I heard a quote recently that whenever you cook, it’s with your grandma by your side. I love that idea, how time and place and tradition and all your senses collapse and swirl together like the very ingredients of a family recipe within those moments of preparing a meal. Especially during the holidays.
I used to cringe at the very thought of preparing food and especially hosting brunch or dinner for a big ole family gathering - something in me resisted the expectation for a perfectly cooked main course, nearly always a hunk of meat that few people enjoy all that much anyway. I mean, how many times a year are you spending all day cooking a 10 pound turkey? Do people even have basters anymore? Does anyone really like turkey? Not to mention green bean casserole?
So I awoke Easter Sunday feeling rather twelve as I found myself Googling “how to cook a ham,” with more than 285,000,000 earnest results. Spoiler alert: turns out, you just shove it in the oven and turn the oven on, but nothing had really prepared me for that reality. Everything about food and holidays, from the ads on TV to the magazines on display project the expectation that this has all got to be hard to be worth it.
But in the past year or so, the women in my life have raised their collective middle fingers at this notion, and I’m completely on board.
I come by it honestly. My Grandma wasn’t fancy, and I loved that about her. She made her own clothes, all various shades and patterns featuring her favorite color, pale blue. She had an old organ in the back room that she let us bang around on, and a tall china cabinet that had abandoned its purpose long ago, filled instead with board games and art supplies, and stacks and stacks of cards frayed at the edges from the many hands of gin rummy she conquered, with her bent, arthritic fingers shuffling the cards like the wings of many birds taking flight.
She served us those little boxes of sugary cereal on Saturday mornings which we relished, because we never had the good stuff at home. But Saturday night, that’s when the magic happened.
Grandma Lucille was a pork chop and mashed potatoes type of gal who raised four kids on her own, teaching in a one-room school house to make ends meet. As a child I didn’t even consider the toughness, the grit it took for her to keep my mother, aunt and uncles alive and a house running under those circumstances during the Depression. She never talked about it, and from what I could tell of her pristine home, she had her shit together. The linoleum floors were always gleaming, there was always a fresh crochet project blooming on the front porch, and there was always homemade ice cream firming in the freezer. So in my mind, she wanted for nothing.
There was no pretense of fine china or crystalware at grandma's. We ate off melamine plates and drank out of old jam jars, all perfect in their resistance to breaking, each deemed a "favorite" of each of my cousins. And centered at her table were the old standbys we looked forward to at every visit, not only because they were unique to her table but because she made them with us. The peanut butter cookies with the butterscotch chips with a hashtag we’d forked over the top. The pizzelles we’d dutifully counted out (one Mississippi, two Mississippi…) pressing the dough into the familiar design over and over with the ancient iron that I gratefully inherited last year. The “dum-dum salad” with the multicolored marshmallows and mandarin oranges and jello and CoolWhip. The celery which we’d filled with pineapple flavored cream cheese.
I have been to the table of traditions in which the women all have a matching set of the family china and silver which travels to the hosting family’s home each Christmas. It’s not for me. I stressed each year to ensure the kids were all wearing coordinating red outfits and I spilled coffee and gravy more than once on the white carpets and even whiter sofa. I once took the “wrong chocolate pie” to Thanksgiving and it was a big ‘ole freaking deal. I was never allowed to bring pie again.
I’m pretty lucky to be part of families which take a decidedly more practical approach. My mother-in-law clued me into the magic of an all-day “Open House” with no set time for a formal sit-down, no stress about who needs to arrive when, and where paper plates earn a rightful spot alongside an all-day buffet of whatever-people-feel-like-bringing. I make it my own by replacing napkins with a roll of paper towels. Our regular, daily dented silverware is at the ready in mason jars for people to grab if they want, or even need, them.
My parents are adamant they bring food to help out, and get the kids involved chopping alongside us in the kitchen, all while the adults drink wine and dip forks in the different creations. Lively music plays. We talk deep talk and we laugh even deeper. The quickening footsteps of children and dogs down the hall remind us: Time is passing.
So too were we passing the dining room, that dark, solitary place edged with eras gone by. Somewhere along the course of my misguided adulthood I’d gotten the idea that the room needed to be constantly at the ready - the center of the long table crowded with earnest seasonally-specific this-and-thats. Artfully placed branches that, really, would prevent everyone from actually seeing each other seated across the table. Candles, that if actually lit, would likely catch the branches ablaze. Empty white ceramic jugs huddled right along with golden deer in repose. Some mossy balls, cuz that’s a thing you find in nature, were tossed in for good measure. As a result, we all walked a wide berth around that room. It collected few memories and much dust.
Instead, we gathered in the kitchen, much as we did at my grandma's. Chairs were stolen from every room and edged into every spare nook and cranny, our family knee-to-knee and eye-to-eye as we caught up on past and upcoming knee surgeries, proposed family gatherings, and events past and future no one could remember the date to. It didn’t matter. That’s not what it was about. I couldn’t help noticing that had I been at the stove, or the sink, I’d have had my back turned to all the people I love most.
So this year as I shoved that ham into the oven I felt not only my grandma by my side, but all the many lovely women in my life who are saying “NOPE” to the formalities of hosting. I mean you, Cousin Beth who had Thanksgiving delivered from Giant Eagle, and it was perfection. I mean you, my mother-in-law Peg whose birthday celebration was spent singeing our eyebrows around a Hibachi grill, laughing. I mean you, my ex-mother-in-law who taught me the merits of a frozen Stouffer’s lasagna. You, mom, who gives dad a wide berth in the kitchen because he actually *enjoys* cooking, and more power to him. You, my new step-daughters, who take a “hard pass” with me on the ages-old expectation of days spent cleaning and meal prepping and instead join me for brunch and a pedicure.
Here on out, instead of offering to lend each other a hand in the kitchen, let's offer to lift a finger. Just one though. The middle one. Something tells me the ham will come out just fine anyway.