My grandmother plopped a plastic bag on a chair in the kitchen. “These are some food goodies you left here.” Usually people use the word “goodies” to refer to chocolate or candy, but my grandmother meant no such things. In the bag were cashews, almonds, dates, bags of beans, and cans of tomatoes–groceries I had bought during my two-month stay with my grandparents earlier in the summer. If I had said “keep them,” she might have looked at me with temptation and confusion. The suggestion might very well have left her speechless, or at least, muttering. Who eats cashews? And also: Who would throw them out?
My grandmother’s culinary hoarding engulfs jelly jars and dinner leftovers. If all that’s left of the salad is a tomato slice and a romaine leaf, she’ll save them. That will be her lunch the next day. Once, she offered me the last slice of flank steak to take for lunch at work, suggesting I make a sandwich. I searched for said slice in the fridge. The remaining piece was less of a slice and more of a nugget—cooked perfectly but the size of my thumb. I resigned myself to the micro steak, and with it, a skimpy lunch, wrapping my tiny sandwich in foil.
Food in the house is treated both as precious and pesky. At the same time as she auctions off little pieces of steak and quarter-full boxes of cashews, my grandmother refuses to throw things out. An arugula leaf holds the same esteem as a printed photo. On the inside of the fridge door, near-empty jars of jam line up like stranded kindergartners. Would you like strawberry? Grape? Red pepper? Choose from the masses–you have enough there to cover half your toast.
Back in town for the weekend, I searched the kitchen for a snack, first turning down an apple with a widening welt. I opened the fridge. “Is this melon up for grabs?” “Oh, sure!” my grandmother said. I pulled the melon half out of the fridge and then out of its plastic bag. It felt soft, its skin yielding to my fingers like a TempurPedic pillow. I flipped it over. Little white puffs speckled the skin. “Mold,” I announced, and tossed the melon in the trash. I resorted to plan B, exploring the contents of my “goody bag.” I opened the box of dates. Again, white spots decorated the bug-like fruits, which had been absorbing humidity in the pantry since I had left the house a month before. “Mold,” I repeated, depositing the box with its rotting companion, the cantaloupe. I shook some near-empty cereal boxes. I never knew what “grape nuts” were until I raided my grandparents’ pantry.
My grandmother intervened, perhaps regretting the excess of mold and lack of subsistence in her kitchen: “Cheese?” This, at least, never ran out. Blocks and wheels and tubs of goat cheese, manchego, and parmesan sat next to cartons of fat-free milk, creeping towards expiration dates.
My grandparents love food; my grandfather loves to eat. I have witnessed him go back for sevenths on dessert. My grandmother, on the other hand, is a fine Texas woman, and will sooner cook for a party of twenty than eat a substantial lunch. My grandfather, meanwhile, takes excursions to the grocery store and returns with trays of sushi–for him, a daily delicacy.
A passion for food—in firsts and seconds and sevenths—runs in the family. What makes this love unique is perhaps summarized in the way we treat—or abuse–peanut butter. Growing up, my brother and I often fought about the proper way to enjoy it. He thought it appropriate to gouge a finger in the jar, pop a hunk of peanut butter into his mouth, and repeat. I thought he could at least use a utensil.
My grandmother shares our addiction. Ascetic, she refuses to buy peanut butter, fearing she will consume the entire jar. Testing the boundaries, my mother brought a jar of peanut butter to their house one weekend. She had to feed her children somehow, and left the inviting jar (sealed) in the fridge on Friday afternoon. That night, we went out to dinner, and my grandmother indulged in champagne as she never would in flank steak. On the drive home, she marveled at the length of our Thanksgiving break. “Nine days!” she said. “I mean, I’m just going, wow.” She rambled on as we got out of the car and entered the house at midnight. We all went upstairs as my grandmother puttered around in the kitchen. The next day, I pulled some moldy bread and an empty jar of jelly out of the fridge to make myself a sandwich. I opened the peanut butter jar to find it half-empty. I wondered if she had at least used a spoon.