Cigarettes and coffee: cooking for my grandparents
I’m staying at home in Michigan for a few weeks before I move to California. Everyone, especially my mom, seems convinced that I’m leaving for a faraway land from which I’ll never return. Every time I leave the house I expect to see my mother waving at me from the doorway with a white handkerchief. I’ll at least wait till I get to the car before bursting into hysterical tears.
Since I haven’t seen my grandparents since Christmas, my mom invited them over for lunch to
say goodbye see me. My mom asked for suggestions for lunch, so I recommended the looks-fancy-but-isn’t skillet gnocchi with chard and white beans that I’d made before. As we were shopping for the lunch and my mom kept asking questions, I realized this meant that I would be the one making it.
Let me tell you about my grandparents. My grandmother is an excellent and critical cook. She doesn’t let anyone else bring anything but vegetable trays to holidays. And then she stopped letting anyone do that. (She says she doesn’t want anyone to go to trouble, then spends two days cooking. I think that she knows we’re nowhere near as good as her and she’s trying to save everyone the disappointment.) She’s the kind of woman who organizes elaborate Easter egg hunts in her yard with the same number of eggs for each grandchild–each egg in its own plastic bag, each labeled with a name. When I wasn’t able to come last year, she mailed my bagged eggs to me in Boston. She rarely accepts praise for the massive spread of food and multiple homemade desserts every Thanksgiving and Christmas. She has a room full of dolls that’s always been off-limits, and always locked. As a child, I thought it was because they were magic and came to life. But only when she held the key.My grandfather has raced cars, boxed professionally, jumped out of planes, smoked since he was barely in his teens, and looked like Elvis as a young man. He’s had his eye popped out in a near-fatal motorcycle wreck, ended up in a coma after a faulty parachute jump, and beat up anyone who disrespected him. I feared him for his curly mustache and loved him for his Donald Duck impression. Grandpa doesn’t take any shit. He eats meat, potatoes, and my grandmother’s cooking. My grandpa tells me, “Merry Turkey,” no matter what holiday it is. They both always tell me they love me.
So I was quietly pretending not to be nervous. On the day of lunch, I went to the store for the ingredients to double the recipe. When I got back, my mother had already started the gnocchi. Instead of doing the big girl thing and recognizing the kind gesture, the sight of the lunch already started when I wasn’t ready yet made me lose my already tenuous hold on my self-control. I asked, as if it mattered, “How long have they been cooking? Did you even heat the oil up beforehand?” Instead of answering my questions, my mom answered what I hadn’t said and replied, “It’s going to be okay.”
I ignored her and took the garlic out of the fridge to chop. My mom stopped me. “Wait,” she said, “grandpa doesn’t eat garlic.” His stomach is often upset, although he still eats pizza, burgers, steaks, etc. etc. But not garlic. I took the news well, retorting, “Well, garlic is the whole point. We might as well just not eat it at all if there’s no garlic.” My mom tried to console me by saying that we could put out garlic powder and that there was a little bit of garlic in the canned tomatoes for flavor, but instead of helping, that just drew my attention to the fact that I was using canned tomatoes. I was also using canned beans. This recipe required little to no cooking. A ten-year-old could make it. My grandmother would see right through it. I imagined her sending boxes of Kraft Mac ‘n’ Cheese to me in San Francisco with handwritten instructions and a little note to call, in case I was confused.Since I was already in an irrational panic and in the mood to disagree with everything, I decided we were cooking way too early, and that the food would be cold by the time they showed up. My mom, in her infinite wisdom, agreed. “Well,” she said, “now we can have some coffee! And relax!” I’d wasted too much time panicking that morning to have coffee, so I relented. “Sure,” I said, “that sounds good.” “Yes,” mom said, “and we can just relax! And, you could even add some Carolans to it.” She winked, but I went to the fridge and poured a shot into my mug. I was anxious, drinking hot coffee, and sweating over a stove in 90-degree weather, but apparently alcohol was the answer.
A door slammed in the driveway. My grandparents were 20 minutes early.
To be continued…
*My apologies to Rufus Wainwright and Otis Redding for this title