Posted on August 16th, 2012
I learned how to eat at my grandmother’s house. “How” being the key word, not “what” – because by the time I came along, second to last in a long line of grandchildren, my grandmother, once a respectable 1940s-era cook of roasts, mint jellies, and the perfect fudge, had diabetes, little sense of taste, and even less of a sense of adventure in the kitchen. Sunday brunches were always cinnamon rolls as hard as hockey pucks and slices of bacon that tasted like ashes. At least one dinner a week consisted of a gray roast beef sawed right at the table (an experience that very possibly contributed to my later decades of vegetarianism), and salads were limp lettuce bathed liberally in oil and vinegar, a sacrificial slice of bread lying prone at the bottom of the salad bowl to soak up the excess. As a child, picking at each plate of benign culinary neglect on every visit to my grandmother’s house, I always left the table hungry and vaguely ill. Only handfuls of stale Oreos, snuck from a yellow cookie jar she kept on the kitchen counter and had likely forgotten about circa 1975, revived me between meals.
Yet, even so, I loved eating at my grandmother’s house more than anywhere else. Her home, a sprawling Tudor built in 1903 on a full city block in an aging Wisconsin lumber town, was a child’s rapturous combination of From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler and an Indiana Jones movie: half museum, half treasure hunt, every corner crammed with enchanting, if mysterious, objects and relics of another era. There were bookcases filled with beautiful, hard-bound books that smelled of leather and glue, glass cases of china dolls and painted fans with mother-of-pearl handles, staircase landings piled high with wooden boxes that smelled like cigars and were filled with old photos, family bibles, and sachets of exotic spices. My grandparents moved into the house in 1945 and stayed there through four children, empty nesting, and, finally, death. So 132 Marston Avenue was more than a house; it was the story of their lives, as well as a curiosity cabinet of riches from the combined ancestries of a woman who could trace her forebears back before the Revolution and a man born to a state senator and an elegant Peruvian aristocrat-come-midwestern housewife.
With the exception of weekday breakfasts and Sunday dinners, all meals at this house were eaten in the formal dining room. Oddly oval in shape, the room was filled with dark furniture and chairs upholstered in thinning velvet. There was a sideboard against the far wall upon which ingenious clusters of purple grapes made from amethyst and wire spilled out of a large bowl. In another corner, a slender display cabinet could be unlocked with a tiny skeleton key and housed fragile china plates decorated with minutely perfect pastoral scenes. Even the sconces on the wall – former gas torchiers now converted to electricity – were relics of a by-gone time of formal cocktail hours, three-piece suits, and pearl-tipped hairpins – all, incidentally, things my grandparents still heartily believed in well through the 1980s.
Meals were as formal as the room. There were perfectly folded cloth napkins, and elaborate place settings, with one’s drink glass always to the north-northeast of the plate. The de facto rule, which I never remember being spoken aloud but which was always solemnly, if breathlessly, observed, was that no one could eat until my grandmother had lifted her fork. Children were expected to speak quietly when spoken to, if at all, and were required to beg permission to leave the table for rejuvenating trips to the loo (wallpapered by my grandmother in floor-to-ceiling Audubon prints) or the refuge of the attic room that we referred to, unimaginatively, as The Third Floor, where there were old luggage chests filled with lead toy soldiers and wind-up army tanks. But the dining room had its own toys: there was, when I was young and before my grandparents’ patience with the antics of their eleven grandchildren grew thin, a button hidden under the carpet near the head of the table that, when gently pressed with a subtle movement of one’s foot, would ring a buzzer in the kitchen to summon the help (who, it should be noted, did not exist). I loved to slip my foot out of my shoe, slide down slightly in my chair, and spend the entire meal with the tip of my toe resting lightly on that button, imagining what delightful distress I might cause my grandmother if I were to ring it.
