This post is part of #Scintilla, a fortnight of storytelling. I am responding to the following prompt (from Wednesday): Many of our fondest memories are associated with food. Describe a memorable experience that took place while preparing or eating food.
My great grandmother, affectionately known as Granny Jones, was an amazing woman. She held a variety of jobs before I came along like welding in the shipyards, selling shoes, nursing. She was also an excellent seamstress and made many of my favorite childhood outfits. When I was 18 I asked her to make me a quilt; it's one of my most treasured possessions.
I spent a lot of time in the summers in her small house that always held such great mysteries for me. I played with her dress scraps and beads for hours while she sewed, or watched her "stories" or read. I still have affinity for game shows because we watched them together, especially The Price is Right. I remember the smells of her house, how something was always on the stove: okra, black-eyed peas, and cabbage, which I hated the smell of and wondered how anyone could ever eat it. I never thought of her as a cook because my other great-grandmother was a baker who made pies and cookies and cakes.
I remember one time I said, "No, Granny you're the dressmaker and Granny O is the baker." As if you could only be one or the other. But Granny Jones cooked because she always had and even though she only cooked for herself most days, she enjoyed the process, at least most of the time.
"Sometimes, I just have a cheese and tomato sandwich and go to sleep," she told me when I asked for a sandwich for dinner. "And sometimes, I just eat toast with melted cheese."
"So does Gran" I responded. It was one of my favorite things about being at my grandmother's: cheese toast and also, chili dogs. I blame her, actually, for my love of cheese because she used to slice cheese with this heavy-duty slicer and somehow it tasted so much better than just cut with a knife. My brother and I would place the rectangles of cheese on bread and watch it brown and melt in the toaster oven, anticipating the gooey yumminess and the way it would string from our mouth to the toast. To this day, I love cheese toast, which is completely different than grilled cheese, for the record.
I was in college, living with Granny and my grandmother and decided one bored Saturday that I wanted to learn to make Granny's famous (in our family) chicken and dumplings because she only made them for big family get togethers.
"Granny, show me how to make your dumplings," I said, offering a quiet "please."
"Okay, but you'll have to do most of the work," she agreed. Her breathing was particularly bad then and she had to increase her breathing treatments to get through the day.
We worked together, her guiding each step and me, concentrating on getting it right.
I had never deboned a chicken before that day.
Granny laughed when she saw the look on my face as I separated meat from bone.
Then she whispered, "The next part is a secret."
"This is my secret," she said more loudly though no one was in the kitchen to hear us. "I don't make my own dumplings anymore. Haven't for years," she confided, mischief in her throat.
My hands are full of chicken but I stop and turn to face her. "Okay," I say unsure why that is a secret.
"You can't tell anyone," she presses me.
"Okay," I say.
She gets out packages of tortillas from the refrigerator. I wash my hands finally free of the chicken.
"Really?" I ask when I see her using a pizza cutter to slice the tortillas.
"See." she says simply.
I learned more from her that day than her dumpling recipe. I learned that cooking was about feeling, that pinches and dashes were terms that try to make tangible the way you work off recipe. I learned you can't taste dumplings or soup or a roux as it cooks because it will taste different hours later and the next day.
"It's like life," Granny says. "Disastrous one moment and perfect the next. You just have to wait it out. And sometimes you make mistakes and have to start over and sometimes no one knows but other times everyone does."
Last night I tried a new recipe and it didn't turn out like I hoped. I was too imprecise with measurements and accidentally broiled instead of baked and things burned. And I thought about Granny as I ate what I could and threw out what I couldn't save.
I wish I could tell her that I know what she meant about cooking and life. I wish I could tell her how many times I've made dumplings to rave reviews and how once I made them into a kind of noodle soup because I cut the tortillas too thin. Everyone loved it anyway. I wish I could say thank you for all I learned from her not just about cooking but about kindness and bravery and toughness. How to tell a story, how to appreciate laughter, and silliness and a good punch line. She raised my Grandmother who continues to teach me about courage and grace and every single time I cook, I think of them both, of the kitchen we shared and how they rescued me even when I did not realize it was happening.
But I see it now and am grateful every day to both of them and the time I spent with them together in that house on Wilkins Road that will always be where I grew roots and wings.