Lessons from my Mama’s Kitchen

… A very grateful daughter inherits more than recipes—she learns her mother’s taste for life.


She was a Kentucky girl, my mother. Born on a small farm set among the rolling hills of the south-central portion of the Bluegrass state, she learned quickly that she preferred the “inside” work. To her, cooking and cleaning were better any day than working in outside in the tobacco fields. So, early on, she started setting the table with hearty farm-cooked fare and cleaning the farmhouse that sat close by the strawberry patch and a stand of hickory nut trees. Humming and singing, she took her task to heart.

When she was 18, Mama met Daddy on a double date. As a child growing up, she would tell me the story of how their eyes kept meeting in the rear-view mirror during the evening’s drive. Never tired of hearing the story, I delighted in its retelling, time and time again. Each time I’d feel a pang of sadness for their poor, unsuspecting dates—but only for a moment! Then, breathing a sign of relief, I would be overwhelmingly delighted that fate had thrown them into the same car that evening. It’s not surprising that Mama was soon practicing her self-taught culinary skills on her new husband, Cliff.

I was Mama’s second born, sandwiched between two boys who took their cue from Daddy and treated their sister like a princess. Daddy worked hard, but Mama worked equally as hard making our humble home a wonderful place for growing up. Mama could take the simplest ingredients and turn them into something really special. Her steamed cheeseburgers were a family favorite. I still remember learning to season and pat out the ground beef into fat burgers and helping Mama drop them into a hot frying pan.

Also at the top of the family favorites list was Mama’s homemade German Chocolate Cake. My brothers adored it and that cake was always their birthday request. As for me, all Mama had to do was mention peanut butter pinwheels and my lips were smacking with anticipation. I would drag a kitchen chair to the counter while begging to help mash the potatoes and mix in the confectioner’s sugar that made my favorite candy. Taking that first bite of the finished product was always a magical moment for me. How mashed potatoes ended up tasting so delicious and sweet was a mystery to me as a young girl and I loved Mama dearly for allowing me to be a part of the magic.

As a teenager, evenings were a ritual in my Mama’s kitchen. You could set your clock by the time that supper was put on the table. When my dad walked through the back door from work, the table had been laid and the evening meal was in its final stages of preparation—just about ready to be transferred to serving dishes and carried into the dining room. Mama knew Daddy would be tired and hungry and she always made sure she was there to greet him while he washed up, then she’d call us three kids to the table. We’d quickly settle into our places with ease, laughing and merrily tossing conversation across the table like a light, rubber ball.

After dinner, I’d begin my daily chore of washing up the supper dishes . Somehow I managed to stretch out what should have been a 15-minute task to at least 45 minutes or an hour. First I’d put on a stack of my mama’s favorite albums on the stereo. Then, luxuriating in Ivory Dish soap with bubbles up to my elbows, I washed dishes and scrubbed pots and pans while warbling along with Dean Martin and Englebert Humperdinck. Later, my broom and I swayed to the orchestral music of Billy Vaughn as we finished our final task of sweeping the day’s crumbs away. Often, Mama would join me in the kitchen and we’d soulfully sing the heart-stirring ballads together.

Many years have passed since those amiable days spent in my mother’s kitchen. For years, Mama was always willing to satisfy a prodigal child’s craving for a childhood memory at a moment’s notice, but she’s 84 now, and most likely, it’s the kids and grandkids who are making and carrying in the holiday meals these days. Nevertheless, her kitchen is still warm and familiar in my mind, and the memories of working alongside of her always bring thoughts of love mingled with a relaxed contentment.

When I walk into my kitchen today, chances are there won’t be a cake baking or a pot roast in the oven. With busy schedules and healthy good-intentions, Terry and I are more apt to toss salads and grill the vegetables. But, that’s okay—because it wasn’t really the good cooking that made my Mama’s kitchen special—it was the love. Mama loved her family and found great joy in serving us with her wonderful meals and special treats.

And, now that love has been passed on to my kitchen. I feel it every day when I stand at the sink, load the dishwasher, or sweep the floor. It’s a love that brings joy through the recipes and traditions of my own home and family.

If you listen hard enough, you just might hear me humming a vintage Dean Martin tune.

Wanna try those peanut butter pinwheels that use to rock my world? Yes, they’re made with potatoes—an unexpected but essential ingredient. Here’s the recipe for this family favorite:

Peanut Butter Pinwheels

Ingredients
1/2 cup freshly cooked mashed potatoes
1/2 cup salted butter softened
6-7 cups powdered sugar plus additional for dusting
2 teaspoons vanilla extract
Creamy peanut butter for filling
Instructions
With electric mixer, combine mashed potatoes, butter, and 1 cup sugar.
Add in remaining sugar, 1 cup at a time. Start by adding 6 cups of powdered sugar, if the dough is not moldable in your hands and can’t be rolled into a ball, continue to add sugar until it is firm.
Stir in vanilla.
Refrigerate dough for 1 hour.

Once chilled, divide dough into two pieces and place one piece on a clean surface that you’ve generously dusted with powdered sugar. Dust the surface of the dough with additional sugar, and use a rolling pin to roll dough out into a rectangle about 1/4″ thick. Make sure that your dough can be rolled at this point, if it’s too sticky or falling apart, you may need to add more sugar, re-shape it into a ball, and start over.
Once dough has been rolled into a 1/4″ rectangle, spread evenly with peanut butter, leaving a small amount of space peanut butter-free around the perimeter of the dough.
Starting with the longer side of your rectangle, gently but tightly roll into a log.
Use a knife to slice into pieces about 1/2″ thick.
Repeat steps with remaining half of dough.
Serve and enjoy.
Recipe Notes
*Use russet potatoes, peel, dice, and boil until tender. Drain potatoes throughly and then mash well. Allow potatoes to sit at room temperature until completely cooled before making your dough. Do not use leftover mashed potatoes for this recipe!

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