This is not going to be one of those stories. You know, where I explain my love of cooking with misty memories of my mom and grandma in the kitchen. That’s not my family. I didn’t learn food in the kitchens of my childhood; I learned guilt and shame, like a good Catholic.
I. At seven, in my mother’s kitchen, I learned not to call my mom’s mother Grandma.
I was returning from backyard exile, flushed and sweaty from the July heat. I gave the woman a warm (and sweaty) hug. “Hi Grandma!”
She sucked air in through her teeth—a hiss like a snake, or the shocked sibilant of a vampire doused in holy water. “Grandma is for someone…” She paused. …warm? …inviting? …loving? She failed to finish her sentence, starting a new one instead. “You call me Grand Mother or nothing at all, you understand?”
I looked at my mom, wondering if it was too soon to retire to my bedroom with a book. Come to think of it, Mom looked like she could use a dose of Beverly Cleary, herself.
II. Every Thanksgiving I learned that, no matter what someone makes for you, you have to eat it.
Grand Mother’s signature dish—Jello salad—graced Mom’s table every year. It was neither Jello nor salad, but shredded carrots suspended in a sea of orange gelatinous goo. I retain only a whisper of memory when I was taught to suck it up and deal with how awful this food abomination was. I do recall, with startling detail, dutifully scooping orange jiggly carrots onto my plate and eating every bite.
III. At six or seven, I learned that you can do the wrong thing without even knowing it was wrong.
I was sitting at Grand Mother’s kitchen table, eating the sandwich she made me. She was standing several feet away when she bent over and looked under my chair to make sure that my Mary Janes did not touch the wooden spindles of her chair legs. Mary Janes have buckles, and buckles spell disaster for wooden chairs.
IV. At nine or ten, I learned that cheese makes you fat.
I stayed the night at Grand Mother’s house—an occasion that my mom forced on us both. Saturday morning, I sat in my pajamas at the kitchen table, slathering my bagel with cream cheese. Grand Mother watched me shrewdly. “You really like cream cheese, don’t you?” She drew out the word really until it was almost a song.
Later that morning, I dressed in my pale pink skirt set for the wedding we were attending. I emerged from the spare bedroom, nervous without knowing why. Grand Mother beckoned me over, turned me around. “You can certainly see where all the cream cheese is going, can’t you?”
V. At twelve, I learned to call things by their proper name.
It was Easter dinner at Grand Mother’s house. I had already learned the importance of being polite at the table; Grand Mother’s family had a lot of rules, like which direction to pass food and which fork to use to eat your salad. Of course there was a ritual for asking someone to pass you a dish.
Accordingly, I waited for an opening in the conversation before politely asking my cousin, “Laura, can you please pass the butter?”
“There’s no butter at this table,” snapped Grand Mother.
Terrified and confused, I looked to my mother. She smiled tenderly, sadly. “She means margarine,” Mom said, to me or to Grand Mother, I’m not sure.
“Well,” Grand Mother huffed. “Margarine and butter are not the same.”
I certainly knew the difference between the two, but in our house, you treated yourself to butter on a fucking holiday. Everyone understood my polite request, anyway, since the margarine was already en route when Grand Mother brought the snark.
If using the wrong fork or asking for the wrong spreadable fat was such bad form, how was it appropriate to make a twelve-year-old feel like shit at the dining table? Such was etiquette, in our family at least: a set of complicated rules wielded as power. Somehow, for Grand Mother, etiquette never extended to the good treatment of others. It only encompassed an invisible, ever-shifting set of rules she used to make everyone else feel inferior.
VI. At seventeen, I learned about rebellion and smarts.
I returned home, carrying the soda my brothers requested. Everyone was in the kitchen, setting the table. My quest had taken me to the grocery store in town; I hadn’t thought to check the newly constructed Walgreens on the corner.
Grand Mother, of course, had something to say. “Anyone with smarts would have checked Walgreens first.”
The woman passed out her insults with passive aggressive panache. It certainly wouldn’t bother her to call me stupid, but she never would do so in front of my family. Even if she did, probably nobody would do anything. It isn’t good etiquette to form a mob and hunt down your Grand Mother. With pitchforks. And shovels.
Good etiquette would have me tuck my tail apologetically and live a long, timid life without striving for greatness, in or out of the kitchen. But that’s not what I did.
I stood tall and looked her in the eyes. “What are you saying, Grand Mother, that I’m stupid?” Everyone in the room knew the complete opposite; she and I both knew she couldn’t say those direct words here.
For the first time, I had silenced my Grand Mother.
VII. Almost twenty years later, Thanksgivings in my home are full of friends and love.
Every dish is a tiny rebellion—brined turkey, gorgeous roasted vegetables, rolls made from scratch, and pies that make you give thanks.
We don’t serve judgment or Jello salad.
There is butter, made from goat’s milk. You just don’t have to ask for it by name.