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Spices, Sauces, and Grandma’s Meal-time Rituals

Photo by cottonbro on
Photo by cottonbro on

Someone once asked me, “If you were on a deserted island and could take only one cookbook, what would it be?”

Oh my! How could I possibly choose? I have so many! But, if forced to choose, I’d probably grab an all-around, time-tested staple like Better Homes or Betty Crocker. Not a new one, though. The publish date must be prior to 1960. In fact, if I had 10 minutes to pack for the deserted island, I’d instinctively grab my “Woman’s Home Companion,” circa 1946.

This baby weighs 5 pounds and has 951 pages. It’s the ultimate kitchen lexicon. My deserted island could be in any hemisphere, any continent, or any century, and this encyclopedia would enable me to cook fabulous meals. Why? For one thing, it explains spice and flavor profiles. Furthermore, it has over 130 sauce recipes! Of course, it has the 5 foundational French sauces, from Béchamel to Hollandaise.

You see, by understanding spices and sauces, you can turn the most basic ingredients into delicious meals. For example, if my deserted island was on the equator, I’d be working with yucca root, beans, tropical fruits and nuts, chicken and pork. If I’m plopped near the arctic, I’ll have access to reindeer, water fowl, seafood, wild herbs and foraged greens and mushrooms. If I were dropped in Asia or India, I’d be working with a lot of rice and veggies, tofu, ginger, coconut milk and very strange fruits like Buddha’s hand or Rambutan. But, as long as I learn the local spices and sauces, I can prepare meals with whatever is on hand.

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Most sauce recipes around the world are constructed in the same basic ways as those in the Woman’s Home Companion. I’m sure that a well-executed Véloute sauce (pg. 520) would pair well with any local food, from walrus in Alaska to deep-fried crickets in Thailand. So, yes, this book is my top choice if it had to be my one and only.

When I was a kid, our fridge and pantry sometimes felt like that proverbial deserted island. But mom could make something out of nothing. She used to say, “If I haven’t figured out what to make for dinner, I just fry an onion in butter really quick. When Daddy comes home, the aroma makes him think he’s about to have something fabulous. Then I just fake it until dinner materializes.”

I don’t think she faked it. She was a true survivalist chef. In her era, during the baby boom, all girls attended home economics class in high school. Furthermore, their scrappy mothers had survived the depression. Those moms taught their girls how to provide the greatest array of nutrition, using the fewest ingredients, and spending the least amount of money. This, my friends, is true “home economics.” This is what my grandma (circa 1915) and my mother (circa 1954) handed down to me.

You know the saying, “The quickest way to a man’s heart is through is stomach”? We’ll, I’ve been known to use that tactic. For example, once upon a time, there was this guy I wanted to date… He and his room-mate shared a house and stocked the kitchen in typical bachelor style. I visited one evening when they had to leave shortly for an appointment. They planned to take off without dinner, claiming “No time” and “No food in the house.” I said, “Here, let me whip something up.” They exchanged glances and wished me luck.

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I found spaghetti noodles, cream, milk, butter, flour, mushrooms, bacon and olives. What did I make? You betcha! Pasta with white sauce ‘n stuff. They devoured it and virtually bowed down to me in reverential worship like cavemen who had just witnessed magic. Until that moment, I never understood the power of a basic white sauce.

But my grandma and mamma knew! You see, prior to 1960, the common mind-set towards food was much different than now. Restaurants were for special occasions. Processed food was rare. The back yard supplied half to eighty percent of a family’s meals. They respected food – real food – in its whole, unrefined form. Every girl was expected to acquire skill in the kitchen. Does this sound outdated and anti-feminist? Or, do you think that today’s society could benefit from these antiquated ways?

One way the old-timers showed respect for food was to eat together as a family. My paternal grandmother taught me this. She grew up in an orphanage during the depression. The teachers emphasized elegant rituals surrounding meals. Never did they place a cooking pot directly on the table. Every course was served in an appropriate serving dish. The place settings had an exact arrangement. Courses were served in a prescribed sequence. Table cloths of linen, napkins in laps, centerpieces to fit the season, assigned seating – all of this in a depression-era orphanage!

What a far cry from today’s frozen pizza with everyone plugged into their own electronic devices! Have we forgotten how to eat? Is this why many of us are fat and sick?

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If we need a refresher course on how to eat like our grandparents, I’d suggest the opening three chapters of the Woman’s Home Companion. The quaint instructions on how to respect meal-time rituals is priceless. You’ll learn the difference between a formal tea and an informal one; how all the place settings should be arranged per each type of meal (complete with several diagrams); what kind of table cloth and china to use for various occasions; and how to entertain – both with a “maid” and without!

I may sound mocking. On the contrary, I praise this treatment of food. My tone is meant to mock how far we’ve drifted away from a key foundation of family life – eating together and respecting meal-time rituals. The French haven’t forgotten. From age three, children in school are served three courses: a vegetable starter, followed by a warm main course, served with a side of grains or vegetables with cheese. Dessert is usually fruit, but a sugary treat is served once per week. Only water is available as a beverage and junk-food vending machines are banned in schools. Children must sit at the table for at least 30 minutes to fully digest. Furthermore, random snacking is not allowed and “eating on the run” in public is viewed as cave-man behavior.

