Friday, May 6, 2011

Joy of Cooking's Fairy Grandmother

But-but-but-this one Goes To 11!


It would match the new kitchen colours.

AND, I could send away for the snazzy glass measuring bowl.

So what if I have one. In beautiful Ice Blue. That I’ve had for ten years, since GingerMan and I vowed to take each other as-is; to yell and throw china before breaking out the light sabers for a duel to the death.

The one my grandmother gave me.

Of all the things and people in the world that symbolise how my life has finally, albeit slowly and stealthily gained stability, it is she:


Naomi LaFrance Wirt; 28 February 1915- 26 July 2010.

I have vast, gaping holes where it seems so many other people have Mothers and Families. Maudlin, complicated stories requiring advanced descriptors and titles. Middle Kid, lived alone with Dad, was acquired by mid-season change-up pitcher from the Maternal Bullpen. My parents traveled quite frequently out of the country so I often lived with my new grand parents. They took me Trick-Or-Treating (they had a superb neighbourhood), inspected my homework (grandpa taught at Stanford and worked for the school district) and generally ran my life with utterly strict order that held me together amid the whip-lashing chaos.

They also cooked. They held bridge parties. We would pull recipes from the file for cheese puff balls, strange sandwiches, odd dips for crackers and spreads on pumpernickel toast points, and cookies. They cooked odd stuff that in the early 80’s was still kinda normal, like tongue and sweatbreads. Every Summer, they made bread-and-butter pickles.

OOOOhhhhhh, the cookies. Mexican Wedding Cakes, and some anise seed ones, which I’ve found a few names for, but honestly couldn’t pinpoint for you by title. But I can close my eyes and breathe in slooooowly through my nose, the olfactory centre of my heart still catching the last, sweet, high note of anise while my lips curl so far up, the corners of my mouth must look like strawberry swirls. My drooley-centre is butter-memory-activated and I quickly resemble one of Pavlov’s happy puppies.

Oh, except for the Tongue part. The sweetbreads were great. They are the thymus gland of an animal, and when prepared correctly, say, as picatta, they are a delightfully soft, creamy textured meat. As for Tongue, as an adult living in the Bay Area of Northern California, I have the huge privilege to live within 10 minutes of at least 5 stellar taquerias, most of which serve tongue. Done right, it is also an extremely tender, beefy, tasty, lean, tasty, yummy meat. It needs the right prep and a bit of time in the pressure cooker. Grandma boiled it and cut it into thick slices, made a sammich, stuck it in my Care Bears lunchbox and sent me to 5th grade one sunny day.

I open my Care Bears lunchbox that sunny day, pull out my sammich and discover a thick slab of something gray and hard with skin ready to taste me back. It took me another 25 years to try the Tongue Trick again. Considering how many hispanic experts are willing to take your money to feed you perfectly cooked beef tongue in a fresh corn soft taco with a bit of onion and cilantro, disregard that previous statement immediately, high-tail it to your local purveyor and try it today.

Oh! OHOH! But THEN!!! THEN there were the PICKLES!! We went to The Corn Palace farm stand, right off of Lawrence Expressway and bought a huge honkin’ flat o’ tiny cucumbers. We took ‘em home and made pickles. NOT just any pickles, but Grandma and Grandpa’s Bread and Butter Pickles. For the uninitiated, B&B’s are a sweet-and-sour pickle, usually sliced radially and packed in the jar with some of the mustard seed and onion it is pickled with. In the shops, they are hideously sweet, cut three times too thick, crinkle-cut, and only have a few mustard seeds, and so are completely missing the savoury subtlety of the onion. BAH! BOOO!

Then again, I was spoiled early by The Masters.

When she died last summer, It shook me to my foundation. But I found I have a foundation, for the first time in my life. Instead of moving around, cutting ties, losing everything every couple of years, I’ve had friends, doctors, a dentist for 10 years. An optometrist who emails me my retinal photos every year--I’m close to enough for a collage art installment! A Husband and Partner-In-Crime for 10 years that Grandma found so utterly charming she would look a bit disappointed if I showed up without him.

Grandma was Ninety-Five and One Half, so we had a lot of time for I Love You. A lot of time for “When I was a girl my mother...” And yet, I was so completely unprepared for the deeply cutting grief I still feel at losing her nearly a year later. When I see those heathen jars of pickles in the grocery store, I remember so clearly the summer days of canning, the party nights of dresses and pretty aprons, of standing in the kitchen with my Grandmother, the bearer of Order, Stability, Normality.

As the house filled with guests for the memorial, I remembered the conversation we had in which Grandma said she didn’t want any fuss made over a funeral and I said I was gonna have a party in the back yard with food, loud music, people and cake. Perhaps a bagpipe player like we had at my wedding. Maybe an after-party with a male dancer. She made a vexed two-year-old face and said “But I won’t get any cake!” So I went home right that very minute, made a chocolate cake and went back that night and gave her cake for dessert.

I have been lax in posting this week as I have been filled with ambivalence and anxiety over Mother’s Day. It’s a minefield for me. I honour all of you, my friends, the sisters of my heart, those of us who have chosen each other as family. You are wonderful mothers and I am so tickled that some lucky little spuds get such cool people to love and mould them. But as the day has approached, I have been...somewhere between “Meh” and “Trepidation”.

So I choose to honour my grandmother, Naomi. You were elegant and mid-century and taught me etiquette. Every time I burp at home and GingerMan rates me on the Richter Scale I hear you gasping. You were so often so unsure of yourself and suffered so much loss. But you also flung yourself into the world and grabbed every last opportunity to see, smell and taste it. Then you came back and gave it to me. All those extra copies of JoC I’ve passed on to budding Kitchen Jedi’s came from you. Every day I open my jar of anise seed and think of you, and I am filled with the Joy of Cooking.

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