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The Smells of Grandma's House

Skipping the holidays for several years made me extra thankful for my grandma's cornbread, mac and cheese, and chitlins.

By: Angie Vasquez + Save to a List

I remember being five or six years old with my pillowcase walking around the neighborhood collecting chocolate candies and other goodies for Halloween. As I got older, my mom became a Jehovah’s Witness so we no longer celebrated the holidays. 

My siblings and I would watch as our neighbors prepared their homes with pumpkins and scarecrows. Soon after Halloween, they were stringing lights around the trees in their front yards in preparation for fall and winter holiday festivities.

On Christmas Day, the kids rode their bikes and played with their new toys. My mom was a single mother and would buy us things year-round, but it wasn’t the same as seeing the gifts under the tree like my perception of a traditional American holiday. It was a confusing time in life. I felt as we weren’t like other families.

When my grandparents came back from the Philippines, things changed. My mom allowed us to celebrate Thanksgiving and Christmas. Gatherings would take place at my grandmother's house. As we pulled up, I remember seeing the reindeer and sleigh along with other life-like ornaments in the front yard. I’d run to the door to get inside and notice the smells of the sweet potato pie and other foods lingering outside before we even entered the house.

Grandma always had a bowl of fresh nuts waiting on the family room table with nutcrackers. I sat there for long periods trying to open up the walnuts. The Christmas tree sat in the same corner of the living room with the nativity set she'd made underneath. I would gaze at it while standing over the old radiator heater trying to keep warm.

I’d make my way into the kitchen to see what Grandma was up to and my little sister would be helping. She was the sister who wanted to learn recipes, I was just there to sample food that she had prepared and set aside. 

I'd watch as she would make the cornbread from scratch for the stuffing and cut all of the green peppers, onions, and garlic to place in the cornbread. She used her hands to mix everything up and create this beautiful side she'd stuff into the turkey. She’d take the giblets out of the bird and use them to create the best gravy I've ever had.

Grandma and her friends would gather in the family room with their red buckets of chitlins. It smelled so very badly, I’d go outside to play with friends. It was their tradition to sit and discuss the gossip of their neighborhoods and lives as they cleaned the intestines out to prepare them for the holiday meal.

It was traditional to eat a small serving of chitlins for good luck. Black slaves were given leftover portions of the pig such as the snout, hooves, butt, and intestines while their rich, white owners ate the leg and back parts of the animal. 

This led to chitlins and other foods such as black-eyed peas, collard greens, and cornbread  becoming traditional foods for the holidays, especially Thanksgiving and New Years for good luck, health, and prosperity.

Grandma's homemade baked mac and cheese is my favorite food to this day. I loved the crispy top with the slightly overcooked cheese. Once you dig into the tender noodles, there are three or four cheeses and tons of butter. It’s like heaven!

My Grandma passed away this year. She was an amazing woman who poured love into the food she’d make for her family. My mom and sister have carried on the tradition for the holidays but I will always think of my Granny standing in the kitchen for hours creating these beautiful dishes.

We want to acknowledge and thank the past, present, and future generations of all Native Nations and Indigenous Peoples whose ancestral lands we travel, explore, and play on. Always practice Leave No Trace ethics on your adventures and follow local regulations. Please explore responsibly!

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