April 2, 2010

Grandmother Food

It is Good Friday and my grandmother is imprinted on my brain. She can be heard deep down inside me saying “Not even a dog would eat meat on Good Friday.” That’s it. Do not pass “GO”, do not collect $200. Go straight to Hell, in fact, if you’re really bad, having eaten something like a cheeseburger with impunity, the ground beneath your feet will split open and the demons of Hell will drag you down screaming into the eternal bath of fire and brimstone. The gist of it being that there was probably no sin more grievous than eating meat on Good Friday. (In adulthood I would discover others.)

Blanche, my grandmother, was not alone in this thinking. As a child in kindergarten at the Convent of the Sacred Heart on Noroton Point, Mother White, a penguin shaped and garbed woman of uncertain age, reminded us that the THOUGHT of eating the hotdog on Good Friday was as bad a sin as the actual eating. So, if you think about it, you might as well do it, you’re going to Hell in a hand basket any way.

Strangely, this served as a valuable tool in my later life of sinning and transgressions. Telling myself, I was already condemned to Hell for thinking about whatever unnatural act came to mind, I might as well get the pleasure derived from same. I drew the line at most thoughts of violence but felt completely within my rights as an inherently impure person to therefore do basically whatever I wanted, assuming I could figure out a way to escape the inevitable parental punishment. I suspect this is the way a number of Godless rou├ęs start their career of mayhem. It certainly worked on some level for me. That is until it no longer did……..

Today, I find myself frequently saying to myself and others, that it doesn’t matter what’s going on up inside my head, as long as I don’t act on it. Whether it be plotting the demise of some Republican or Mormon or amusing myself with what so and so looks like bereft of clothing, as long as I don’t pull the trigger, or rip the shirt off, I am doing OK. This is because, while I can better filter my actions now that I am older and supposedly more mature, I don’t always have control of the three-ring circus that is inside my head. At any given time there are trapeze artists swinging from graphics of the Fibonacci Sequence while Charles Ive’s Lady in Pink is riding on the midnight train [whip slam bang we go sir, right on through the rain] knowing that her destination is the Minton factory in about 1875 when they are trying to determine which designs they are going to steal from Audley & Bowes. Images flashing here and there triggered by daily conversation, “Do I known Marc P” the conversant asks, the file cards flip inside my head reminding me that I went to school with his aunt and that we share a common interest in Caravaggio and Sushi; my response being yes, and none of the rest of that brain image comes out of my mouth. I probably appear ADHD but suspect I am simply just like everyone else..

But I digress. My grandmother was a wonderful woman whose Victorian Catholic upbringing resulted in a lifelong devotion to her church and family. Easter was frequently spent in Chevy Chase at 3 Grafton and I remember walking to mass at the Shrine of the Blessed Sacrament [BS to the cognoscenti- I didn’t know the other abbreviation tied to these letters until years later and wondered why everyone was talking about Blessed Sacrament.] being warned to watch for traffic on Connecticut Avenue as one wouldn’t want to be smashed flat on Easter Sunday. The fountain at the circle would have been dosed with soapsuds or purple dye and shoot up in festive colors which never ceased to amaze me. Like all kids, the more garish the color the better I liked it. Enduring the second longest service in the Catholic Canon, only Christmas being longer and more tedious, we went home to Easter dinner.

Excepting her remarkable ability to demonstrate unconditional love, it is in the kitchen that I remember my grandmother most fondly. Raised in a household that had a cook, she came to the chore only after she married the handsomest man in Virginia. This last comment being a true fact as she never ever lied, although she didn’t always let the facts get in the way of a good story. In spite of her slow start to the skill she was remarkably talented and today the highest compliment one can serve to me as a cook is that what I prepare is almost as good as – or tastes like- hers.

She was no Escoffier; she was a classic cook of the 30’s and 40’s so she turned out food that was ample, tasty and enduring. A few of her hits included crab cakes that were held together with a bit of mustard and prayer, there was no breadcrumbs and no other filler, baking powder biscuits that were light as clouds, lemon meringue pie with a pale white tender crust and bright yellow filling made in the double boiler, the purple can of home made cookies; molasses, chocolate hip, or “icebox” to which all the grandchildren made a bee-line when they entered her house. Cooking was a fully participatory thing for her, stirring the stew or gravy and tasting it with the spoon that then went back in the pan to add just that savory bit of saliva, aka “love” to the collation. It was all good because it was a part of her and she was good. Although long gone from earthly toil, she remains as alive to her children and grandchildren as if she was right now in the kitchen with the cat clock mixing up the cocoanut cake while her husband grated the fresh cocoanut. She remains alive in our hearts and memories.

It can be a wonderful thing to have memories, and the one’s we’d rather not remember, like the relationship between dogs and Good Friday may be a burden; but they are often overshadowed by thoughts warm and sunny Easter Days, laughter, love and grandmother food.