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Snapshot: Good Cooking, Better Memories
National Public Radio®


Former Washington Post reporter Patrice Gaines offers another dispatch from her hometown of Lake Wylie, S.C. In this post-Thanksgiving reflection, Gaines remembers how generations of good cooking and a tradition of homemade bread shape her own sense of family.





From the world of high tech to the slower side of life, we head to Lake Wylie, South Carolina. That's where former Washington Post reporter Patrice Gaines wrote today's Snapshot. Patrice remembers how generations of good cooking shaped her own sense of family.


Ms. PATRICE GAINES (Former Reporter, Washington Post):
My grandmother made perfect biscuits - soft, flaky, golden on top. She made big pans of her biscuits for me whenever I visited her in Washington, D.C. She pulls them out of the oven and placed them lovingly on a dinner plate. She'd bring them to me along with a smaller saucer, a bottle of dark caramel syrup or Brer Rabbit Molasses. I'd slather the biscuits with butter, poured syrup or molasses into the saucer and use the bread to sop it up. I was in my 20s. I didn't have to think about my waistline.


As the years past and I got older, I tried to replicate granny's bread. But my biscuits were too heavy - thicker than they should be. They didn't fall apart in my mouth like they were supposed to, like every biscuit granny ever made. One day, with a pencil and notebook in my hand, I led granny into the kitchen and said, please teach me how to make biscuits like you. I stood next to her -close enough to smell her Chanel No. 5 perfume and nearly brush her arms. I love to rub those plump arms. I love the way her flesh was always cool to the touch. She was wearing her usual at-home attire - one of her floral house coats and her hair net though her short hair was always pressed perfectly in place.


From her cabinet, she pulled out all of the ingredients she needed. You put this much flour in the bowl, she said. She poured flour into the big green glass bowl. How much flour is that, I asked? I don't know, she said, nonchalantly. Here, hold the bowl and see how it feels. I was flabbergasted. I didn't know how to write that in a recipe.


At that moment, I saw the most delicious biscuits I would ever eat slipping away from me and out of my life. We had those biscuits every Thanksgiving until 1985 - the year granny died after suffering a series of strokes. When she left our lives, we lost so many things - her giggle that quickly built into a hardy round laugh that made everyone else laugh, too. The grandmother who pressed coins into the palms of her grandchildren's hands on nearly every visit. The shop dresser who had her hats made by a milliner, And the biscuits left our family, too, forever. Granny left before teaching her daughter, my mother, how to make biscuits.

My mother was a master cornbread maker. Jiffy was not a word in her vocabulary. She made her cornbread from scratch. She baked it an old, almost black, rectangular pan. Every Thanksgiving, mama crumbled up a day-old pan of this cornbread and made the best dressing I have ever had. We ate this dressing every Thanksgiving until 1994. That year, while I bake the turkey on Thanksgiving Day, my mother, ill with cancer, slipped in to a coma and died. There would be no more rectangular pans of cornbread made from scratch, no more turkey dressing made from that cornbread. I miss mama a lot - even today.


Of course, I remember her especially on Thanksgiving and especially when I start cooking. My sister Carol(ph) fixes potato salad like mama's. My sister Sheila(ph) cooks greens the way she did. No one can make the cornbread. I made yeast rolls instead. My daughter and nieces and nephews - and even their friends - tell me they are the best rolls in the world. I love the smell of the rolls rising in the hot oven, the aroma of fresh bread floating through the house on Thanksgiving.


My daughter loves to sit and wait on the first pan so she can slather her bread with butter and pop warm pieces of rolls into her mouth. Watching rising dough and kneading is my contribution to tradition. Now, I am the matriarch of my family. There are times when we are gathered at the Thanksgiving table and I look around and realize that there are children and even grown folks there who never sampled mama's cornbread or granny's biscuits. At those times, I am thankful for everyone one of my 58 years, especially the days I got to taste the love that came out of those ovens. I scan the table, look at my clan and wonder who will bake the bread when I am gone, and what kind of bread will it be.


CHIDEYA: That was author and writing coach Patrice Gaines with this week's Snapshot. She told us her story from member station WFAE in Charlotte, North Carolina.


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