Tales From Grandma's Kitchen
As I wash the morning dishes, my mind drifts back in time to a scene in my grandmother's kitchen. The sun shines through the window, throwing light on her Elizabeth Taylor-esque features as she finishes her work at the sink.
"Grandma," six-year-old me asks, "how old are you?"
"Twenty-nine," she answers, adding another coffee mug to the drainer.
I pause for a moment, making some quick calculations. Something isn't adding up.
"Are you sure?"
"I should think I know how old I am, Lizzy," she answers without looking up.
"Well, Dad is 33," and realizing she may not understand the implications of this fact, I add, "I'm pretty sure a mother can't be older than her kid."
"I don't know, Honey," she dries her hands with a dishtowel, averting my eyes to avoid cracking.
You Better Be Hungry
Grandma was always happiest in the kitchen. As her guest, she was ready to feed you. But her hospitality had a militant edge to it--no one could eat enough to satisfy her need to feed.
Five minutes into Christmas dinner she'd start calling us out. Her frustrated outbursts always the same:
"Eat! Aren't you hungry?"
"I cooked all this food and you people won't eat."
"What, are you afraid you're going to gain an ounce?"
My grandmother's signature creations included the baked macaroni with a crispy top, the pork chops with rice and ketchup gravy, the shaved carrots she burned on purpose, and the hamburgers that were really meatloaves formed into patties.
But everyone's favorite was her chicken parmesan. She pounded the cutlets thin, then fried them in an egg and bread crumb coating for several minutes. Her from-scratch tomato sauce simmered all day long. Buying a jar of the store-bought stuff was against her personal code of ethics (and we were okay with that).
The cutlets sat in a casserole dish between mounds of sauce and handfuls of mozzarella, a cheese always pronounced with an Italian accent. The dish cooked in the oven for anywhere between a half hour to an hour and a half. Several loaves of oven-toasted garlic bread completed the feast.
And we were expected to eat those, too.
For other dinners, she made those biscuits that pop out as you pull the paper off the canister. She left them in the oven a bit too long one day, making the bottoms burnt and inedible. We pulled the doughy tops off and used the blackened circle remains to set our drinks on. Grandma's Coaster Biscuits, we called them. She wasn't amused.
"You fresh kids," she'd sigh. "You'll miss me when I'm gone."
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Say It Again, Gram
Like most grandmothers, she had a collection of overplayed sayings. In the summer, the weather was hot as bejazzes. If she questioned the validity of your statement, you were full of soup. And the worst names she would ever call you were doopus or fuddy dud.
After my nephew's birth, she was beside-herself excited about becoming a great-grandmother. Over instant coffee and buttered Italian bread, she asked if she had ever told me the story about the day I was born.
I knew the story--just as sure as she knew I had already heard it. Still, we played our parts:
"What story is that, Grandma?"
"On the day you were born, your father called to give us the news. I was so excited, I had to call Aunt Terry right away. As soon as I heard an answer, I yelled into the phone, 'It's a girl!' The woman on the other end said, 'Mazel tov, Lady, but you've got the wrong number.'"
We laughed, as usual.
Two months later, I repeated the story at Grandma's memorial service. My father and aunt repeated the mazel tov line with me in unison.
It's no surprise that my grandmother visits my memory while I'm in the kitchen. At the very least, I imagine she checks in to make sure I'm eating enough. Surely, she's on my side when I hound my four-year-old at the dinner table. If only I could get her to make a batch of chicken parmesan while she's here . . .
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