Wednesday, November 25, 2009

courage in the kitchen

Yesterday morning I accidentally made oatmeal just the way my grandmother, my father's mother, who we called "Mamie", made it. We were packing for our trip to Ohio, trying to get Dora to behave, talking about what we needed to do, and the oatmeal was boiling on the stove. The water had almost completely boiled away, leaving only partially cooked oats in the pan. For a moment I thought about just throwing it away, but then I thought about Julia Child and decided to try to salvage the oats. I added more water, cooked them for another 5 minutes, and they came out just like Mamie's oats - one single, gelatinous mass that stays independent of milk. It may sound unpleasant, but I have always loved my oatmeal like that and have never been able to replicate it.

As a child I was always very fascinated by my grandmother, who seemed so independent and worldly. My grandfather, who we all called Fod although his real name was Karl, died when I was just six months old. There is one photograph of him holding me as a baby, but my only memories of him come from stories told to me by my family. Fod was very revered by everyone, and the whole family, including my mother, made it a point to tell a lot of stories about Fod, painting a real image of him for me that I still cherish.

My grandmother traveled a lot, went to the symphony, and maintained her independence even very late in her life. She was always dressed impeccably, wearing a sweater or suit coat, skirt, pantyhose, and high heels even at home. She wore spectator pumps. She had a dressing table in her bedroom holding all of her makeup, perfume, and hairpins. The dressing table was white with gold trim, the chair at the table had a gold cushion. To a tomboy from southeastern Ohio, that dressing table seemed like something from Hollywood. She was the first person I ever knew who had a dishwasher - a giant old box that she pulled out from the wall and connected to her sink with a hose that seemed to wash the dishes by shaking them vigorously.

Although I loved her oatmeal, I was not always a huge fan of Mamie's cooking. For every holiday meal she made tomato aspic, which seemed to me like the condensed, jelly-like chunks of tomato soup on the lid of a tomato soup can. One of her famous meals later in life was hamloaf, which we joked was "the dreaded hamwort" from the Kliban cartoons, a favorite in my family. Still, I would lie awake in my bedroom at Mamie's house in the early morning, listening for any sound of her in the kitchen. As soon as I heard her puttering around, chatting with her cats, I would walk into the kitchen in my pajamas to talk to her and watch her make breakfast. Maybe it was because of her inquisitive, talkative granddaughter that Mamie always overcooked her oatmeal, making it into that perfect, chewy glob that I loved.

My dad and Mary Kay got me a 3-disc set of episodes of Julia Child's "The French Chef" for my birthday. I don't know all that much about Julia Child, except what I've read in my very dog-eared copy of "Mastering the Art of French Cooking", and a few things I've read from other media as a result of the recent movie about her. I haven't seen the movie yet, although many people have told me to see it. I vaguely remember seeing her shows as a kid, probably with my mom, but that's about the extent of my memory of her.

The other night I watched the first episode in the set, "The Potato Show". This was perfect for me, with Thanksgiving this week and a seriously large collection of potatoes waiting in my kitchen. The show is black and white and appears to have little in the way of editing. Things happen that would be edited out of today's cooking shows - Julia exclaims that all the burners are making her sweaty, and she wipes her entire face, neck, and chest with a paper towel. At one point, she is making a mashed potato pancake. She tries to flip it, saying it just takes courage and conviction to do so. She jerks the pan swiftly, and the mashed potato cake comes apart in the air, half of it landing on the stove. Oh well, she says, no one's in the kitchen to see it - just put it together and no one will know. Add a little cheese, a little more butter, finish it in the oven and it will be fine. In a modern cooking show, they would have edited that out - but it was probably the best lesson in the show. Even when what you make seems to be a failure, if you've got the courage and conviction to keep going, it might just turn out delicious. Later in the show, she makes a grated potato pancake and proclaims that this time, "by gum", she will flip it. She does so with even more determination, and it flips over perfectly. See, she says, you've just got to do that with conviction and it works just fine.

I always viewed my grandmother as a courageous woman, traveling the world in her thirty years as a widow when it might have felt safer or easier to stay home. She taught me that you always dress up for a holiday, that music and art are almost as important as a good glass of sherry, that fireworks are an absolute requirement at the 4th of July, even if they're illegal. She taught me that you can usually get away with speeding if you don't outpace the tractor-trailers, who use radar detectors. Perhaps she also taught me how to make oatmeal, letting a bit of distraction and disorder in the kitchen lead to results I've always wanted, but never had the courage to discover until now.

1 comment:

  1. This is the perfect Thanksgiving post. The joys of a one car household are innumerable! Happy Thanksgiving.