Grandma was no cook; come to think of it, she wasn't much of an eater, either. Instead of cooking she did many other things: entertained the troops (but which ones?) as a child in China, drank bathtub gin in Berkeley in the 1920s, lived in depression-era Carmel trying to make it as an artist, moved back to the land in the 1940s (when everyone else was moving away from the land), taught primary school, raised 4 sons, went back to college in her 50's; visited every continent but Antarctica; and studied Chinese after retirement.
Grandma and her brother, entertaining some troops, China, 191?
Oddly, I often think of the food I ate with Grandma, though no one has fond memories of her cooking. It's because of the trip to Oklahoma...
Grandma took my older brother and sister to Welch, Oklahoma for Thanksgiving when I was about 7. After their return, they tortured me with their stories of the pies my great-grandmother, Mattie (Grandma's mother-in-law), made, and the sheer quantities of food turned out of her kitchen. I wondered when I'd get my chance to sit in Mattie's kitchen.
Finally, one sunny October morning when I was 9, Grandma picked me up in her blue Mustang, and we drove to Oklahoma. It was the first time I was away from my family. Grandma was not the kind of grandmother who enveloped you in hugs, or gave you chocolate bars to cheer you up. So I looked out my car window, trying to hide my homesickness, while Grandma looked straight ahead, Pall-Mall cigarette dangling from her mouth, rarely talking.
View Grandma and Mattie and Pie (or not) in a larger map
Our trip to Oklahoma, Grandma's birthplace (pink marker), trips (yellow markers, red line), Mattie's trek in greenBut I missed home, especially that first night, in Needles, California. We ate at a Denny's, and I naively picked the Chicken Blanquette. It seems unlikely, now, that Denny's had something with a French name, but that's how I remember it. The photo on the menu (a shiny, laminated affair) showed a piece of chicken with gravy. What was brought to me was a chicken shaped lump encased in pale viscous matter.I picked at it, moving it back and forth, hoping it would disappear.
The reward came with the dinnertime conversation. Grandma told me about her last trip through Needles, when she’d traveled with her sister. “It was at least 110 degrees when we came through. After we checked into our motel I stripped off all my clothes and lay down on the bed under the fan. Barbara was pretty mad. She sat there in her clothes, fuming. I didn’t care – I was comfortable.” She chuckled a bit, remembering her proper, but sweating, sister. Apparently Grandma was not as uptight as I'd imagined.
Grandma (uncharacteritically) eating shish kebabs on the Steppes of USSR with her more proper sister, BarbaraThat disappointing first dinner on the road turned out to be but one in a string of cruel food twists. Every meal was similarily bad--from the hamburger patties at the diner in Shamrock, Texas to, sadly, dinner with Mattie.
Mattie's husband had died since my siblings' visit, and her widowed daughter-in-law now lived with her. Her kitchen no longer turned out daily pies and massive amounts of farm food. Instead, Mattie popped biscuits out of a can to bake, and we ate dinner on TV trays in the darkened living room.
But between meals, I often sat on a porch swing next to my great-grandmother, listening to her stories about riding in a covered wagon from Indiana to Oklahoma when she was a little girl. To a 9-year-old Laura Ingalls Wilder worshipper from Berkeley, California, this was more exotic than even Denny's chicken blanquette. It was the most wonderful thing I'd ever done.
The bad meals on that trip are bookmarks now, as if the sheer disappointment of the food made me focus that much more on the stories I heard in Oklahoma. As if the blanquette on the chicken was completely wrapped up with the blankets Grandma had kicked aside in that hot motel room. As if the biscuits that fell from a can onto the baking sheet were reminders of covered wagons like the one that carried Mattie into Oklahoma.
Soon after our return, we probably had Thanksgiving dinner at Grandma's; we often did in those years. We surely had roast turkey and mashed potatoes; I mainly remember the smell of over-cooked vegetables, green beans, I think. My father sometimes joked about the way she cooked vegetables: Put them in a pot, fill pot (to the brim) with water, cook until burned.
But there is one happy food memory: Grandma always made mincemeat pie, and I loved it. Maybe after the rest of the dinner, the mincemeat, with its liquored dried fruits and hard sauce was a shot of good flavor. Or maybe the mincemeat (which was surely out of a 'nonesuch' jar) had been doctored with enough liquor to mask any bad flavors. Either way--it was my favorite. And is to this day.
I still wonder why we had Thanksgiving at Grandma's house as often as we did. Since she didn't even like to cook, why didn't she come to our house? Was it because we split the holidays between the two sides of the families? Or did my parents, food-conscious though they were, realize that family trumps all? Or did they just have a sense of humor, and realize that the best stories need a little vinegar--or a touch of Grandma's bad cooking.
Grandma with my father or his brother (1935 or 1940)