There’s something about a grandmother’s cooking that feels like home and tastes like childhood. My grandmother’s cooking—or lack thereof, I should say—is no exception. When I was growing up, going to Grandma’s house for dinner meant one of two things: either Grandma was ordering Chinese from Fu’s Palace, or she was “cooking.” If we were heading to Grandma’s for dinner, we always preferred Fu’s.
The Fu’s order would come in a big cardboard box, stuffed to the brim with Styrofoam containers of Chinese dishes, boxes of white rice, and small servings of various orange and brown sauces in little plastic containers. There were never any surprises when it came to the dishes found in the box: always moo shu pancakes with vegetable filling and plum sauce, neon-orange nuggets of sweet-and-sour fish, vegetable lo mein, spicy green beans, and broccoli doused in thick brown sauce. My siblings and I would stuff our faces with the greasy takeout, then top it off with fortune cookies, each of us reading our fortunes aloud before chomping away at the crunchy treats so that our apparent fortunes would come true.
If Grandma wasn’t ordering in, the meal was equally predictable, though much less desirable (but please don’t tell her I said so). She was known for never adding any kind of seasoning to the dishes she served, often leaving her guests wanting…more. On a typical night, the main dish would consist of pasta—plain fusilli or spaghetti pasta, served in a blue glass bowl without an ounce of olive oil or sauce or spices. Next to the bowl would inevitably be a light brown tub of Country Crock margarine, to lubricate the otherwise dry pasta. Occasionally the dish would be accompanied by a serving of marinara sauce from a jar that she’d heat up in the microwave, though this was certainly not to be expected. Yet she did, without fail, have finely-shaven parmesan on the table, the kind that came in a green cylindrical canister. The kind of parmesan that reduces the cheese down to bits so tiny that it nearly doesn’t exist.
To complement the pasta, Grandma would serve some veggies—a bowl of baby carrots and a dish of whole black olives, straight from the can. Sometimes I’d stick an olive onto each end of a carrot, making a mini barbell. Then I’d eat it, savoring the exotic flavor—something that was missing from nearly everything else on the table. Perhaps there would be some steamed broccoli as well, or some sliced raw peppers. To top it all off, she’d have a big glass bowl of romaine lettuce—a “salad.” Just lettuce, nothing more, with some bottled dressing on the side.
While dinner at Grandma’s wasn’t necessarily the most delectable meal of the day, it was still a treat, and even more so when we ordered in from Fu’s. My grandma is an incredible woman—sharp, well-read, very kind and loving. She just does not have a passion for cooking, and I can’t blame her. This lack of enthusiasm for cooking has been passed down to my mother and, to an extent, to me. It’s more of an indifference, less of an aversion or lack of skill. My mother is a capable cook and a talented baker, but does not particularly enjoy the task of making dinner every night. Like my mother, I can follow a recipe or make a nice meal if I’m in the mood, which is not often. I think it’s safe to say cooking is simply not in our genes.
There were times when my grandmother’s lack of passion was superseded by her desire to offer us an extra-nice family meal, though this was almost exclusively reserved for holidays. She was famous for her brisket, which she often served the night before Yom Kippur so we could fill up before the fast day. I used to love her brisket, and thought it so quintessentially “Grandma.” It was one of the few dishes in her arsenal that she had put in time and effort to perfect. Alas—I became a vegetarian ten years ago and have not tasted Grandma’s brisket since, but I’m still appreciative when she makes it for all the fond memories it brings back, and for knowing that the number of hours the brisket has spent in the oven signifies how special the meal is to her. And brisket takes a long time to cook.
For other special occasions, like family brunches or celebrations of Rosh Hashana, Grandma would unfailingly serve cold salmon with dill sauce, her cucumber salad (simple, sweet, and a little bit sour—just sliced cucumbers marinated in vinegar and dill), and some form of kugel, as any nice Jewish grandmother should. My vegetarianism has precluded me from eating her salmon so I always try to fill up on the cucumber salad, an admittedly difficult feat in light of the fact that a cucumber is 90 percent water. Her kugels are good but nothing special, and served in clear Plexiglas casserole dishes, which were always nestled in adorned straw insulators. For the longest time I figured these were for decoration, but am now realizing they are probably there to prevent the hot dish from scalding our hands or burning a hole through the table, doing the work of both a potholder and trivet. But of course, this is Grandma’s cooking, so instead of using a boring old potholder and trivet she used a kitschy embroidered straw apparatus. Maybe I’ll inherit those straw things one day, like I did her indifference to cooking. But I promise I’ll never, ever put lettuce in a bowl and call it a salad.