Last fall I called my grandma from Central Park on a Sunday afternoon to check in and say hello. I'd just started a new part-time job (I didn't tell her it was really more of an unpaid internship), was looking forward to a trip to Africa, and was working shifts at a cafe to make ends meet. "Are you ever going to pick a career and really do something with your life?" she attacked. Of course my plan of piecing little jobs together felt questionable to me too, but no one in my family has ever questioned the decisions I've made, and she touched on some very raw nerves. "How old are you now? 25?" she went on, digging deeper into the wound. "When are you finally going to settle down?" Actually I was only 23, just a year out of college, and I had no idea what I was doing with my life. I didn't need her to restate the obvious, stability was nowhere in sight and I knew it. A sob had already erupted; I shut the phone off and threw it into the grass. A few minutes later I called my mom "I'm never going to call her again!" I wailed. And, for a few months I didn't.
By the time I was about to leave for Africa she'd written me a letter of apology, and by the time I went home for Christmas we silently agreed to forget the whole thing had ever happened. By then I'd begun writing about food which is what she used to do for one of the local papers, and ever since our conversations have stuck closely to recipes and techniques which is intriguing and safe ground for both of us. Now I call on the way to the grocery store to ask how she makes her pearled onions (it's a special kind of thickener called Wondra), or what is in the dressing on her grapefruit and fennel salad (the key is a little anise licour in the dressing). Just yesterday I received the first of what I hope will be many hand written recipes, scrawled out in her French handwriting on an index card, complete with a list of ingredients and a shopping list with a note saying that this is the most practical way to go about preparing to cook a new dish. The recipe is for ginger and barley soup, and she promises a note on how to make St. Honoré, a French birthday cake, is on its way next. I called to thank her for the letter, and she dove right in, just as if we'd been mid-conversation in her living room back in Michigan. "Now if you're really serious about cooking, and I think you are, you need to have about twelve basic recipes under your belt." I was on the way to meet a friend at a block party. As she noted that soufflés were a must for the twelve, as is a good hollandaise, I passed abandoned lots just north of Flatbush, and let her lessons distract me from the grey industrial buildings and gray sky and the fact that I was running late. "If you can make a good hollandaise, you can dress up many things. And you know, you're going to have to get over this meat thing because you'll have to keep it interesting for the people you're serving." It has taken her six years to figure out how to leave a message on my cell phone, and three to remember where she's written down my address in New York so she can send me letters. It is quite fitting that she's remembered these key details of communication only now that the messages she has to convey are about what to cook. She was all business about the top twelve, and after I got off the phone I thought how lucky I am to have this French grandma.
In Cooking for Mr. Latté, Amanda Hesser writes about building her repertoire in preparation for becoming a wife. For months leading up to her wedding she tries to narrow down eight dishes that will be her standbys-- the recipes she'll be able to cook wherever she is, for whomever is coming to dinner-- those that will be known and remembered by all as signature Amanda. When I read this, the notion seemed decidedly old-fashioned, very dowry, and man-takes-a-wife rather than man-and-woman-take-each other. Unlike many tidbits my grandmother has passed along over the years ("that gray t-shirt does nothing for your eyes") the top twelve seemed practical, and even touching. The last time she tried to address how I was coming into myself as an adult I hung up on her. What does she know about the perils of being a young person in New York in an age of cell phones and blogs? I wouldn't have her balking at my tiny triumphs, and I wouldn't take the time to explain why, say, securing an unpaid internship at a top food magazine was in fact something to be proud of. While I don't know that she will ever cling on to the vernacular of blogs, or flogs, or vlogs, she does know food, and I have grown up hearing stories about a bouillabaisse she made once that quieted an entire table of ten dinner guests with the first sip. I have heard about the curried eggs she made for my parent's wedding brunch, and I remember her testing variations for pie crusts and chocolate mousse in the early years of my parent's inn in Maine-- these were the recipes that guests begged for at the end of their meals. She got married before she graduated from college, a fact that in my mind has always separated us in terms of where she was when she was my age. But despite the vast differences in how we passed our early 20's she just might know a thing or two about learning one's way around a kitchen, and now we both might be old enough to talk about how one goes about learning these lessons.