Grandmother has always been the best cook in the room. From the time she was 10 years old, even if all she had to work with was a neckbone and some wild greens growing along the fence row, she has put braggable food on a plate.
The baby of the clan, she started by helping her mamma feed their large, poor family when she was still in pigtails. The two of them would spend hours on end peeling and slicing and stirring and kneading in a hot kitchen where the only ventilation was the banging of the screen door. Her daddy didn’t leave them much money after the bootlegger got his share, so supper was often a minor miracle. She said, “I suppose the Good Lord was always lookin’ out for us because there was always one more scoop of flour in the sack and always just enough grease to get by. Kinda like that woman in the Bible who always had just enough meal and oil to make grit cakes.Sometimes supper was just hot biscuits with water gravy, but a soul can survive on biscuits. ”
She cooked for a lonely mother, restless brothers, a difficult father, and a dying sister who wouldn’t hardly eat a bite except for “one of Diane’s little tea cakes.” She cooked for itinerant preachers, shadetree mechanics, migrant field hands, dead broke cousins, and hungover day workers. She cooked breakfast before starting her first shift at the shirt factory, and supper as she got ready for her shift at the paper mill. She’s cooked for those she loved most, and some he would’ve sooner poisoned. She’s cooked thousands of meals, for the living and the dead; from sack lunches, to thanksgiving feasts, to a last meal of chicken and dumplings for her best friend of 65 years whose cancer-ridden body could do little more than sip the broth.
When I was a boy swinging my short fat legs underneath her table I had no idea how good I had it. Three meals a day, prepared with an almost mythical love, by the best cook in the world. I had friends who were only my friends because they wanted a piece of Buttermilk Pie or German Chocolate Cake. And I’m pretty sure the only reason this girl Amy ever dated me was because she wanted to know the secret ingredient in Grandmother’s cornbread dressing.
It is true that my tastes have broadened over the years. Much travel and experience have awakened my palate to the peculiar glories of foreign spices and exotic flavors. But there is still nothing that gets the bees buzzing and the birds singing on the back forty of my soul like a mouthful of Grandmother’s cooking.
What I know about cooking I learned from her. At least the bits worth remembering. But there’s a hidden art, a nameless magic that attends her cooking so that even if I follow the same steps and use the same ingredients, mine never tastes quite as good as hers. There’s some inarticulable skill those tired hands picked up while baking into the wee hours of the morning while waiting on a husband who’s sleeping in another woman’s bed, and then fixing breakfast for a brother before he ships off to Vietnam.
Though the magic is still there, it doesn’t come easy these days. Cooking is almost a crippling endeavor for her. “It would hurt me less to swing a hoe all day than to stand over this stove for a few hours” she told me yesterday. Today was “Homecoming” at their church, and everyone expects utter deliciousness from her. And she doesn’t want to let them down.
So she asked me to come over yesterday morning to help her prepare “a couple dishes,” which included three pecan and sweet potato pies, a carrot cake, a pan of dressing as big as a John Boat, a pot of purple hull peas, a vat of baked beans, a waggon load of scalloped potatoes, a broccoli salad with hot bacon dressing, and of course, gravy.
I treasure this time. But not just because I am learning from the master, but because the time is precious now. Her hands are not as steady anymore, and her steps are not so sure. And while I was peeling potatoes and she was whipping up a batch of deviled eggs, she stopped and said to me, “Son, would you like to finish these?”
Elbow deep in taters, I said, “Just fix them the way you always do. They’re always wonderful.” Then she looked at me with a sad and defeated expression draped across her face, “The truth is, I don’t remember how.” This is happening often now. I swallowed a mouthful of tears and walked her through the process that she walked me through nearly 30 years ago.
She will always be the best cook in the room, even when the kitchen is a strange and unfamiliar place. The rest of us will always remember. Because we’ve tasted a lifetime of love.