Friday, August 10, 2012

Neither grandmother could cook -- but nostalgia for their kitchens strikes anyway

Earlier this summer, the Boston Globe Magazine ran a piece in which a middle-aged writer reminisced about her grandmother's cooking.

At first I skimmed right past the essay. Sentimental pieces about someone's grandmother's cooking never resonate much with me. One of my grandmothers resisted cooking at all costs – and “costs” may indeed be the right word, since instead of cooking she employed kitchen staff and had a storeroom full of designer canned goods for when the staff had a night off – and the other grandmother seemed to like cooking just fine but never noticed how utterly dismal her results were.

So when I hear anyone waxing nostalgic over grandmotherly recipes or cooking techniques or kitchen aromas, I usually just pause for a moment of gratitude that as sorry as I may be that my grandmothers are no longer on this earth, at least I don't have to eat anything they've prepared anymore.

But once in a while, some long-lost sensory memory makes me think maybe I'm being a little short-sighted in my dismissiveness. Although there are no recipes from my grandmothers that I crave – in fact there are none I've even kept copies of – when I try, I can come up with a few specialties of theirs that I miss.

My father's mother used to make coconut squares – treacly and heavy, but memorable – and noodle dishes and scalloped potatoes and brownies studded with mint chocolate chips. Just writing the list reminds me of how I always left their house after a family dinner feeling moderately nauseated, but as an adult with a broader awareness of nutrition, I can see why: that's how anyone would feel after a meal of noodles, potatoes, fatty meat and baked goods.

My other grandmother sometimes made tuna salad, not so much as a way of fussing over her grandchildren but to entertain the tennis-playing luncheon guests she hosted throughout the summer months. My sisters and I still sometimes giggle over her famous saying, “Make tuna salad only if the guests are all ladies. Men do not like salad.” This was the late 1970s, and most of the messages imparted to us about the genders involved very politically correct insistence that there was no difference whatsoever between them, so we found it endlessly amusing that she worried about serving tuna salad to men, though now I have to admit that she was basically right.

Still, as much as I might eschew their culinary talents, the smell of black coffee is what reminds me most of both grandmothers' kitchens. When I turn the coffee maker on in the morning, I can see my maternal grandmother in her bathrobe, toasting rye bread and spreading it with jam before pouring coffee into a pretty china cup. And the same smell reminds me of my paternal grandparents' lakeside vacation home, where coming from the guest house to the main house for breakfast was a much-anticipated and proudly executed act of burgeoning independence for a child of four or five.

So unlike the essayist and the many letter writers who have responded since the piece ran, I don't miss either grandmother's cooking. But that's not to say I never miss my grandmothers. I remember them drinking coffee, and cooking badly or not at all, and it reminds me that there are all different kinds of ways to feel nostalgia.

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