My Grandmama Friedokra could cook. Now y'all know me by now. I am prone to exaggeration at times, and I will take the liberty of overstating the facts when I feel it is necessary for comedic effect, but lemme tell you, when your Grandmama can cook like my Grandmama could cook, all the exaggeration and overstatement in the world still really can't stack up to the truth.
And the truth is, my Grandmama Friedokra? Could slam-up cook.
And she was SERIOUS about the cookin', too. There is hardly a time I can remember while she was alive that you could step into her kitchen and NOT see evidence of a Southern culinary masterpiece just past, in progress, or just up ahead. The woman kept that kitchen HUMMING. And as serious and productive as she was, and a woman in her 50s and 60s, too, she was stifling HOT. ALLATIME. So she devised herself a little kitchen (and sometimes the rest of the house and on occasion a folding chair down by the lakeshore, but shhhhh, don't tell the neighbors) "uniform" of a nice, full-coverage, full-support bra, a pair of pastel doubleknit slacks (from one of her 962 each-one-unique-as-the-one-before-it Hamrick's pantsuits, of course!) and a smock apron.
And may I gracefully add that my Grandmama Friedokra was also serious about her EATIN'. Many's the wee early morn my younger cousin (of the two girl cousins my sister and I grew up with) and I would sneak into the kitchen to pilfer a half dozen eggs and a package of bacon for one of our sunrise cookouts down by the shed (on buddy burners, OHMYGRANNY, the fire hazard), and catch Grandmama standing at the kitchen sink, snarfing down saltine crackers slathered with Duke's® Mayonnaise, or perhaps a glazed Krispy Kreme® or 5. So she was no small woman, this lovely lady with the given name of Edna (my Grandaddy and my Aunt Mae just called 'er Ed), and she cut quite a figure in her lovely bra and apron ensemble, on the reddish sandy shore of Lake Hartwell or in the faded aquamarine-countered kitchen I remember so fondly.
My Grandaddy, as I've mentioned before, was into growing things both professionally and recreationally (I mean LEGAL things), and he had a gigantically huge garden that covered their entire sloping back yard. Along with his prized roses and those grapes I loved so much, he grew every kind of vegetable known to man, and brought them up to Grandmama's kitchen where she would cook them into oblivion with a half a pound of bacon fat until there was not a milligram of nutritional value left in them but the flavors - oh those flavors - would lift you up out of your seat (a creaky wooden kitchen chair or a faded turquoise vinyl and cool chrome stool) for a minute every bite you took, like you were on your way to heaven but changed your mind about goin' because you didn't want to leave a plateful of Grandmama's beautiful summer squash just sittin' there on the table when you could go on and finish it up and perhaps get seconds.
She'd cook the hell (I'm sorry, I don't really love to swear but in this case that's the ONLY expression that does her abilities justice) out of some blackeyed peas, collard greens, crowder peas and even zucchini, and make it all taste so delicious that even us kids would sit and maw it all down with nary a complaint. And she could make a biscuit, people. So good that even now, I just won't go there myself. I will cook just about anything and do a fairly decent job, but when it comes to biscuits, none will ever compare to hers, so I just don't try. Too disappointing.
She was the stuff of legends. I miss her, especially in the summer. But sometimes when I get to laughing HARD and loud, I can hear her laughter in mine. I don't look like her at all, and we don't have all that much in common, probably, beyond our love for food and our families, but I think at times I inherited her huge laugh, a laugh that rivaled the little laughing machine, as we called it, she had stowed in a drawer in the twin bedroom we girls used to play and sleep in when we visited. In fact, sometimes I get her laughter and my laughter and the sound of that wacky laughing machine all jumbled up in my mind and wonder whose is which. I guess we're (or were) all three slightly crazy and uncontrollable when amused.
Y'all put on your full-coverage bras and aprons, because I'm about to lay upon you the darling of my Grandmama Friedokra's recipe repertoire, her famous Hamburger Casserole. It is in no way complicated nor healthy. What it is is comfort food at its finest, the absolute sure-fire way to soothe away a grumpy man's bad day or satisfy the appetites of a passel of hungry grand kids. Serve it with a pan of yeast rolls and a big old salad, and you have yourself a meal that'll go down in family history.
Grandmama Friedokra's Hamburger Casserole
1 1/2 lbs. ground beef
1 onion, diced
1 8 oz. can tomato sauce
1/2 pint sour cream
3 oz. softened cream cheese
1 can cream of mushroom soup
grated cheddar cheese
1/2 lb. shell noodles (small or big, your preference)
Cook noodles in salted boiling water about 2/3rds of the time on the package directions. Saute and drain the onion and beef. Stir in the tomato sauce and a little salt and pepper. In a separate bowl, mix together the cream cheese, soup, and sour cream. Drain noodles and place them in a small casserole dish, followed by the meat and sauce mixture, then the creamy cheese mixture, and top with a hearty layer of grated cheddar. Bake at 350° for 30 minutes or until bubbly and a little brown on top.
(Y'all take this to the grave with you now, okay?)