I was a bossy child who liked order and rules – though, preferably, rules that I could impose on other people, not myself. But I felt a visceral thrill at every meal at my grandmother’s house. Asking my brother politely to pass the green beans, I felt like a grand actor in a play, declaiming lines that we never said at the table at home, where we giggled fart jokes into our milk cups and kicked each other under the table. Yet, even more than the studied ritual of meals at my grandmother’s, I loved all the things on her table: tiny crystal salt cellars encased in silver filigree, into which you dipped fairy-sized spoons; pepper shakers that looked like chessboard queens; napkin rings engraved with my grandparents’ initials, in case they forgot who was who; salad tongs with handles made of rich, dark ebony carved with clubs as if from a deck of cards; and a procession of forks and spoons marching away on either side of your plate. The latter came in a dizzying variety of sizes and shapes whose enigmatic usefulness – spearing butter patties, sprinkling sugar on your berries – had to be explained sotto voce by whichever parental figure was sitting nearby.
Perhaps, though, it was less the formality of those meals that I loved than the house itself and all the multitude of things it contained to entertain the eye and brain while the mouth chewed and chewed. Even breakfasts, taken on all days except Sunday in a considerably less opulent kitchen under the considerably less watchful eye of my mother, were a wealth of pleasurable sensation. As with all other meals at my grandmother’s house, the food never varied: a bowl of Rice Chex left over from our last visit and stored in the months between in the bread box, served with a can of Libby’s grapefruit juice from the icebox-turned-refrigerator in the walk-in pantry. But, again, the simple things that accompanied those meals made the ordinary extraordinary. I’d drink my juice out of 1950s-era jam jar glasses embossed in faded yellow while staring up at a wall where a copper aspic mold in the shape of a fish eating its tail hung over the table. The salt-and-pepper shakers here were a faded magenta like an evening sunset, and I was fascinated by the constellations of gold and silver flecks in the table top, having never seen Formica before. For the first twenty years of my life, this scene never changed: the paper napkins in the wooden holder my uncle had made, the tongue-in-cheek cartoon on the refrigerator that my cousin had drawn in an attempt to rile up my grandmother, the black-and-white photo in a bare wood frame of my mother’s former dog, Terry the terrier. These things offered timeless comfort, where the difference in me being 5 and me being 20 disappeared as soon as my spoon clicked against the edge of the bowl.
When my grandparents died, I walked through their house with my parents, choosing the things I most wanted to remember them by. Though the rooms were filled with exquisite furniture and first-edition books, what I ended up taking with me, the things to which I was most drawn, were the relics of all those by-gone meals. The silver platter on which my grandfather carved his infamous roasts, nicked by a thousand knife cuts. My grandmother’s monogrammed linen napkins. Crystal wineglasses that have today somehow survived two long-distance moves and several earthquakes. A set of bright blue, enameled plates decorated with golden peacocks and palm trees. To wit, nothing practical for life in the six hundred square-foot cabin in the woods of Alaska where I now live.
But practicality was never really the point, was it? One of the best things that I inherited from my grandparents is a collection of sterling silver teaspoons collected by my great-aunt Louisa. Packed carefully into blue linen, labeled “Odd Spoons” in a fountain pen, they are delicate orphans with elaborate handles: bouquets of flowers, crests, and wreaths, some engraved “Christmas 1913” or with her initials, no two alike. My favorite is a tiny, short spoon with a broad, flat handle, into which the silversmith carved three-dimensional lilies of the valley, soft folds like curtains opening around them. On the back, “Louisa 1909” – the year she was three. This is not a practical spoon; it is a piece of art. It was not made for efficiency but for long, slow meals at a table set with other works of art in adult-sized versions, where conversation lingered and wit was praised and wine flowed liberally. It was made at a time when beauty of form was married to function, when a gift of such a spoon was a promise to a three year-old: you too, some day, will be this elegant – and your meals the way you display your elegance to the world.
Today, in my tiny, functional kitchen, where the only elegance comes from windows that frame a view of the inlet and the birch trees that bend in the wind, these spoons and all the other things I took from my grandmother’s house are less a symbol of status than a reminder to slow down and eat beautifully. By that, I mean that when I dip one of my great-aunt Louisa’s silver spoons into a bowl full of blueberries soaked in milk and sugar, I am reminded to savor each bite, to notice the dappled shadows on the walls, to laugh with my husband sitting across the table, to notice the small things around me that make my own meals unforgettable. And, above all, to remember my grandmother, on another evening long ago, passing the sugar bowl with a twinkle in her eye to a small girl, her legs dangling off the dining room chair, her spoon poised above her berries, one toe pressed softly against the buzzer on the floor, both ready to flee the table but yet wanting the meal to go on and on and on.