…it is. But the beauty of it is its simplicity. Simple enough for a kid. Simple enough for the poor families of Eastern Europe. And simple enough for me to pass along to the next generation, like any other lasting work of art.

Try Becky's Cabbage with Noodles for yourself!

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