Cookbooks taught me how to read books. I was always hungry, and the only thing as savory as food was looking at photographs, letting the sumptuous sounds of foods slip into my illiterate brain like the opening of Nabokov’s Lolita: Lo-lee-ta: the tip of the tongue taking a trip of three steps down the palate to tap, at three, on the teeth. Lo. Lee. Ta. To-ma-to. Ham-bur-ger.
It was through reading cookbooks I came to literature and stories, the science in combustion burners, and even American history. Thomas Jefferson is credited for the first recorded recipe for ice cream in the United States. Presidents after FDR were often photographed informally with food to relinquish their impersonality. I never laughed harder than watching George H.W. Bush try to eat a tamale. My religious beliefs were formed by food: nowhere in the Bible is a single, solitary tomato.
No one had been more supportive of my becoming a chef than my grandmother Helen. I tasted the ocean in my first anchovy; I burned my fingertips rubbing salt into quartered lemons to preserve them; I painted my first childhood masterpiece in the color butter on the canvas of phyllo dough.
Alzheimer’s has already taken my name from my grandmother. Now a nurse spoon-feeds her every day. She opens her mouth in a perfunctory way, she chews it and swallows it. When we placed her in a retirement home, we sold her house and almost everything inside of it. I took her marble kitchen table, her cookbooks, and the box of index cards where she kept her recipes.
Inside the small plastic box was a picture of my grandmother in the heyday of her life. Her hair was short, when Greek women didn’t wear short hair. She had one arm around her neighbor Símone, and they looked to be wearing the same shade of lipstick. My grandmother was ebullient in her confidence; her eyes were barely closed, her head tilted as she was blindly being touched by a cat’s whiskers and laughing hysterically. Símone was busty, her smile and eyes piercingly mischievous, planting a fat kiss on Helen’s cheek. They were both members of their local Junior League, which shared recipes to raise money for charity—in this case the war effort in which my grandfather participated.
The cards were dated, and as I flipped through them, I noticed inscriptions on the back sides of them. Behind a recipe for Cornbread Soufflé:
If cats always land on their feet,
And buttered toast on its face,
What happens if you drop a cat
With buttered toast on its back?
Crab Cakes with Oyster Sauce replied:
My dear Buttered Toast,
This cat is ready to put you on your back.
Pecan Lace Cookies wrote:
I love you like a buttered tart shell,
Your fingers slip into me.
Tomorrow at 3. Bring cinnamon.
Each card was dated, even after my grandfather’s return from the war. I came to realize so many of the dishes of my childhood had an ingredient of love for a woman I had never known. And every time I cooked with my grandmother, she was also remembering. I brought Símone’s chocolate cake recipe to my grandmother’s retirement home one day, and her mouth opened in the same perfunctory way, but her eyes closed as in the photograph, and she bit down on her lower lip as if it were Símone’s.
Símone’s Chocolate Cake Recipe
180g of chocolate
½ cup of sugar
1 stick of salted butter
2 Tbs of flour
350 degrees, 16 minutes. Tart pan.
Jory Pomeranz worked as a chef for eight years. He currently lives in Cincinnati, Ohio. He writes about the service industry, which he left to pursue medicine after a horrendous bus accident in New York City.