Holding My Grandmother's Memory: Rouladen for New Year's Eve

The other day my mother shared a recipe for rouladen that she had come across in an online periodical. She said, "This was one of your dad's mom's signature dishes. She used to make it for your grandfather."

What now? How did I not know this?

Well, I've been pondering that for a few days now, and I think that - aside from moving out of state when I was young (we still went to visit every year) - it is tied to what my mother used to say: that the "light went out" of my grandmother when her husband died, and she stopped living (I was barely two when that happened, though I do retain a memory fragment of him wearing a white T-shirt and red ball cap as we sat at a diner eating clam chowder). That sounds sad, and it is. But I realized that while my grandmother was alive into my early twenties, I never really knew her - the whole her. She was my white-haired grandma who chain-smoked, and never left her recliner in the corner of the living room. She would give us cups of M&Ms, and cans of cream soda. That was grandma. And yet I realize now that I never met that vibrant woman that she had been.

My aunt confirmed that rouladen - rolled beef braised with onions, bacon, and other assorted goodies, and served with a brown gravy - was a family specialty, passed from my German-American great-grandmother to her daughter, and on to my aunt, and - thanks to my mother - now on to me. Well, I'm being generous when I say "recipe" - it's more like an assortment of comments and vague procedures. Fortunately if you are comfortable with cooking in general, it's not hard to fill in the blanks.
My family: grandma is back center, my grandfather to the right, holding my aunt. My dad is standing front, to the far left. My grandfather's mom, Emilie, is in front with a striped dress.
My aunt also provided some helpful tips, as the internet recipe called for pickles and mustard in addition to bacon and onions; my aunt (rather adamantly) said our family never used pickles or mustard - strictly chopped bacon and onion. I understand that most recipes out there today call for pickles and mustard, and I am curious as to how or why these ingredients were omitted along the way for our family version. I'll surely never be enlightened.

I copied and pasted my aunt's notes to me in my phone's memo pad. This is what I used as a guide:
I decided to make rouladen for New Year's Eve dinner. The kids helped me pound the steaks into thin, rollable slabs.
Then I diced the bacon and onions, and put them in storage containers until the next day:
On New Year's Eve afternoon I started to assemble them, making some according to my aunt's instructions, and others with pickle and mustard:

Then I browned them, 3-4 at a time:
Following this step, I put all of them in the pot together, covered with broth, and simmered them (lid on) for three hours. Then I took them (gently - they are very tender after such a long, hot bath!) out of the liquid so that I could make the gravy:
At this point it was hard to tell which were grandma's style, and which had pickles, but that was part of the fun of eating them.
I served them with mashed potatoes and also made a side of the lemon-sour cream-dill cucumbers that my aunt alluded to in her notes above. 
They were absolutely delicious (and for the record, I preferred my grandmothers' version, sans pickles and mustard. They must have been onto something). I shared my process and these photos with my aunt, and she gave me her seal of approval, so I was feeling pretty happy with myself. 

It's hard to put into words the feelings I have about all of this, but I'll try. I'm honored to be able to make a dish that came down from my great-grandmother (and surely her mother before that, and so on), and has been a family favorite for generations. I am sorry that I am only just aware of this now, and furthermore sorry that death was one possible cause for the disruption in the culinary legacy (though come to think of it, this is very much part of being human). I'm fortunate to be able to pass this down to my own kids. The creation of this meal was like creating a bridge to my female line on my dad's side, and that is indescribably vital and warming. I am moved, and grateful. 


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