My Grandma was the first chef I ever met. She’d make the most delicious, satisfying meals. Her cooking was classic, old-school and you could taste the love she had for you in every bite you took.
She’d make a meal that’d put you to sleep shortly after you finished your plate, would warm you up from the inside-out, make you forget all about your troubles and just. savor. the. moment.
As a little girl, I spent a majority of my days after-school at my Grandma’s house and stayed overnight on most weekends. My mom worked a lot of early and night shifts and she’d pick me up from my Grandma’s, exhausted. I’d climb into the back seat of her car with a plastic bag containing several, foil-wrapped leftovers. Hold this from the bottom so it doesn’t spill and tell your mom to bring my Tupperware back in the morning, my Grandma would say.
The kitchen was the heart of my grandparent’s house. It was small, but grand in its warmth and feeling of security. I’d sit at the dining room table while my grandma worked her magic. I’d watch her scurry around the kitchen, going from cherry-wooden cabinet to cherry-wooden cabinet, searching for a particular spice or a utensil, a pot, pan or mixing bowl. Her movements were synchronized, calm and graceful. It was like watching a ballet from the best seat in the house.
I got to know my Grandma’s cooking schedule ― typically a hearty chicken dish on Mondays, spaghetti and meatballs on Tuesdays, spicy chili on Wednesdays, meatloaf or cubed-steaks on Thursdays, pork chops and sauerkraut or mashed potatoes on Fridays, and chip-chopped ham sandwiches and sloppy joes were saved for the weekend.
Her spaghetti and meatballs were my favorite. It’s the first dish I truly remember eating and seeing her make (first impressions last a lifetime). The pasta was boiled in salty water, so the noodles could get seasoned from within. She’d roll ground meat into balls and plop them in the oven with a little extra virgin olive oil drizzled on top. I’ve yet to taste or make a spaghetti as good as her own, and I don’t think I ever will.
My Grandma was a baker, too. Although she would always say that she wasn’t nearly as good as her sisters Pam and Audrey, she’d still bake decadent cakes and cupcakes and the most soft and ooey-gooey chocolate chip cookies. I mean come on, who doesn’t love their Grandma’s cookie or pound cake recipe? Especially when they’re the only people who let you lick the spoon and bowl. I don’t want to see you running around or jumping in the kitchen while my cake is the oven, she’d tell me. So, I’d carefully prance over and look through the oven door, staring in awe as I watched the sugary cake rise.
My grandma taught me how to make my first dessert ― Dirt Pie a.k.a. Oreo Cookie Dessert.
We’ll take a little sidetrack right here. Here’s a quick recipe for Dirt Pie:
Take Oreos, put them in a plastic bag and crush them with a mallet or simply just your hands. Reserve some of the crushed Oreos, as they’ll be used for garnish later. Next, put the crushed Oreos in a mixing bowl, pour melted butter on top, stir it up real good and scrape it out of the bowl and into a baking dish as the first layer. Then, you’ll make your pudding (I often double the recipe and use a box of Jell-O chocolate pudding and a box of Jell-O Oreo pudding) and pour the pudding on top of the crushed Oreos. Smooth lots of Cool Whip on top and sprinkle your reserved crushed Oreos all around.
Dirt Pie is actually the only dessert I know how to make. I’ll admit, I’m not a baker. I guess I just never really got into baking because I knew I’d have HUGE shoes to fill. Between my Grandma and my aunts, there’s no way I’ll ever be able to bake as half as good as them.
When my grandma passed away in 2013, four days after my birthday, I completely stopped cooking. I was no longer excited to get my hands dirty in the kitchen. I became uninterested in learning the art of cooking because I no longer saw the beauty in it without my Grandma by my side. It took me awhile to get back into the kitchen. It became a space filled with sadness and anger. I began to eat my feelings, trying, searching to feel that overwhelming, tingling happiness I once felt when my Grandma let me lick the batter off the spoon and out of the bowl.
I credit my Uncle Bubb for helping me to see the joy in cooking again (he has one of the greatest nicknames ever). My Uncle Bubb saw the immense amount of sadness I carried around with me. He knew how much I deeply loved my Grandma and what a tremendous loss our whole family had suffered. The matriarch of all matriarchs was gone and we all suddenly broke, all of us cracking and fracturing in different, splintered ways.
