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« Kyra's Baking Class: Replacing Common Ingredients | Main | Dutch Cinnamon Bread (GF, DF, Soy-free) »

Love & Belonging Through Bread & Tea

My maternal grandmother

Making Someone's Presence Valuable

My maternal grandmother was a baker.  She had passed away when I was around 12 years old at the beautifully ripe age of 92.  I only knew her for a short time, yet her presence in my life was large and loving.  There was a wisdom, a naughtiness, and the knowledge that she could (and would) take on any life circumstance and make it right.  Navigating the bizarre and the trivial, she charted the world to her course and no one else's.  I remember invading her world often, and whenever I did, she always found a way to make my presence valuable. 

It's no wonder then, that when I find myself tossed about by life or the fickleness of friends, I think of her.  She was a faithful spirit who suffered no fools. 

Many years ago when she lived in her house on Leonard street, she would regularly invite us over for tea.  My mom, my sisters, and I would dress properly, and then walk up the steps to her home.  It was rather formal and mysterious, this "going to Grandma's house."  I couldn't quite wrap my mind around the simple fact that my mother had a mother, and that this woman lived by herself.  I thought it strange that she was "old", and did not understand what "old" really meant.  I just knew that my sisters were "much" older than me (and they never let me forget it), and that my mom was much older than my sisters, which meant that Grandma must be very, very old, indeed. 

Grandma receives a teapot from my sisters, before I was born.

Grandma gave birth to her last, my mother, when she was 49.  Her first child, my aunt, was 22 years my mother's senior.  She had 7 more children in between.  These numbers were incomprehesible, and my mom has always looked freakishly young for her age which confused things even more. Today I watch in utter bemusement, as the faces of my nieces and nephews consider this puzzle between their moms, grandmas and aunties.  A puzzle that adults can only pretend to have deciphered.   Grandma was a mystery.  Age was a mystery.  It still is.


An Unlikely Tradition

Besides bearing a freakishly young-looking youngest, my Grandmother also made freakishly amazing Dutch pastries.  The tea... well...I've never tasted orange pekoe tea like Grandma's.  That spicy, slightly flowery scent and the forbidden-grown-up taste became part of my DNA, its detail brewed into my memory.  Grandma gave us each our own cup, my sisters and I.  We were a part of her house, and as we grew up, our tea cups grew up, too.  My first was the tiniest tea cup I had ever seen.  But with Grandma, I never, ever felt small.  Even that tiny teacup made me feel like I belonged.  It was my size, after all.

My first "tea" cup

As a food allergic adult, I have never felt that I could transform the flakiness of her Banket (almond roll), or the doughy goodness of her Olie Bollen (Dutch Fritters/Donuts) into a gluten-, yeast-, and dairy-free version that would do her justice.  My grandmother was a true talent and became a resourceful single mother when my mom was but seven.  She milked her own cow (Bessy) and was also no stranger to food allergies.   When my mom had an allergic reaction to Bessy's milk, she bought a bunch of goats.  She used this "new", alternative ingredient without missing a beat. 

 My mom and her goat, Molly

After I grew up and moved away, I would fly back into Grand Rapids to visit, and sometimes would find my mom and Grandma's  oatmeal chocolate chip cookies in the kitchen.  These cookies were my favorite.  When I couldn't eat them anymore, I thought, "No big deal.  It's just cookies."  In a sense this is very true.  Then one day I saw my mother's furrowed brow mulling over "gluten-free" boxes of this and "dairy-free" bags of that and I had a moment of profound realization.  It wasn't just about cookies.  I thought that I had to actually surrender my grandmother into the abyss of my allergen-free world.  I was secretly mourning the loss of, not cookies, but precious memories and with them some sense of real belonging.  But by transforming a favorite, traditional recipe into one that her daughter could eat, my mother was honoring a sacred food tradition.  Food traditions have a spiritual importance, even if carried on in an unlikely way. 

I haven't yet been able to alternatively duplicate many of my Grandma's toughest recipes, but I've been able to adapt this Dutch Cinnamon Bread that my mom used to make.  When the cinnamon wafts through the house, it brings me back to my mom's kitchen and always, for some reason, reminds me of my grandmother.  I offer this recipe to you as I carry a family food tradition into my world of alternative ingredients.  I hope that Grandma would feel loved and be proud.

My Mom, about the same age as my Grandmother in her portrait at top

So on this Mother's Day, I appreciate my smart and generous Mom.  She taught me how important our ancestors are to us and kept us connected to her brothers, sisters and mother for as long as she could.    I also remember my Grandmother.  I never wanted to leave her table.  Thank you for teaching me that love and belonging can come through something as simple as bread and tea.  Even in a memory.  Even if it's gluten-free.


About Elisabeth

Writer, owner of Blue Pearl Strategies, and lover of all culinary delights, Elisabeth is a Tender Foodie. She started The Tender Palate, a website for foodies with food allergies where she consults with experts from every area of the Tender Foodie life. She believes that everyone should live deliciously and have a healthy seat at the table. Find her at and


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