My grandfather was an armchair historian, 20th century America mostly – biographies of presidents, analysis of major events. The span of his life really. He was born in 1921 and lived several years beyond the turn of the 21st century. My grandmother wasn’t much of a reader, still isn’t. The daily paper, sure, and magazines, the sort concerned with homemaking. But tucked away low in a corner of the kitchen is a pair of shelves no more than waist high, lined with the handful of titles she prized. I say handful, but it must be thirty or forty. Their placement and arrangement are unassuming, but they’re well-loved volumes, cookbooks, their pages dog-eared, amendments to the recipes marked in pencil and occasionally ink. They aren’t collectible editions, nor are they concerned with rare or exotic cuisines. If anything they’re resolutely ordinary: titles by Amy Vanderbilt; Better Homes and Gardens; Southern Living. There are also a handful of curiosities, thin stacks of spiral bound pages, hardly more than pamphlets, filled with recipes by local people, the sort of thing churches and schools sell to raise money.
She cooked two or three meals a day for my grandfather for sixty years, some slapdash, some considered and inventive. What wonders she turned out, not just the large-scale showcases at holidays but her way with ordinary ingredients as well: purple-hulled peas from the garden, canned the season before and brought back to life on a cool evening, seasoned with a hambone or a dab of bacon grease, a thick wedge of cornbread on the side. Or wild blackberries, baked in a cobbler with just enough sugar to heighten their richness. Were there recipes for these dishes? She seemed never to consult one when cooking.
He was a difficult man, my grandfather, quick to anger and reluctant to admit he was wrong. He almost never cooked, apart from boiling a tin pot of coffee on the stovetop each morning, but he was usually ready with a critique when she served a meal. Simple moodiness may have been to blame, or the residue of some unresolved dispute. Or maybe he genuinely thought the flavor was off. He refused to admit his palate weakened with age, or that years of smoking might have dulled it. She must have found cooking for him a thankless job at times, given the imbalance between her effort and his appreciation, at least outwardly. Whatever she really felt, she laughed through the criticism and prepared the next meal, sometimes commenting that she’d followed his advice from a previous occasion. Of course he was charming when he wanted to be. I’m not doing him justice. I don’t doubt he praised her when they ate alone. He simply wasn’t an effusive man in company.
I often wondered how she stayed interested. What incentive did she have? Afternoons between lunch and dinner, she sat at the kitchen table with its plastic picnic cloth done up in checks and leafed through the books, slowly and gently, licking a fingertip now and then to turn a stubborn page. I didn’t realize what an act of love it was, of devotion, until after he was gone.
She’s begun to cook less after his death, and less carefully. There’s a knack to meals for one, and none of the reward she found in his company. Now it’s spaghetti sauce from a can, or boiled hot dogs. Bologna sandwiches with a side of coleslaw, bought pre-made in a tub from the grocery store. For years she made her own slaw, gave it an irresistible crunch and tang, a flavor my sister loved and could never quite duplicate.
I’ve moved away and see my grandmother less than before, less than I should. I can’t seem to find restaurants that cook the way she does, and she delights in asking how the food is “up there,” so I call and ask why her biscuits have that texture I can never seem to get right, or what to do to give blackberries the round flavor hers always have. Her advice is sometimes cryptic – add buttermilk to the biscuit dough until the texture is just right – and sometimes practical – let the berries sit in a little vinegar before to draw out their flavor before baking them. And she talks of my grandfather, what he liked, how he wanted her to prepare certain dishes. Her tone isn’t reverent – she knew his flaws better than anyone – but it’s undeniably fond after those many years. There’s the clear sense he’s missed.
Does she still turn to her bookshelf in idle moments? I’m sure she does, if not to hunt down an idea for dinner, then to find something of the man she cooked for, there in the margins.
– John McIntyre
All original content copyright John McIntyre, 2013.