Here’s Why the World Owes Me a Living, Part One

13 Feb

Here’s why the world owes me a living: neither of my grandmothers could cook for shit.


Actually, it is possible that my maternal grandmother may have been a good cook, before I met her. I really wouldn’t know. In my lifetime, nearly all of her meals were frozen fare, either boil-in-the-bag pasta or some gelatinous TV dinner heated in the oven. Though she watched me every day after school until I was thirteen, when she passed away, she never made anything for me beyond a grilled ham and cheese sandwich, recipe was as follows:

INGREDIENTS
Two slices Wonder® white bread
Three slices Oscar Mayer® ham
Two slices Oscar Mayer® American cheese

DIRECTIONS
Create sandwich from ingredients. Heat in oven until cheese has nearly evaporated and ham no longer glistens. Fish out of the oven and serve on an unfolded napkin. Serves one. Do not cut the sandwich before serving, or the ham slices will slide against each other and damage the meal’s integrity.


Just because my grandma didn’t cook for me, doesn’t mean there wasn’t food in her house. Many of my lifelong eating habits were learned while watching Inspector Gadget in my grandmother’s smoke-filled living room. At all times, she had a bag of Lay’s potato chips and a two-liter bottle of Pepsi that she kept on hand specifically for my brother’s and my consumption. I would also receive a daily ration of one “fresh” Kit-Kat candy bar, kept in the refrigerator to maintain maximum freshness (which had the side benefit of making it hard enough to eat each chocolate-covered wafer like a miniature corn on the cob), and sometimes I’d get a special treat: a Hershey’s ice cream pie with chocolate sauce and a tablespoon of strawberry preserves in the middle. I’d eat about two thousand calories in my grandmother’s living room before my parents got home and made dinner. This was in the 1980s, when many people thought diabetes was a sissy disease for people that couldn’t handle their corn syrup. While my maternal grandmother, to my memory, never cooked anything worthwhile, she never really tried, and her house was well-stocked with plenty of kid-friendly food (read: sugar) so I could at least learn the American tradition of equating food with love. My paternal grandmother, on the other hand, really couldn’t cook worth a damn.


I have heard tale told of her poor culinary skills for years: meatballs she would make in a pressure cooker, rendering them into little grey hi-bounce balls. Pot roast cooked to the consistency and taste of leather. Being that I wasn’t raised by my grandmother, I didn’t have many opportunities to sample her victual creations. My brother and I would stay over her house every year on New Year’s Eve, and presumably she fed us, but I can’t recall one dish she prepared while I was in her presence. That doesn’t speak well for her cooking. I do remember that my grandparents’ house was always well-stocked with bruised, gently rotting fruit that perfumed the air with the scent of a zoo. And my grandmother had an old adding machine from the 1950s that I liked to play with a lot, but I couldn’t eat that.


My personal memory of my paternal grandmother’s cooking is limited mainly to two dishes: a Yiddish pastry called rugelach, and a baked casserole called kugel. Rugelach is a simple little dessert, consisting of cookie dough shaped into a crescent and baked with a dollop of jam inside. Every time I heard that my grandparents were coming by for a holiday or some other event, I dreaded the hard, flavorless rugelach cookies that my grandma would bring in a blue cookie tin lined with wax paper. That they were cookies–a pleasant dessert, even–was something their recipients would need to be told, because there was nothing sweet or palatable about my grandma’s rugelach. The bottoms were always burnt and the treat had the consistency and taste of a dog biscuit. I would eat one, for reasons I can’t now discern, by gingerly nibbling away at the ends of the cookie until I reached the center, where a smear of jam had been begrudgingly tucked into the pastry’s folds. Over time, this quantity of jam decreased and decreased until it could only be detected by an electron microscope. It wasn’t until I was an adult and had the opportunity to eat rugelach from a bakery that I discovered it was actually supposed to be sweet and edible. I thought “rugelach” was a Yiddish word for “flavorless tooth-breaking cookie of sadness.


The tale of my grandmother’s kugel is more about her unyielding bitterness than her lack of culinary talents, because in fact her sweet potato kugel was good. Very good. Good enough that I anticipated it when she brought it over for Passover dinner every year. I remember there were sweet potatoes and raisins in it. Unfortunately I can’t remember any of the other ingredients, which is a damn shame because the recipe seems to have been lost to the world, buried along with my grandmother. Her sweet potato kugel stood out like a sore thumb against the tapestry of other dishes my grandma prepared, poorly. As a teenager, I relayed as much to my grandmother, and asked why she only made sweet potato kugel once a year. “Well, then it’s special,” she replied flatly, as if to confirm my suspicion that the other food she made was, indeed, a punishment for some untold transgression. “Well, grandma,” I replied sweetly, “I love your sweet potato kugel. I look forward to it every year. Feel free to bring it by any time, whether it’s in the Spring or not!”

And she never made sweet potato kugel again for the rest of her life.


This is why the world owes me a living, or at least one of the reasons. I have heard of grandmas whipping up sticky cakes and delicious cookies by the gross before their grandchildren awoke. All manner of matronly, loving ladies with names like “bubbie” and “nana” and “gramma,” all perpetually wrapped in aprons and permanently wielding wooden spoons that continually stirred giant pots of secret, delectable meals whose crafting had been mastered a dozen presidential terms ago. People bolstered by these lovingly-prepared meals have gone on to become happy, productive members of society, secure in the knowledge that there is some good in the world, because they know their grandmothers made the best gosh darn snickerdoodles. Me, I had to eat warm ham sandwiches and homemade dog biscuits. Frankly, I think I should be commended for not becoming a serial killer.

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