This week marked the start of our first Guided Autobiography session of 2023. Our first theme? Delicious.
It’s my grandmother’s kitchen that I remember.
My grandmother, Pauline Barber Roth, was a good grandmother. That being said, Pauline hated my grandfather, her husband Robert, with whom she bickered on a daily basis. One could also assume Pauline hated her only child Barbara, my mother, with whom she shared the burden of my grandfather’s protracted illness and death and on whom Pauline counted after her tender, overworked knees could no longer carry the weight of her very short, very rotund body. What might be closer to the truth, however, is that rather than hating her child, it was the circumstances of Barbara’s life that Pauline hated. Because once Barbara discovered that the curves of her body were her currency, she used her hips and breasts and thighs to purchase what she thought she wanted in a way that startled and embarrassed Pauline’s Christian sensibilities; that muffled Pauline’s compassion for her daughter like a too-long steamed Christmas pudding wrapped in tight swaths of wet, sticky cheesecloth and kitchen string.
My grandmother Pauline loved her church, which was the Trinity United Church of Christ on the corner of Linden Street in Allentown, Pennsylvania. The century old brick church had a steeple and real bells – not pre-recorded – and steps leading parishioners to two over-sized bright red doors that opened not to heaven but to a dark vestibule and then into the church’s dusty, Shalimar soaked sanctuary. Trinity United Church of Christ was one city block from Pauline’s narrow, two-story row home at 123 Poplar Street and it didn’t matter if her faith was real or imagined – Pauline waddled to the church in search of communion with God every Sunday morning. Quite often her youngest grandchild, whom Pauline also loved, skipped by her side. That grandchild was me.
There is no question as to how I came to have such an insatiable sweet tooth.
More than the sweets, however, my grandma prepared for me lunches and dinners that make my mouth water almost sixty years later.
After the walk home from church, opening the screen door from the back porch into the kitchen guaranteed being met by the steamy aroma of pork loin in the pressure cooker. Sunday dinner was almost always pork loin served with sauerkraut, mashed potatoes, and a side salad made of English cucumber sliced paper thin, white onion sliced the same and dressed in nothing more than vinegar and a shake of black pepper.
But it was Saturday lunch that I loved the most. That was when I asked for anything I wanted and I only ever wanted two things: either a minute steak sandwich or a bacon, lettuce and tomato sandwich.
Minute steaks are very thin and lean and prone to being overcooked but with my grandma as chef that never happens. While I sit at her kitchen table reading Archie comics she begins by frying onions in her cast iron pan until they are brown and crisp around the edges. As they finish she pushes them aside with her spatula and adds the steaks. In the few minutes it takes for the meat to brown she pulls a bun from under the broiler that has been toasting open faced and dresses it with horseradish and ketchup that has been mixed together in a bowl. She layers one half of the onions, a thin slice of provolone cheese, the warm minute steaks, another slice of cheese and more onion then closes the sandwich, slices it on the diagonal and sets it on a plate in front of me with a small glass of 7-Up. The horseradish and ketchup make my mouth pucker. The cheese has melted and pulls away in strings when I take a bite. Juice from the steak and greasy onions runs between my fingers. There’s nothing better. Nothing.
On warm and humid summer days I lean toward tomato, bacon and lettuce sandwiches. Grandma makes hers with three slices of toasted white Wonder Bread, a slather of Miracle Whip on each one, crisp iceberg lettuce from the fridge, tomatoes that taste like the sun and strips of bacon fried so they are neither too soft and fatty nor too stiff and crackling. She cuts the sandwich into quarters and pierces each quarter with a toothpick to hold everything together. The dance of warm, salty bacon, acid from the tomato, tart mayonnaise and cool, sweet lettuce is a level of deliciousness that my young mind can’t comprehend or put into words.
If I had known that my last weekend at my grandma’s house was going to be my last, or that the last lace cookie in the tin was the very last lace cookie, or that I would never be able to master Grandma Pauline’s pork loin or corn pie or potato candy or BLT I might have paid more attention. But a child doesn’t know about paying attention, or that things end. Besides, it never feels final, those last times together in the kitchen. Looking back I can see it was more like a slow fading away.