Of the dishes served at my family’s Guilford Avenue home, one stood out on a cold Dec. 25 morning.
It was my grandmother’s buckwheat cakes served alongside a platter of Wetzelberger Brothers sausage, scrapple and a brand of syrup called Golden Crown.
Not everyone liked grandmother Lily Rose’s buckwheat cakes, a type of pancake made from a grain. At this time, the 1950s and 1960s, I had no idea that buckwheat is gluten-free and not a cereal grain. It is actually a fruit seed somehow related to rhubarb and knotweed. It has a decided nutty flavor.
And when made into a batter and grilled, it resembles a thin, dark gray-brown pancake. It does not taste like a pancake, which my grandmother also made, except she called them flannel cakes and indeed, they were thin as cotton flannel and tasted delicious. In truth, they were more like a French crepe.
But only buckwheat was good enough for Christmas morning. Not many places sold real buckwheat flour. Certainly the Gorsuch Avenue A&P grocery store in the neighborhood never carried it. And even if this chain store offered buckwheat, my grandmother would have passed it up.
She liked to shop where her mother shopped, on Gay Street, at the old Belair Market. I made the trip to this venerable real and gutsy Baltimore market but cannot remember the name of the merchant who stocked the elusive buckwheat flour.
The sausage had to come from Wetzelberger’s and no other source. Rapa scrapple, from Bridgeville, Delaware, was more easily available and back then people weren’t as picky about scrapple as some pork product aficionados are today.
Lily Rose made her own ketchup out of overripe tomatoes each September and it was on the table for the Christmas breakfast. For some reason, she bottled the ketchup in Pepsi-Cola bottles and prayed her improvised bottle tops wound not blow off.
Her ketchup was delicious, like so much she made, and it was fortunate if the supply survived into the new year.
The buckwheat cakes were quite an involved production. The batter had to be made the night before and stored in the cold pantry along with Christmas-y treats such as her homemade eggnog and enough cakes to feed our household of 12. There was also a bushel of unshucked oysters.
For some reason, her cookies were always stored in stoneware crocks in the basement. They were the one Christmas delicacy that we could sample before Dec. 25.
My grandmother was not a fancy person, but she did like to serve her cookies, a buttery nutmeg variety, in a sterling silver bowl she received as a wedding gift in 1916. She made just one variety of cookie and it was so tasty no one wanted any other.
There could be other items on the Christmas morning menu, including homemade kidney stew, a milky dish that caused some to salivate and others to leave the room.
The buckwheat preparation never varied. Using a hand mixer, she blended the buckwheat flour, water, milk and live yeast. She used a yellow crockery bowl as her fermentation vat.
Making this dish was the kind of ordeal my grandmother truly enjoyed. It was involved and complicated, handed down by her mother and grandmother and generally not practiced by others. This is to say, a box of Betty Crocker premade mix of any sort was banned from her pantry.
Because of the yeast, the thick grayish brown liquid batter smelled like beer. On the night before, if the final product seemed just right, she covered the yellow pottery bowl with a tea towel, enjoyed a gulp of Pepsi Cola and went to bed.
Come 5 a.m. she reappeared in her kitchen and had her sacred cast-iron griddle pan ready. It was ancient and covered in strange, almost scary metal pit marks. No matter.
She ladled her buckwheat batter on the griddle. It immediately formed flat puddles dotted with air pockets. The finished cakes were thin and about four inches in diameter.
Occasionally someone might rave over how delicious her spread was that day. Lily Rose had a four word reply: “I hate to cook.”