I remember the day when he called me into the kitchen while at my Mom’s house. He was making, of all things, spaghetti and meatballs. I slumped over, dragging my feet as I walked into the kitchen, annoyed to be involved in the process. He pointed to the chopped onions and green bell peppers that were simmering in the hot pan. He said, Add celery to that and that becomes the ‘holy trinity of cooking.’ Then he pointed to the red sauce, bubbling in a silver pot, You know, red sauce, paired with ground beef is a base for many dishes: chili, Bolognese, enchiladas. You can learn the basics of cooking just from making a simple pot of spaghetti.
I immediately thought back to my Grandma’s spaghetti, the very first dish I remember her making for me. It hit me right then, all of the years ago, my Grandma was preparing me to become a chef just like herself. The first taste of her spaghetti was my introduction to mastering the elements of good cooking.
Cooking suddenly became enjoyable for me again. Uncle Bubb taught me how to cut vegetables. I remember the very first time I julienned bell peppers and felt like I was Chef Emeril. He sat at the kitchen table and watched me chop, stir, season properly (I tend to over do it on the cayenne pepper, because I love spicy food).
Just when I was beginning to fall back in love with cooking, college happened. I gained the ‘Freshman 15’ every year. My tiny dorm of course had no stove or oven, just a microwave for making great, late-night Ramen and re-heating ‘College Special’ pizza slices. I had the occasional good meal on the weekends when I returned home to do laundry, but I noticed I was losing my desire to cook again, to do anything really, as I began to put on weight. I didn’t exercise either because I couldn’t even find the energy and motivation to get out of bed half of the time.
I met my boyfriend during my senior year of college. As I continued to put on the pounds, he never said a thing about my weight. He loved and loves me unconditionally and finds every area of cellulite and every stretch mark perfectly beautiful.
At first, I didn’t mind nor pay that much attention to my weight gain. It wasn’t until I realized how much I was putting my health at risk. I looked in the mirror and didn’t recognize the person standing in front of me. I looked exhausted and my skin had a grayish-hue to it. I had constant body aches and sharp pain in my knees and lower back. I had never-ending migraines. I was always grumpy, snappy and out of breath.
I knew it was time for a change. I knew I needed to find a way to fall back in love with cooking again, instead of just settling for easy, microwaveable dinners. When my boyfriend and I got our first apartment together, I began to cook again and I started eating healthy, home-cooked meals and worked out a few times a week.
And then, the pandemic hit and as the same for many people, I was smacked hard with depression and a sense of doom. What’s the point of eating healthy or working out? The world is ending anyway.
I remember I was sitting on the couch, eating a bag of chips and when I dropped some of them on the ground, I noticed that after reaching down to pick them up, I was severely out of breath and felt as if I was about to faint. Well, that’s not supposed to happen, I thought to myself. From that point on, I stayed consistent with my exercise. I ran every morning, counted my calories and began to cook my own food, again.
I noticed that when I cooked for myself, I started to care more about myself. I was happy, and felt accomplished when I successfully executed a complicated dish and it tasted amazing. I became mindful of what I was putting into my body. No more of just shoveling it in, not truly tasting the food, appreciating its flavor or considering the detriments to my health.
I bought tons of cook books and started watching Rachael Ray (she’s my favorite) and trying out new spices and ingredients.
I began buying fresh, not frozen, ingredients and learning about their benefits. I went vegan. Yup. For a week I’ll admit, but in that week I learned a lot about how important it is to have a nutritious diet. Sure, I could cook or work out how ever much I wanted to, but none of that mattered if I didn’t feed my body the proper nutrients it needed to thrive.
Flash forward eight months and now, I’m a pescatarian and I’ve lost nearly 40 pounds. I’m active and energetic. My body aches are gone, my migraines are gone and now when I breathe, I actually feel alive.
One of the best things that recently happened to me was when I made my own garlic parmesan sauce for a creamy shrimp pasta, added a dash of Chardonnay and fresh parsley sprinkled on top. I took a photo and sent it to my Uncle Bubb and he said, I think you’ve officially out-done me. I’ve been chopped.
I’m re-discovering the art of cooking and my love for it, no matter the crazy roller coaster ride.
I like to think that my Grandma is smiling down on me, watching me make magic in the kitchen, relishing in the joy it brings to my mind, body and soul.