Kenneth Roberts: Nothin’ like Grandma’s cookin’!

As mentioned in a previous post, Kenneth Roberts, an already opinionated man, was very opinionated about food.  Nothing, it seemed, was as good as Maine food, and in particular his grandmother’s cooking.  In an essay titled “Grandmother’s Kitchen” in The Kenneth Roberts Reader (originally titled “A Maine Kitchen” in Trending into Maine), Roberts’ states:

It was in Grandma’s home that I developed a fondness for Maine cooking … and to the end of my days the simple foods that were the basis of most of our meals will seem to me more delicious than all the ‘specialties of the house’ that can be produced by the world’s most famous chefs.

Strong words coming from one whom, I’m sure, had access to some of the finest restaurants of his time.  These words, however, ring true with many of us, I assume.  Many times when we eat outside of the home, comparisons are made to how someone, particularly mom or grandma, in our family cooks.  For me, it’s my mom’s Cajun cooking.  (Mmmm, I’m hungry now…)

In the essay “Grandmother’s Kitchen,” Roberts gives the account of when he and a dinner party visited a well-known restaurant in Palm Beach, FL.  Despite his reluctance and doubt, and on the word of the restaurant owner, Roberts ordered the hash of which only his grandmother could make correctly!  Unfortunately for Roberts, the chef did not live up to Grandma’s standard:

There was considerable talk about that hash when the guests arrived.  The thought of genuine Maine hash inflamed them; but when at last it was brought, the potatoes were cut in lumps the size of machine-gun bullets: the meat was in chunks; the whole dreadful mixture had been made dry and crumbly over a hot fire.  Beyond a doubt the guests talked about that hash for the remainder of the year, but not in the way the restaurant owner had anticipated.

It makes me wonder what Roberts would say about today’s hash, especially of the likes sold at McDonald’s during breakfast.

In the midst of his discussion on his excursions into eating hash made by people other than his grandmother, Roberts takes a side trip into discussing the way ketchup ought to taste, for “[k]etchup is an important adjunct to many Maine dishes, particularly in families whose manner of cooking comes down to them from seafaring ancestors.”  Ketchup, according to Roberts, must not be sweetened, for it would be “an offense against God and man, against nature and good taste.”

For the Roberts family, Grandma’s ketchup was famous and highly sought after.  According to Roberts,

…we could never get enough of it.  We were allowed to have it on beans, fish cakes, and hash, since those dishes were acknowledged to be incomplete without them; but when we went so far as to demand it on bread, as we often did, we were peremptorily refused and had to go down in the cellar and steal it – which we also often did. 

For Roberts, such was his craving for his grandmother’s ketchup that he “became almost a ketchup drunkard; for when I couldn’t get it, I yearned for it.”  Roberts had to beg her for the recipe, which had never been published, until he shared it in his essay (mentioned earlier, “A Maine Kitchen”) “for the benefit of those who aren’t satisfied with the commercial makeshifts that masquerade under the name of ketchup.”

Interestingly, Roberts’ grandmother’s ketchup recipe is still used today, as evidenced by Nora at  The Great American Project Cooking Project and her post titled “Ketchup’s Secret Ingredient.”

Roberts, a man known for his tenacious search for historical fact, carried this tenacity into his search for the re-creation of Grandma’s home cooking.  In doing so, we get another glimpse at Kenneth Robert the man.

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