I always called her Grandma. Never Granny or Nana or any other repeated syllable. She was just Grandma, plain and simple. I loved going to Grandma’s house. She was the best. She’d serve me 7up in a wine glass and let me prance around in her high heeled shoes. She smelled like Aquanet and Certs and Revlon lipstick. She had curly, short, thin blonde hair and wore shiny track suits in bright colors. I liked to touch them because they felt silky.
I’d go to Grandma’s house for the whole day if I was sick. She’d let me watch as much Sesame Street as I wanted. She also let me dip my finger in the sugar bowl. And she made me the dish which elicits more warm and fuzzy feelings than any other food that I ever have or ever will eat.
She was known for her skills in the kitchen. She was the mother of three boys and my mother, the wife of a hard-working doctor, and worked part-time in his doctors’ office, too. Yet somehow she always got the standard 1950’s meal of meat, potatoes, and vegetable on the table every...single....night.
Yet I don’t remember her famous pot roast. I don’t actually remember ever having a proper meal at Grandma’s house. What I remember is Saltine Crackers with Butter.
Oh, Saltine Crackers with Butter. Crispy, salty, flaky crackers topped with a good schmear of soft Wisconsin butter. Boy, that was love on a plate. I’d eat my crackers with butter and we’d play cooties on the card table. All we needed was a couple dice, a pad of paper, and a pencil. I think she let me win. And I knew she loved me as much as a person could.
As an adult, I once wondered to myself why, if she was such a good cook, would she make me crackers with butter? Couldn’t she have whipped me up a nice homemade hummus with crudite or a little homemade granola? No, I realized. She couldn’t. She had had a grand mal seizure when I was four which left her with little dexterity. The only thing that meant to me at that age was that there was silly putty to play with in the little red plastic egg on the kitchen counter. She made for me what she could, and somehow I knew it was special.
It makes me wonder if my cooking as of late has been a little bit too much about pomp and show, eliciting ooh’s and ah’s as I bring out the hand-cranked pasta or homemade Valrhona chocolate souffles. I’m still at the age where my contemporaries are not really into cooking so I am often called the ‘Martha Stewart’ among my group of friends. Hey, I admit to really enjoying that reputation. Honestly, I think that in and of itself, it’s not bad. I like to cook. I’m pretty good at it and I like to be recognized for it. But I think what would really please Grandma is if I presented each dish as a gift. A gift of time, a gift of effort, a gift of love from me to my guests. Epicurus said, “We should look for someone to eat and drink with before looking for something to eat and drink.” After all, why cook for people at all? Surely, they can get enough sustenance, enough fuel to make it till their next meal without any effort on my part. The point is not to fill bellies. The point is not to show off some fancy sauce I learned in cooking school. The point is to show people that I love them.
Some people’s favorite food memories are their Grandpa’s famous homemade sausages or their mother’s grand Sunday feasts of succulent roast chickens and fresh biscuits. I’d hear these stories and sometimes be envious of those amazing dining experiences they had growing up. But now, I don’t think I’d trade those Saltines with Butter for the world.
Hey, maybe I’ll serve them as an appetizer at my next dinner party. And I hope that Grandma, wherever she is, will see that and know that she touched my heart with that snack at the card table in her kitchen.