The last of my four grandparents died recently (may she rest in peace) so I’ve been thinking a lot about their legacies and my memories of them – My Nantucket grandparents’ work ethic and inspiring generosity, my Florida grandmother’s poise and fierce pride in her children and grandchildren. I’ve thought so much about their fine characters and their strength through the many adversities that life can throw at a person who lives, blessedly, into very old age. And it has occurred to me that many of my memories and connections to them involve food! (I suppose I should not be so surprised… I’m about as food-obsessed as they come.)
As a child, a beloved ritual was breakfast with my Grandpa Milton, often taken in the middle of the day because his sleep pattern was so disrupted by his narcolepsy. Each day the same: hard salami and sharp cheddar cheese, sliced paper thin with a very sharp knife, placed on a slice of seedless rye with spicy mustard. And as if that didn’t smell enough, he usually put sliced raw onion on top! He’d sit and methodically build his breakfast sandwich and dole out thin slices of cheese to any grandchild who walked into the kitchen. The smell of raw onion and mustard will never cease to conjure the image of him in my mind.
Grandma Zelda, a restaurateur and the author of a cookbook of her restaurant’s recipes, provides so many food-based connections for me. I can picture her cluttered bookshelves FULL of cookbooks, many of which I have been lucky enough to inherit for my own collection. Her dinners of fresh fish coated in buttery bread crumbs. Her passion for garlic. And best of all, her “Tipsy Pudding”, bread pudding made with whiskey and topped with vanilla ice cream. (I wonder if my early tastes of Tipsy Pudding contributed to my love of whiskey to this day!)
My memories of my Bobu (based on the Yiddish word for Grandma, Bubbe), who passed last week at the accomplished age of 97, are not as rooted in food, but even so, there are kitchen connections that bind us. She was the daughter of a baker and told me many wonderful stories about her father, whom she clearly loved so deeply, and she spoke of the pleasures (and challenges: the waistline!) of having fresh bread made by him. Each time I bake with my kids I imagine those baker genes pulsing through each of us, connecting us with the past and with our family heritage.
I wonder what my own children will recall about their grandparents and of me and if any of it will come to them in the form of food memories. Will they think about my mom’s made-to-order muffins, brought each time she visits? Their other grandmother’s “Orange Stuff”, served at Thanksgiving? Or the “Blizzard Cookies” that I bake each time there’s a big snow storm? Maybe the Farfel Kugel that my husband loves at Passover, or his famous “kuchen”, made each summer when peaches are fresh. I hope that they remember being in the kitchen with me, standing on the stepstool by the counter, helping me measure ingredients and sneaking tastes when I’m not looking. I hope the flavors and aromas of their childhood stay with them and help to shape their sense of family and tradition, as these kinds of memories have formed my own.