Goose Grease and Raisin Cakes
Updated: Feb 18, 2018
Week 4: This week’s inspiration is “out to dinner.” The topic reminds me that we do not have a strong food tradition in my family on either side. Food was a necessity, not an obsession like it is today. Being generally poor, just being fed was enough of an achievement. Lying to classmates, that the lard sandwich was really pot cheese, was art form. for my mother and her siblings during the Depression I honestly believe I have more food memories from the families of my girlfriends growing up … Mrs. V’s stuffed cabbage, Mrs. H.’s zwetschgenkuchen, and Mrs. C.’s lasagna; each reflecting their ethnicity.
Around our house, any thought and creativity put into cooking was reserved for holidays. From my mother, I developed an appreciation for traditional English cooking. Roast beef and Yorkshire pudding were holiday treats; maybe one year a Christmas goose and store-bought plum pudding. I always marveled at roast goose; so much grease, so little bird. My grandmother took the grease home to boil up with scraps for the dog. But really it was about what the goose represented: our English heritage. My mother used the holiday to make her point; we were English, period.
Though I never ate a holiday meal made by my English great grandmother, the image of Phoebe Saunders, passed out in a chair, exhausted after doing all the holiday cooking and cleanup, was burned into my memory from my mother’s stories. My great grandmother was pretty much a one-woman show when it came to holiday feasts. Other stories, of my grown mother paying my great grandmother every Sunday for one of her chickens to roast, makes me sad, both for their poverty and the poor bird.
It wasn’t until much later that I learned the other side of my mother’s family was German. If I had given it a bit of thought, the surname “Conrad” would have been a tip off. But there was never a mention of our Deutsch ancestors, and their specialties never entered my mother’s limited culinary repertoire.
My Dad’s fond memories of childhood food boiled down to two German holiday specialties from his mother, Mamie Mague: pickled beets and eggs (Easter), and raisin cake (Christmas). Every Easter my dad would call his mom for a quick reminder on the proportions of sugar and cider vinegar to put in the beets and eggs. He looked forward to making them every year, though I think the phone call was the most important part of the tradition. The raisin cake, which I got to sample when I was young and Grandma was still making them, was a very plain spice cake, very oily and raisin-laden. Sometimes she made dozens of them in small pans and gave them as gifts. My father lamented their loss when “Great” could no longer make them, but the childhood memory still stirred. Mamie’s mother, Minnie (Diem) Gary, must have been the source of these German treats.
Men on both maternal and paternal sides of my father’s family were professional bakers. My Dad's German grandfather, Frederick Christian Diem, was a bread baker trained in Württemberg as a youngster. His bread-baking skills supported him and his family as a lifelong occupation. The Irish side (Mague) were bakers specializing in "crackers" (eg. hard tack) and brown bread, which were staples around Boston in the mid-1800's. These were everyday foods for everyday people. None of these baker ancestors had much in the way of business skills and a few attempts at owning and running bakeries went belly-up. Frederick Diem may have been his own undoing as family lore says he gave away bread when families were too poor to pay.
So, on second thought, maybe food was important to my family. Maybe I should have a dinner and invite my baker great grandfathers and uncles, and my English and German great grandmothers. I will bring the roast beef and Yorkshire pudding, and the pickled beets and eggs. Food traditions die hard.
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