The Merrimack Review - Spring 2017

Page 30

Grandma’s Do-It-Yourself Recipe Book My grandmother was the only person I have ever known who made aspic. She was the only person I’ve ever met who knew what aspic was. According to Betty Crocker’s picture Cook Book, aspic is “colorful, piquant, refreshing.” And there are such varieties as chicken-tomato aspic, seafood in tomato aspic, holiday tomato aspic, and my favorite, festive salad mold, which requires the cook to place deviled eggs and olives at the bottom of a gelatin mold. My grandmother stuck to the more traditional tomato aspics. Hers were oddly beautiful abominations– jewel tone tomatoes and avocados shimmying in a Jell-O mold. My mother made me try it, to my horror. Imagine gelatin – but with celery salt. Luckily, for the rest of the family, she didn’t make it very often. Aspic marks a strange chapter in the history of American foods that has all but vanished from the dinner table, along with using mayonnaise as salad dressing. When I think about it, my grandmother was always eating things that made me hide my gag reflex behind a strategically placed napkin. Maybe it was that depression era waste-not want-not mentality. Grandma’s family had been pretty well off, even during the depression, but she eschewed wasting anything – and had a taste for cheap food despite her upper-crust upbringing. One night she put leftover pizza in the toaster for dinner when I came to visit, and left it in there too long. When she brought it to the dinner table, the stuff was charcoal-black. I wrinkled my nose and said, “Uh… Grandma?” “Yes?” she said, smiling and biting into an ashy pepperoni. Grandma was a good cook, don’t get me wrong. Thanksgiving turkeys were always amazing – juicy, perfectly cooked and timed with the mashed potatoes. But her food choices were like her clothes. She could wear Chanel one day and a Denver Broncos sweatshirt the next. She wore diamond bracelets and light-up Christmas tree brooches. Similarly, she could eat lamb chops for lunch and canned spaghetti for dinner. Canned spaghetti, she told me, was her ultimate comfort food. As a child, it had been a special treat. I felt guilty when she offered me a plate of it and I stared quizzically at the sloppy looking noodles. “Yum!” she said, twirling the worm-like pasta around her fork. One time when we went out to a restaurant, she ordered a purple soup with a dollop of white cream on top. 15-year old me couldn’t help but ask “What’s that?” my face probably turning white with horror. “Borscht,” she told me, matter-of-factly. “What?” “Cold beet soup,” she told me. “It’s delicious.” I ordered a grilled cheese sandwich for lunch and grabbed a toothpick on my way out, mining the food out of my teeth. “Ladies don’t pick their teeth in public,” she said. Grandma was certainly a lady. But she kept her hair cropped short and could out-fish any man in the state of Colorado. She was the perfect combination of old-fashioned upper crust femininity and tomboyish outdoorswoman. She had a different set of dishes for every possible occasion from Christmas to birthday parties. She collected arrow heads and she collected recipes. Inside her “Do-it-yourself” recipe book are envelopes for placing clipped recipes and blank pages for notes. The cover is cloth with images of coffee pots and tomatoes. As you thumb through the book you can watch the decades pass by: Post-war potluck picnics, Eisenhower-era eats giving way to Kennedy-inspired concoctions and Ladybird Johnson’s favorite luncheons. 29

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