When I was 23, my grandmother sat me down on the yellow stool in her kitchen and started doling out my birthright. I had driven the four hours from Greenville to her small farm for a weekend visit the night before, and I remember it was cold for southeast Georgia. The camellias in her yard had begun to unfold, and the sweeping pastureland was crisp with the coolness, bare trees stretching naked among the pines. As I perched on the stool in the kitchen, a mingling sense of dread and expectation rumbled in my stomach next to my morning coffee and grits.
Seated in her mobility scooter, my grandmother had armed herself with a grabber tool, one of several handy instruments she’d acquired in later years to assist in the continued occupation of her cooking kingdom. Like many women of her generation, Jessie Kate Buie was queen of the kitchen. Her rule had remained unattested for decades, and no amount of asthma or arthritis would dethrone her. At 91-years-young, Mrs. Buie still whipped up the best pound cake in Bulloch County, and today I would inherit a few prized weapons from her cooking arsenal.
She squeezed the handle of the grabber like a trigger, extended plastic fingers pinching open cabinet doors and pulling out centuries of pots and pans. For utensils too heavy or too far for her reach, she commanded me off the stool and into the cabinet depths. I pulled out colanders and cast irons that had been used to feed my family for generations. There was a punch bowl with matching blue cups and an aluminum-fluted pie plate, cookie sheets and wooden spoons and mason jars of all shapes and sizes. As appliances piled onto the linoleum, my feelings of apprehension increased. Objects I did not recognize added to the growing mass—some more like torture tools than kitchenware. A flat rectangle of metal punctured with treacherously shaped holes looked like it would grate skin as well as cheese, and I swear the contraption for peeling apples had once been used on witches during the Middle Ages.
But my true discomfort stemmed from a more present reality. I had little experience in the art of food preparation. Growing up, my mom had made most of our meals, good ones too. Sure she’d taught me the basics—I could operate a Kitchen Aid if I had a hankering for chocolate chip cookies, and I knew the dish with the pointy triangle was for juicing lemons—but I was a year out of undergrad on a quest to find the perfect career. I worked a lot, and ate granola bars and $5 takeout from the local Cuban joint. The extent of my food prep typically involved easy-cook noodles or some homemade variation of Taco Bell’s nachos plate. I was a modern woman, living in a modern world with the luxury not to cook.
My grandmother grew up in a rural town on a farm with four sisters and a brother. The produce they planted supplemented much of their cuisine: black-eyed peas, okra, sweet corn, and lima beans that were shucked, washed, pickled, canned, or frozen. Preparing and preserving were part of her education, a way forward in life. But I think it went further than necessity for my grandmother. For as long as I could remember, cooking had been her raison d’être, and the long kitchen table, her stage. For breakfast, lunch, dinner, and dessert, she gathered loved ones together to enjoy something warm, something delicious. I’d sit there as a child, feet dangling, slurping her crab stew, the creamy goodness blending into the white ceramic bowl. A covered cake plate meant she’d made her secret pound cake, and she’d always set the frozen strawberries aside to thaw in the afternoon, waiting to top my slice after dinner if I’d eaten all my greens. Each August, just in time for my birthday, the steamy hiss of the pressure cooker signaled a fresh pot of boiled peanuts. I’d sit there for hours popping them into my mouth, sucking the salty smooth insides through the cracked exterior.
For as long as I could remember, cooking had been her raison d’être. For breakfast, lunch, dinner, and dessert, she gathered loved ones together to enjoy something delicious.
My grandmother crafted every dish with care, spending countless hours in the kitchen slicing and frying and creating. She made what we loved to eat because she loved us, warm meals her preferred means of communicating affection. So on that chilly afternoon when she proudly handed over a host of homeware—including that hazardous-looking cheese skinner—a weight of responsibility settled into seeping regret. This was her legacy, and I had little ability or incentive to continue in her footsteps. My mother, aunts, and sister had all been here before, and all were more than capable of utilizing cookware to create good food for people they loved. Lastly, she handed me a pecan pie—nuts gathered from the ground outside the pasture—the aluminum-fluted plate with her name etched in marker on the bottom an added bonus. I returned home to my work and my roommates full of sticky sweet pie, feeling slightly guilty for stashing the box of appliances in the pantry, where it remained mostly forgotten.
Until the night when my roommate got engaged and we needed a punch for her party. I pulled the wide blue bowl with its sweet little cups out of the box, and Googled a quick recipe. Based with ginger ale and sparkling wine, it turned out bubbly and yummy and we all went back for seconds. And then a friend helped move a sofa, and an apple pie seemed like the best way to say thank you. I could use my mom’s recipe, and I was certain Grandma had put the peeler in that box. A flour sifter came out when I made Grandma’s secret pound cake for a birthday party, and I even managed to regularly use the cheese grater without slicing (too much) skin. Over the next year, the vintage cookware made its way out of the box and into cabinets, and when I called my grandmother to ask about boiling my own peanuts, a brand-new pressure cooker showed up at my door a week later, instructions included.
A few months after I turned 25, my grandmother passed away. As one tends to do when someone dear is lost, I wrestled with regret for not gleaning more from her knowledge and experience when I had the chance. There are many cooking tips I never asked her about, never learned, and while her recipes remain, I would much rather be sitting on that yellow stool in the linoleum-lined kitchen, paying close attention, taking notes, and watching her work wonders.
For the holidays this year, my mother, sister, and I will don aprons in a different kitchen. We’ll cook and craft a scrumptious spread of Southern dishes, and I will watch and learn and perhaps even teach them a trick or two. And while many of our utensils will be bright and new, a few well-worn heirlooms might find themselves in the mix. If you were to lift up the pecan pie, I bet you’d find a faded “Jessie Kate Buie” etched in permanent marker on the bottom of the pan.
Illustrations by Alice Ratterree