I clamber onto her bed, where she is eating breakfast on a tray. It is close to noon, soon to be time for my lunch. I nibble on her bacon and spoon golden bubbles out of her Medaglia D’Oro coffee. Her hair, usually wound tight into a chignon, falls loose and grey over her dressing gown. Bacon and coffee and the smell of her intermingle until I am drowsy with bliss.
My grandmother, like Julia Child, took a course at the Cordon Bleu. She learned the art of French cooking: milkfat. And we — my mother, my brother, and I — were the beneficiaries of her training. I was raised on choucroutes and cassoulets, soufflés and cheese puffs, spanakopita and sesame beef crepes, liver and tongue. My brother and I learned to tiptoe past the oven while the cheese soufflé was baking, or else the soufflé might fall. Catastrophe! (To us a fallen soufflé was not much different from its puffed up brother. But we would not have wished to disappoint someone who offered us, time and again, gastronomic bounty. So we whispered and crept, and the soufflé was glorious, regal and tall.)
Later I helped my grandmother in the kitchen. I added a hint of cinnamon, a dash of salt, a teaspoon of vanilla. The shock of sneaking a drop of vanilla onto my tongue, only to find it bitter and heavy. But then: Imagine, Sarah, she smiled, How vanilla tastes once it is cooked. Cooking, it’s a kind of magic, isn’t it?
Rapt, I nodded. The awful taste of the vanilla did not linger.
When my second son was a baby, he’d purr at the taste of food. We found it so amusing that we’d feed him goodies just to hear the incongruously deep thrum of contentment rise up from a compact little thing who couldn’t yet walk, who hadn’t yet grown one hair on his round, perfect head.
“Maybe he’ll be a chef,” I marveled. My husband narrowed his eyes. “Maybe,” he pronounced darkly, “he’ll eat too much.”
My grandmother and my lastborn child did not overlap. She did not lay eyes on this boy who enjoys his food so much. I mourn, sometimes, for him, that he will never be able to burrow into his great-grandmother’s bed and sample from her breakfast. Never know her, never know her food, never scoop up the golden bubbles in her coffee and taste richness and complexity, a hint of adulthood right there in the Medaglia D’Oro.
written in 2009 for Babette, whom I miss every day, but especially at the holidays