My paternal grandmother understood how meal-time rituals, pretty place settings, and good sauces, can make the poorest of foods seem rich. She and Grandpa raised their family near the bay in Blaine. Sometimes, when her sons came home from school, Grandma said, “Boys, we haven’t got anything for dinner. Please go down to the water and see what you can scrounge up.” My dad and uncle then scampered off with poles, buckets, traps, and pitch forks, and returned home with all manner of seafood.  Unfortunately, my Dad despised these delicacies as “poor food” on par with oatmeal or cabbage. But Grandma could prepare this foraged food in ways that rivaled any 5-star chef. She who taught me the magic of a good white sauce said that white pepper is indispensable. She also said that a good white sauce can become anything you want it to be, including boyfriend bait. In her kitchen, however, it usually became seafood chowder.

With that, I offer you an approximation of my grandma’s “poor folk” chowder. Please serve this in an actual soup taurine upon a real table cloth. The family must sit together and use a matching set of china. Everyone should place their devices in their rooms and their napkins in their laps. Require at least 30 minutes at the table. And he who did not cook must wash the dishes.

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Grandma’s What-cha-got Seafood Chowder

¼ cup butter
¼ cup flour
3 cups milk
2 cups chicken broth
A few dashes of fish sauce (This is a Thai or Vietnamese condiment. Otherwise, substitute with sea salt.)
3 medium red potatoes
1 large onion
½ tsp minced garlic
½ package of bacon
1 cup chopped button mushrooms
2 cups seafood pieces (examples: Fried fillet of rock fish, frozen or canned crab pieces, sautéed scallops, canned clam pieces.) If using smoked salmon or crab, only use about ¼ to 1/3 cup since these flavors are pretty strong.
1 small tin of smoked oysters, loosely drained and chopped
½ tsp Gumbo filé (ground sassafras)
½ tsp white pepper
½ tsp dill weed
½ tsp smoked paprika
Sea salt (to taste)


Tools: Dutch oven or a large stock pot. One frying pan. Whisk. Ladle. Sharp knife.

  1. Chop the mushrooms and onions into small bits. Peel the potatoes and cube into very small chunks. (Small, so they will cook fast.) Sautee mushrooms, onions, potatoes & garlic on medium-low with a little oil or butter in the stock pot or Dutch oven. You can prep the bacon and seafood while this pot cooks. Come back to check and stir frequently.
  2. Chop the bacon into small bite-sized pieces. Fry till crisp in the frying pan. Pour the grease out and save the bacon. Don’t wipe the pan if you need to fry up some white-meat fish. The residual bacon grease in the pan will add flavor to the fish.
  3. Prepare about 3 or 4 cups of seafood as follows. Set the seafood aside. Add to chowder later.
    – If using a fillet of white fish, use the pan to fry it. Sprinkle the fish with sea salt, pepper, dill, paprika. Set the fish aside to cool. Cut into pieces.
    – If using scallops, quick fry them in the hot frying pan. The trick to tender scallops is to is fry them quickly and remove from heat as soon as there is no pink in the middle. Set them aside.
    – Open and drain the tin of smoked oysters. Loosely chop them.
    – Open your can of crab or clam pieces. In my opinion, clam pieces are more tender than whole clams. Save the juices for the chowder.
    · If using smoked salmon, chop into pieces and use no more than ¼ or 1/3 cup.
  4. Prepare white sauce as follows:
    · After wiping out any burned bits from the pan, melt ¼ cup butter in the pan on Low. Whisk in ¼ cup flour. After flour is dissolved, gradually add 1 cup of milk at a time. Keep whisking. Cook till thick like gravy.
    · Add spices. Dial up or down depending on taste. Maybe you want more pepper. Maybe you don’t like dill. Add a few dashes of fish sauce (or just use salt) until the salt level tastes right to you (Remember the bacon adds salt flavor too, so don’t overdo it).
    · Pour the white sauce into the stock pot with the mushrooms and potatoes.
    · Chowder will be thick and dry-ish. This is where you add chicken stock until the thickness is just right to you.
    · Cook on low, stirring often, until potatoes are fully cooked.
  5. Add the prepared seafood (including clam juice if using canned clams). Stir to combine. Remove from heat right away.

Serves 6.

Grandma’s What-cha-got Seafood Chowder. Courtesy of Nichole Schmitt


  1. Benn G Brechnitz November 23, 2019

    Well written and pertinent. Good job!!

  2. Nichole Schmitt November 23, 2019

    Thank you Benn! The chowder recipe is coming…. stay tuned.

  3. Shayna Smith November 24, 2019

    1) You’re an excellent story teller!
    2) Your mom is amazing
    3) I can subscribe to the French ways (mostly)
    4) I wanna try out your grandma’s chowder!

  4. Nichole Schmitt November 25, 2019

    Thank you Shayna. You inspire me to write more!

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