This week, after 88 incredible years of living, my grandma left us. Of course, there is always sadness when you lose someone you love. But, through the tears, there are memories of a life well-lived. I could write anthologies about the person my grandma was. She was gentle and kind. She never raised her voice. Not even when I was a holy terror. She even welcomed me into her home when I moved back to St. Louis at 7 years old.
When you raise 8 children (and a bonus grandchild) there has to be a rhythm. A routine. And boy did Grandma have one. She had her entire cleaning schedule laid out. Her knees were flattened from scrubbing vinyl and tile floors by hand, a bucket of ammonia water nearby. She always said that she didn't watch TV because she would have never gotten anything done. But, there was one exception. Every night at 4:30 the same announcement rang through the house: This. Is. Jeopardy. Grandma would have the potatoes peeled, roast in a pressure cooker, and Jeopardy on in the front room. We'd watch it together as she came back and forth between the kitchen and family room. I don't know if it was the decades of scrabble tournaments, crossword puzzles, voracious reading, or genetics, but she was smart as a whip. She'd call out the answers with, or often before, the players on TV. Final jeopardy gave her a moment to step away. Grandpa would be carving the roast, she'd mash the potatoes (always by hand, with a little milk). But, as soon as the song would end, she'd pop her head back in to hear the contestants' answers. Dinner was at 5 o'clock. No matter what. Not 4:59. Not 5:01. Over the years, I heard stories from my uncles about missing dinner time. Being a chubby kid who loved to eat, I never had that experience. I was always on time for dinner. Grandma would claim she wasn't much of a cook. She told me she often had to call her mom for cooking advice. "Great grandma Gromacki," she would beam with pride, "was a great cook."
But, my Grandma was humble. Tremendously so. Because she was a great cook. People who didn't like pumpkin pie would save room for a slice of Grandma's pumpkin chiffon. They'd make sure they got a little bit of Florence's stuffing, even if they'd already eaten dinner elsewhere. It wasn't about being polite. It was good. Grandma taught me about the importance of good ingredients, cooked well, with simple seasonings. Most families have about 14 meals they make in rotation. Grandma must've had 50. She told me stories of going to the grocery store, walking up and down the aisle, trying to figure out how to make the money stretch into enough dinners for a family of 10. But we were never hungry. And there was always enough.
Looking back, I can see how she made it work. Lots of sides. Almost always mashed potatoes (and that aluminum peeler that swiveled). Carrots, sliced perfectly into tiny rounds. Corn (sometimes creamed). Cucumber with onion and sour cream. In the summer, Grandpa's homegrown tomatoes. And dessert after every dinner, no matter what. She'd make the pie crust in the afternoon, coaxing it into a circle with the red-handled rolling pin. She'd perfectly crimp the crust between two knuckles as she spun the pie plate around. French apple was topped with a quick crumb. Peach. Strawberry. Lemon chiffon. Coconut custard. Banana. And, on my birthday, Lemon Meringue.
When I got married, I was the one calling her for recipes and advice. The key to good crust, she'd explain, is to use ice water. Work quickly. Use a fork so the dough doesn't get heated up by your hands. Keep it flaky.
Last week, I got the call that her time with us was coming to an end. A few of the kids and I went to see her and we had one more talk about pastries. I told her that we'd made Pączki, like the ladies who lived across Alma from her. She said "you should make faworki." Her hands, weak and bruised, pantomimed the technique. "Roll your dough to about a quarter inch, then cut a slit," she struggled. I said, "and then flip it?" She nodded. "And top it with lots of powdered sugar," she smiled, explaining that her cousin used to make them. They say that scent is the most successful at triggering emotions and memories. But I would say the strongest memory is in the meals we share with the people we love. Prepping. Cooking. Eating. Those are the moments, the recipes, the techniques that will stay with me forever. In a way, our food history is a bit of immortality. The things carried on from generation to generation. Every time I get ready for Thanksgiving, I remember sitting at her table chopping onions and celery and white bread for stuffing. I make a roux and remember how Kitchen Bouquet swirled into her gravy after she added the flour slurry. Slicing refrigerator cookies with my kids for Christmas and I'm back to sprinkling (way too many) rainbow nonpareils onto cheese cookies at 8 years old. And once in a while, when the potatoes over-boil in my kitchen, I can still hear:
This. Is. Jeopardy.