My maternal grandmother was an awesome, inspiring, wise woman in so many ways. She did a lot of little things in her life even though she wasn’t Hollywood or a jet-setter or a community pillar. She seemed to have this innate knack for building and maintaining rapport. You knew you were going to get truth (and Truth), and if you asked the wrong way, you got every morsel that had simmered in her brain as she watched your choices and outcomes (it was delicious and nauseating at times).
She had a lot of tools. Early in her life, it was cigarettes and coffee. While I was always denied the cigarettes and smoking was highly discouraged, the smell of coffee told you she was up and ready for the day, and she was just waiting to help you wrangle any challenge you faced, not by telling you what to do but by teaching you how to think and pray. And the coffee helped to lubricate the warm, fuzzy kinship feelings that made you wax so eloquent about feelings and situations that you didn’t normally tell a soul (even a confessional priest).
But her most loved tool was her cooking. Eating at her house was always an experience. I never heard terms like cumin and curry there; onions, vinegar, parsley were frequent. It was the kind of food that filled you up and left your soul tank ready for the cold, cruel world.
Sadly, it wasn’t until she was almost too sick to cook that I started to get interested in cooking. For some reason, cooking always made me feel stupid. I couldn’t get my hands to work. I would get lost in watching the bubbles in a pot getting ready to boil while the milk scalded in another pot. I was the kind who could burn boiling water. I have so many bad stories–the gravy that was thicker than the stuffing, demon chicken baked at 350 for 8 hours that were still rare or tartar, the tapioca that never got big and thick.
She was funny. She was patient and kind. She always answered my questions and helped me try to convert her cooking tricks on a gas stove to my electric stove. However, I never could get a straight recipe out of her. It was always four cans of this, a pinch of that, a pile of those until it looks right.
Looks right? LOOKS RIGHT?!? I can’t peel potatoes right, and you want me to determine whether a mixture looks like it has the right consistency?
I gave up. I think she gave up, not because she was truly frustrated but because she had a natural skill that she couldn’t figure out how to communicate to someone who had to learn by rote doing and trying.
Eventually, she weakened and died without ever really having me try once to give her the gift of a dinner like she had given me so many times before. However, her death changed something in me. I survived the most awful thing in the world to me…seeing her lifeless body on a hospital bed in the same place where her couch had been, the couch where my daughters and I had shared so many joy-filled evenings with her watching Wheel of Fortune and Jeopardy, laughing and joking, and just doing life.
And when I survived this, I realized I had the strength to draw on that joy and follow down a path similar to hers. Mine would never be exactly her path–my body is just too hokey, so I can’t do all the fun stuff she used to. But I can do things differently.
And so, I introduce my latest hobby–taking recipes and trying to make them kosher. I’m not Jewish. I’ve just done a lot of research and seen the care with which Jewish people who eat kosher select ingredients to use in their cooking. Their ingredients tend to be healthier and have fewer artificial chemicals for flavor, color, or preservation.
I already found a recipe for the potato cakes my paternal grandmother used to make. I never knew to look for the latke that Jewish people eat at Hanukkah. My daughters and I laugh with glee. I laugh because I go back to the way her house used to smell–onions, garlic, spices; they laugh because she was not healthy enough to cook these delightful treats for them and they at least get to try my pale imitations. I also laugh because her companion used to be so anti-semitic, and yet he ate more latke than I did! But I digress…
With latke from my paternal grandmother under my belt, I started to get hungry for my maternal grandmother’s baked beans. So I started first just looking for kosher baked beans.
The first recipe was an absolute disaster. I never saw my grandmother start the process. So, when I didn’t know that beans expand overnight, and the beans didn’t look right, I added more beans. Let’s just say we doubled the recipe the next day. At the end of the eight hours in the two crock pots, the beans were ready. We were supposed to share a fun evening dinner, but my older two children launched a revolt. They took a few bites and refused to continue.
- They’re not grammy’s beans.
- They’re way too spicy.
- We refuse to eat.
So, I called the neighbors and shared my wealth. Then, when I next got hungry for baked beans, I tried again. Instead of going immediately kosher, I went for Boston baked beans. The recipe had more common ingredients (I remembered my grandmother using the ketchup, molasses, and brown sugar that this recipe called for; I didn’t remember garlic and ginger like the first one used.)
So this time, I used the exact amount of dry beans the recipe called for and just one crock pot. After six hours, the results were pleasantly better. My girls and I are still going to tweak it. We think just one onion, and a small one at that, will suffice. We also will increase the molasses just a hair. (At least the older two will let me give this recipe houseroom and a second chance.)
So the journey continues with a quest for the right recipe. And I can just hear my grandmothers now:
What is she doing? Why can’t she just drop the measuring cups? No, I don’t want her to drop them, on second thought…
She always did need very detailed instructions. Wish I’d thought of that sooner and just mailed her a cookbook. But why won’t she just add the bacon? I’m sure that’s what’s missing.
She never did listen quite closely to me. And this talk that I made latkes?
Just giver her time, lady. If nothing else, we have our own reality show for the next 20 or 30 years of eternity. I’m sure we’ll laugh a lot.