Posts Tagged ‘six page letter’

Scalloped Potatoes

February 26, 2012

Margaret Dawn! What have you gotten yourself into this time?

Well, let’s see, today, it’s my Mama’s scalloped potatoes. I’ve never made them because for every family function, my boys ask their Maw-Maw to bring hers. And, hers are the best, a 13”x9” baking dish layered with sliced potatoes, onion, and sharp cheddar cheese, baked in milk and butter, seasoned with salt and pepper. Sounds simple, huh? Open her oven door, scan for bubbly cheese and inhale the aroma, oh The Aroma.

She didn’t learn her cooking skills from my grandma. Grandma didn’t allow anyone in her kitchen. Mama and her sisters did their best to carry on their mother’s tradition, to master her recipes, to write down the ingredients. Once they were grown, they met weekly in one  or another of their kitchens, prepared one of Grandma’s meals, and critiqued the results. If there was a question about a missing taste, one of the sisters called grandma to inquire nonchalantly in conversation about ingredients. Southern women are funny about their recipes. They don’t give up their secrets easily, and sometimes not at all. Grandma always gave up her secrets to her daughters though; they were special. It just took an hour long, sit-down telephone conversation which included all the news of Aunt Hallie’s latest six page letter, Grandpa’s newest, largest ‘Big Boy’ tomato, and who wore what to church on Sunday. My aunts and mother took turns making the weekly call.

 My mama’s getting up there. She’s pushing seventy-eight now, about the age my grandma was then, and she never liked anyone in her kitchen when she was cooking either.  I’ve never attempted to make her scalloped potatoes. I think I have the right ingredients, but I call her just to make sure. Exactly an hour later, after answering her questions: What’s Ryan up to with two days off from school? Did Ben make it back alright from the concert? How much snow did we get today? How’s my cold? Did I cook that roast in the crock pot like I was talking about? Has Bruce finished fixing the manure spreader?  I broach the subject. “How do you make scalloped potatoes?” I ask.

“Don’t you make them like I do?” She asks.

“I don’t think I’ve ever made them. You always make them.”

“Oh,” she says. “The only time you eat them is when I make them?”

We go to Mama’s for dinner every Sunday. It’s our time together. My boys count on it. They give up paintball outings, and hanging out at the brewery for her cooking and hugs.  

“I guess so. The boys expect you to make them, and we always bring the leftovers home from Sunday dinner.” They’re our Wednesday evening starch, reheated.

We didn’t go to their house for dinner today. That’s unusual, but I have a cold and if Mama catches one, it goes into bronchitis and then her asthma kicks up and she has to have steroids to get over the sickness. We don’t want to chance that. So tonight, I’m attempting scalloped potatoes.

“I’ve got the potatoes peeled and sliced. How much onion do you use?”

“I use two.”

“Of those huge onions?”

“No, two medium onions or one of those large ones. The onions are important. They add flavor. Don’t skimp on them.”

“Ok, so you cook the potatoes and onions in salted water until the onions are done and the potatoes are just tender, right.”

“Yep, make sure you don’t overcook the potatoes. Remember, they’ll cook some more when you bake them.”

“Then what?”

“Drain the potatoes and onions and spread a layer in the pan. Then slice sharp cheddar cheese from the block, about a quarter inch thick and put a layer of cheese over the potatoes and onions.”


“That’s what I use. Now you can use regular cheddar, but I think sharp is better.”

I make a note. Now Bruce has to go to the grocery store when I get off the phone. He’ll argue about the cheese, but I’m not veering from her instructions.

“What next?” I ask.

“Then you repeat another layer of potatoes and onions and end with a layer of cheese on top. Then you add the milk and butter.”

“Two percent OK?”

“Oh no, not regular milk, I use canned milk.  Take one can of evaporated milk, add a can of water, mix it and then pour it into the baking dish. Then you just dot it with butter, sprinkle it with pepper to make it pretty and bake it. Easy as you please.”

I add canned milk to my grocery list. At least Bruce will be going to the store for more than one thing.

“Bake it at 350 for how long?” I ask.

“Til it gets done. You know how it looks, bubbly and a little brown.”

“About forty-five minutes to an hour?”

“Yeah, something like that.”

“You want me to make a pan and send it over with Grandpa Gilly?” She asks.

“Thanks Mama, but no. It’s snowing and the roads are getting slick. I’m going to give it a try. I’ll let you know how it comes out.

She calls a few hours later. I’m in the bathtub. Ben answers the phone. I can hear his side of the conversation and know it’s my Mama on the phone. He tells her about the concert and about driving home in the snow. They talk about his classes at grad school and he reassures her he’ll drive carefully tomorrow. Then she asks about the scalloped potatoes.

“They were alright,” he says, “but not as good as yours.”

Even though I can’t see her face, I know she’s smiling on the other end of the phone.  

She’s more like her mother than she thinks. Now it’s up to me to figure out what it was she left out of the recipe. I’ll call tomorrow night, and we’ll talk.