by Maria Schulz
It’s another snowy day in paradise here in the Polar Vortex-ridden northeast. I could curl up in the fetal position and weep, or I could brace myself for the day ahead, put on a smile, and head out into the world.
So what will I do? I think I’ll cry a little as I put on three layers of clothing beneath my coat, hat, scarf, and two pairs of gloves and head outside to shovel. And while I’m shoveling, I’ll force myself to think of something happy.
I bet that’s where I’ll find my happy place: in early memories of cooking with my grandparents, in my parents’ old basement kitchen.
Way, way back, when our kitchen cabinets were orange and matched the long bar where I swiveled on matching orange stools and deeply-grained wood paneling was king, I stood next to my grandparents and learned some very basic cooking methods. Think of the kitchen in “Mad Men,” except the man in the suit was not Don Draper, and my grandmother was most definitely not Betty Draper.
By my grandparents’ sides, I learned how to cook some simple but delicious things. I got to boil water and mash potatoes, adding the right amounts of butter, salt, and elbow grease to create a creamy side dish, because lumps were the enemy.
I helped stir the pot when chicken and rice was on the menu, and you had to stir frequently so your rice didn’t stick. I can still smell it now, all these years later: fragrant saffron mixed with chicken, peas and carrots. It was enough to make you glad that it was cold out since you had something so delicious to look forward to when you came back in from the snow.
I would watch out the window for my grandparents to arrive. The bus would pull up across the street, and they would get off: my grandmother in a flower print dress, my grandfather in a suit, tie, and fedora. Whether it was 2 degrees out and snowy or 100 degrees out and hot enough to “melt your popsicle” (as Katy Perry so eloquently put it), my grandmother and grandfather looked like they were about to have tea with the queen.
So, in they’d march to our house, talking in Spanish and driving my mother crazy. Of course, I was oblivious to everything they said, because I didn’t speak Spanish. We communicated in broken English and bits of Spanish, but it was okay, because soon, I knew we would be helping my mom by pulling together dinner, cooking the side dishes, or making dessert. My grandparents always meant cooking adventures and good times in my little book.
Nonnie would put on an apron and Grandpa would take off his suit jacket and loosen his tie. I’d drag a stool beside my grandmother or grandfather, and get ready for business.
I learned how to peel those potatoes, as well as apples for pie. I helped them roll out dough and then sprinkled in cinnamon, sugar and spices. But I think my favorite thing to help my grandparents make was pudding. We would make chocolate, vanilla or rice pudding (with chocolate being the favorite by far), with an occasional unfortunate foray into butterscotch or pistachio pudding.
This was before instant pudding ruined everything. I would stand there, adding ingredients, and they’d let me taste it as we went to see if it was sweet enough or too bland, and then stir, stir, stir. When the pudding was finally the right consistency, we would remove the skin (hmmm yum…pudding skin) and pour it into tiny cups (fancy people call them ramekins) to chill. Hours later, we would have a tasty (tiny) sweet treat to end our meal.
My grandparents grew up in a time when calorie counts were never an issue and if you could afford to eat well, you did. Grandpa did hard manual labor on a farm, so he grew up on a steady diet of eggs, whatever meat he had on hand, butter, bread and coffee. Nonnie didn’t even know how to cook until later in life (she grew up rich by comparison to my grandfather) but she had learned just enough to get by.
Did I know any of this? No, and none of it mattered to me. I just enjoyed standing by their sides and stirring, rolling, boiling, baking, and watching things turn out delicious and satisfying for the rest of my family.
Of course, seeing my grandparents anywhere, anytime was always a cause for celebration. Once, my mother, brother Chris, and I met them on Main Street in Flushing for a day of shopping and lunch. There they were, walking towards us, arms outstretched as we ran towards them for a hug.
Lucky for us, there were little gifts in those outstretched hands. Chris got a matchbox car (the car doors opened and closed! How lucky was he? ) and I got a Dawn doll. Oh, but she wasn’t just any old Dawn doll: she had long blonde hair beneath a jaunty blue velvet beret that matched her blue velvet jumpsuit. Beneath the jumpsuit was a white ruffled shirt, while white go-go boots completed the “ensemble.” She was possibly the coolest Dawn doll EVER.
I couldn’t believe how timely that gift was, especially since our puppy, Goldie, had just eaten the legs off my other Dawn doll. Obviously, Dawn the 1st needed family around her in her time of legless need. How did my grandparents know? Well, obviously, my mother told them. But when I was 6, it made me believe that my grandparents were all-knowing, all-good, and god-like. It would take at least another year or two before I found out that wasn’t the case.
My grandmother would cup my face in her hands and say, “So sweet!” Of course, she also did the same thing to all of my brothers, which I didn’t always understand. These were the same people who tormented me by breaking my dolls (I was never exactly sure if Goldie found my Dawn doll and ate it, or if one of my brothers fed it to her), by teasing me, or by not letting me play any reindeer games. Oh no wait…that wasn’t me. That was Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer. But I digress…
My grandmother used to call me “her sweet Maria.” In her eyes, I was sweeter than any cup of chocolate pudding and all-knowing, all-good, and perfect. I was her little pudding, and if she could love me, why wouldn’t the rest of the world? Likewise, my grandfather would hoist me up on his shoulders and carry me around, like I was visiting royalty and he was the official in charge of showing me a good time.
It’s been a very long time since I had either of them here to cheer me on, but that doesn’t mean they don’t still make me smile. Now, I’m going to bundle up and get ready to face that Polar Vortex. And later, I’ll have a little cup of pudding and a smile in their honor.
Life’s too short to give up sweets! So here are a few recipes (well, actually, over 100 recipes) that offer up decadence, richness…and some calorie counting if you are so inclined.
Pots de Creme
Healthy Rice Pudding
100 Healthy Dessert Ideas
Including a much lighter chocolate pudding, some cakes, a couple of granitas and a Limoncello Freeze.
So, Hungry Lifers….what’s your earliest cooking memory? What’s your fondest memory of your grandparents? Do you like your desserts decadent and rich or light and sweet? Please leave a comment below and let us all know. Thanks.