Thursday, September 13, 2007

A Cheesy Family

My family, like my counterpart’s, is rather entrenched in the culinary arts. Take my immediate family, for example: my mother has been cooking amazing dishes for as along as I can remember and my father, after decided to live an organic, vegetarian lifestyle, taught himself to cook in ways that are healthy and environmentally friendly. My older sister was making soufflés and a mean crème brulee at a very young age. I was actually a late bloomer where cooking is involved—it took me till after my 3rd year of college to really get into it.

Then there’s my extended family. My aunt and uncle down in Georgia will cook multi-course meals at family reunions (there’s between 30 and 50 of all us!!). My father’s sister collects different kinds of salt and uses them to brine the turkey at Thanksgiving (it goes so well with the potatoes mashed with mascarpone cheese). My bubbe (my paternal grandmother) made the BEST noodle kuggel I’ve ever tasted. I know that every good Jewish girl says that, but this time it’s true. I swear.

Then there’s my grandfather—my mother’s father. We called him Grampy-Dad. Did he have some cooking stories! All of us grandkids used to sit down with him in the TV room of my grandparents’ house in Annapolis, Maryland and eat Fritos and dip and watch TV and nap. On Sunday mornings, he would make pancakes and dried beef gravy. I have never eaten dried beef gravy that can even come close to Grampy-Dad’s. It was creamy and savory with the salty bite from the dried beef to counteract the sweetness of the pancakes. He would stand over my mother’s shoulder—and mine when it was my turn last year—and make sure we roasted the Thanksgiving and Christmas turkeys just right. He was an adventuresome cook sometimes, but almost always returned to the food that he was raised on. Good Southern home-cooking with lots of grits for breakfast.

Grampy-Dad also had his idiosyncrasies and quirks when it came to food. He abhorred carrots. He had a strong appreciation for good French cooking, especially vichyssoise. He once spent an entire summer trying to make a watermelon pie—he was ultimately unsuccessful.

“You know why?” he asked me when he told me the story.

“Why, Grampy-Dad?” I replied.

“Its too damn watery!” (This said with a grin of impish delight).

But what I remember most vividly was his choice of beverage—one that I’ve inherited. Almost every evening that I’ve ever seen, Grampy-Dad sat down to a Beefeater gin martini with 3 olives on the rocks. No vermouth. Nothing but ice, cold gin, and green olives. I remember eating those gin soaked olives as a child and I also remember when I was finally old enough to join in this ritual. It was almost like a rite of passage. I remember my mother telling me about when Grampy-Dad finally let her join him. While it was a casual enough situation, I felt like I was following in the footsteps of my mother when I took that first, bitterly cold sip.

Grampy-Dad passed away last Thursday night in his sleep. The fibrosis of his heart and lungs had been getting pretty bad—he was frailer than I had ever seen him when I joined him to celebrate his birthday in early August. I spent the weekend in a whirlwind of family: eating, drinking, mourning, and remembering. My grandfather was a good man—an amazing, intelligent, and warm-hearted man. As we ate his favorite foods and drank his favorite drinks this weekend, I realized what was missing.

So last night, on my walk home from work, I picked up a bottle of Beefeater. I poured it into a tumbler with ice and 3 green olives and then I sat down at my kitchen table and drank Grampy-Dad’s martini and remembered him.

I miss you, Grampy-Dad. May you rest in peace.

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