When I think of Thanksgiving, I think of Grandma’s noodles. There might have been a year or two we didn’t cover the table, night before, with the mess of drying overnight, flipping, flouring, then flouring again our holiday noodles. The damp seeping out of hiding with the drying process, and we’d again add just a bit more flour, finally able to cut the perfectly imperfect wide and hearty slabs. The process was a lot of work, and wonderful. But not many years we’d go without the noodle production, that’s for sure.
Grandma would stand, leaning over the table, a bit tall to reach the bowl easily, and carefully with silky hands create the most desirable noodles on the planet. When I was maybe 8 or 9 she let me start helping. She explained it was the size of egg that determined the recipe. Any interesting concoction these days includes at least a dozen ingredients. Grandma’s noodles had three – the eggs, flour and water. “Salt toughens the noodles”, she would say. “Salt the broth, not the dough”. She showed me how to choose the largest egg we had, crack it, set the largest of the shell halves aside for measuring water. Another egg or two would be added… usually not more than 3 eggs. The set-aside shell was our measuring device. It was filled with warm water two times for every egg we used. The egg and water took a beating because this was the last man-handling the noodles had.
Once flour was added, gentle became the main thing. “Handle it carefully”, she would tell me. A fork and hands were our tools. We would add the flour carefully and slowly until we could make a sort of ball which also had to be barely touched, yet formed. “Don’t use your middle three fingers; you’ll work it too hard,”Grandma insisted. I’d forget most of the time and she would remind me again. “Use only your thumb and little finger to move the dough – you’ll make ‘um tough.”
A little flour in our silver mixing bowl, the dough would sit under the bread cloth in the warmest part of the kitchen for an hour or so. When the dough ball firmed up a bit, with slow and extra-careful hands, we’d pull it apart for rolling, but barely rolling, not adding any extra strokes, and taking our time. A lightly floured table was the workbench where noodles were left out to dry. Flip, re-flour again, continue adding as little flour as possible (too much flour toughens the noodles, too), then finally the cutting.
As the cut noodles dried some more, we busied ourselves pealing and chopping for the broth. Once dry, the noodles would be added to the rolling boil that consisted mostly of celery, carrots, onion, potatoes, green beans, butter, chicken and seasonings that were never measured but pinched and dashed and then some more.
The kitchen smells produced people we didn’t even know were in the house. Everybody wanted to help “test” the noodles. ”Mummm, they’re the best yet!” we would mumble through our second or third mouthful of “testing”. The quality was always judged by lack of toughness.
Grandma has been gone 26 years. I’ve been making the noodles since, every Thanksgiving and Christmas, and still can’t get the tender quality Grandma managed, I toughen the dough by the hurry and rush tactics that aren’t effective. Every year I say I’ll do better this time….
It’s rather peculiar, but Grandmas hands never did toughen up. Born in 1899, she was raised in a room above a hotel in a busy river town, Brownville, Nebraska, by a single mother of four who cooked for the hotel morning to night, making a living so she could feed her children. Grandma had all the reason in the world to have callused hands. Early on scrubbing splintered wooden floors, young knees on rough skirt, later on, linoleum – still heavily trodden, older more painful knees on softer skirt, or polyester pants. Decades of floors that needed scrubbed. She’d work the corners, moving toward center, hands in briny water, rinsing, wringing tight, over and over she made half circles until she’d managed her task.
Grandma washed on the board for others and for her own family, working, with hands and arms and back, extracting impossible dirt out of clothes. Butchering and plucking chickens, flipping heavy switches for hours at a busy telephone company. Caring for sometimes large and frightening mentally ill patients middle of night at the State Hospital. She milked the cow, fed the live stalk, gathered eggs, gardened, shoveled snow. Kitchen work, almost always using nearly scalding water, hauling in coal or wood, depending on the heat used in the place her and her four children lived, there alone, as her husband chose unfaithfulness to the hard task of marriage and fatherhood. Hands with tissue to face, sobbing deep and painful to the neighbor friend when the husband choose affair over coming home, this time for good.
It was Grandma’s mind that soothed her most. She loved books and ideas. She held a book, a few minutes stolen here and there as her ever thirsty mind took on The Bible, the Classics, The Daily News.
She sometimes wrote her own great thoughts. Thoughts on scraps of paper, some in a tablet. Some on typing paper. I have them in my attic, the musty suitcase that moved wherever she went, in her later years, all over the country to stay involved in her children and grandchildren’s lives.
With pen and pencil, later on, with a typewriter, she saw the world through her heart and recorded it. She worked hard to make some dreams come true. She managed to get her GED, and in her 70’s, took some classes at the local community college, learned shorthand and more about writing.
In all her 87 years of life, it’s hard to understand how her hands never became callused. Her heart somehow managed to remain young as well. Don’t misunderstand. Grandma wasn’t perfect. But the part of the heart is curious, that loves to learn, that is grateful for simple things, that part of her stayed young – despite the disadvantages she was handed. I guess that is the reason that when I think of Thanksgiving, I think of Grandma’s noodles. The essence of gratitude. Taking nothing much at all, and from it creating the yummiest food on the planet – gratitude in the form of food, to add to our Thanksgiving Table.