Cigarettes and coffee: cooking for my grandparents, part 2

(Continued from Part 1)

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.

My grandma came into the room with multiple trays of homemade desserts. We all could’ve had a had a tray to ourselves.


I tidied the kitchen in a five-second whirlwind, as if that would help, and moved my liquored-up coffee mug from one place to another to keep my grandparents from smelling it. I went forward to hug them, glancing over my shoulder at the spread of ingredients not even close to being in the pan. “You’re so early!” I babbled. My grandmother shrugged. “Why?” she joked, “is that a problem?” “No, no, of course not!” I squealed. “It’s great to see you even earlier than we expected.” My grandma patted me on the shoulder and said, “Well, good, dear.”

Even though it was my mom’s kitchen, my grandmother somehow ended up standing at the sink, rinsing fruit and taking down serving platters for her desserts. Because my mother’s mother died before I was born, I sometimes forget that my grandma is actually her stepmom. My mother and grandma love each other, get along well, and have been a family for years, but there is always the fact that my grandma is not the mother my mom lost to cancer when she was my age. She’s always been my grandmother, but as I’ve gotten older, I’ve started noticing when everything isn’t all Easter egg hunts and harmonious cooking side by side and unicorns and rainbows. Instead of wondering if my grandma stepping right into my mom’s kitchen would be tense, I took a big swig out of my mug, and started cooking.

The recipe was moving along despite the lack of fresh garlic. While my mom showed my grandparents her garden, I rinsed and hid the diced tomato cans, hoping my grandma would go ahead and assume I’d used fresh ones. They came back in and loitered around, chatting behind me, while I sweated over the stove. While I wilted the chard, I was mostly conscious of my coffee mug. I’d never drank so much as a glass of wine in front of my grandparents before. We never drink at all on holidays, but here it was 12:30 on a Friday afternoon, and I was having some drank before a luncheon. Perfect.

I’m sure they asked me some questions about my move and I think my grandpa was trying to figure out what in the hell gnocchi actually is, but my brain chose to focus on the Irish coffee in my hand, rather than the food. It was easier to imagine my grandparents scolding me for the drink than for the food. I tossed back the last of the coffee, mopped up my sweaty forehead, and announced lunch.

We all sat down, passed around bread and salad and fruit, and waited. I waited and waited in agony for someone to dip the ladle into the mess of cheese and pasta. Finally my grandpa served himself, then my grandma. Everyone ate, and no one said anything. I’m not above asking if it’s good, knowing that people will say what I want to hear, but I wanted honesty. So I waited.

We talked about my move to California, and my grandpa told stories. He told us about the time he and my mother’s mother were trying to sell their house, and they’d secured a buyer. The man had paid $500, and my grandpa had gone to Tucscon for a medical treatment. While he was gone, the man returned to my grandparents’ house. He wanted the money back. When my mother’s mom refused, he threatened to punch her in the mouth, and left. She called my grandpa crying, and he drove in a rage all the way from Tucscon back to Michigan in 36 hours, directly to the man’s house. When he answered the door, my grandpa confirmed that it was the right man, then punched him so hard that he went flying off the porch. My grandpa left him in the dirt and went home to his wife. My grandpa brandished his fist in the air, and my mother laughed. “He has plenty more stories like that,” she said. “You don’t disrespect dad’s.” My grandma laughed, too. “Oh, I’m not afraid of you,” she said. He winked and put his hand on her thigh. She looked at him and smiled.

Then my grandpa took another spoonful of the gnocchi. Then my grandma took another spoonful. I missed the handle of my coffee cup. The food hadn’t tasted all that great to me, but food never does when you cook it for yourself. I wanted the food to mean more than it possibly could; I wanted it to say hello, I love you, be well, be filled, goodbye, but not forever. Even as I filled up my dessert plate, I thought that it might not be about the food at all.

the plate

Jill Kolongowski is a freelance writer and editor living in San Francisco. When she’s not cooking, running, or reading, she blogs at Follow her on Twitter @jillkolongowski.

One Response to “Cigarettes and coffee: cooking for my grandparents, part 2”
  1. foodandwanderlust says:

    I don’t remember what type of gnocci you made… I assume just the regular kind. At Trader Joes they have a sweet potato gnocci that I have been meaning to try, it just sounds so good – perfect for a cold rainy day. -Lydia

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