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rainy sunday

Posted in Uncategorized on January 18, 2010 by thatwasdelicious

Today was peace.  Inside the little apartment, outside in the rainy street, inside my heart and stomach. It was a nibbling day, one of the best kinds: where you are reading or writing or cleaning and only remember to eat when you are done. That is a great hunger – the forgotten kind, and easily satisfied by a big bowl of cereal and some fruit, or the second half of that sandwich from yesterday.

After a day of homebody nibbling, the elegant Msr Nick and I made a date for a poetry reading at L’Etage. When I climbed on my bike, the rain – steady, noisy drops all day – had lightened to a mist. The bike tires barely hissed on the street. Under the streetlights, my body felt light in the bicycle’s motion, sheer and bright, another electric reflection skimming the asphalt. I rode past the vibrating neon cheesesteaks of Pat and Geno’s, the darkened library, empty streets.  Nick was waiting upstairs, whiskey in hand. After an hour and a half of music and intricate words, we skipped out early to get a dessert crepe in Beau Monde’s last 10 minutes of Sunday night.

With little hesitation, we chose chocolate with crispy coconut, to be served with coffee ice cream. The crepe came already divided in two and sprinkled with powdered sugar. The ice cream melted where it hit the hot crepe. Oh, it was cold and bitter and sweet, and the crepe hot and crunchy and milksweet, that back-of-the-tongue cling of good chocolate. The textures and flavors wrapped around my tongue and tingled my teeth. Nick’s conversation about poetry and plans, and the sweetness, richness and perfection of the crepe, carried me home happy tonight.

christmas fish

Posted in Uncategorized on January 17, 2010 by thatwasdelicious

When I was growing up, I had a picture book about a little boy in Czechoslovakia going with his grandmother to pick out a live carp to cook up for Christmas dinner. That’s what the Czechs do on Christmas eve – pick out a fat carp from a barrel, take it home, and leave it in the tub until it’s time for the carp to go with Baby Jesus up to heaven and the cleaning and frying of the fish to begin.

I like eating fried fish on Christmas, a tradition my mom still observes. It’s tasty and doesn’t make you want to fall asleep right away, like turkey. (I just capitalized that by accident…those boring Turks!) It’s a meal I look forward to a lot. But this Christmas, Wooten and I were headed for his parents’ house, and the year before, I spent Christmas eating ice cream sandwiches on a lawn chair with my friend Oso, in order to avoid making smalltalk his large, jovial, and very conservative Argentine family.

This year I’d toyed with the thought of making fried fish, but it didn’t seem like there would be time before we left for GA.  When Joe decided to have dinner with us on the 22nd of December, though, and I discovered some  catfish in the back of the freezer, I found myself making Christmas dinner for the very first time. One might even say we whipped it up. Matt got some Canola oil to improve the frying, and I set out the three bowls  – one with egg, one with flour, and one with breadcrumbs – next to one another, just like I’d seen my mom do for 22 years. Coat the fish in egg, lightly in flour, and then breadcrumbs sticking to the yellow, floury layer of the first two.  And then a quick fry of the fish, which started to smell heavenly – salty and greasy and light.

Joe appeared with jug wine and the comforting clomp of boots up the stairs, gifts exchanged, radio shows made fun of, stories swapped, and then fish was on plates, mashed potatoes scooped out, and all devoured in the light of candles on our table and the Philly skyline outside.

Realizing I’d known how to make Christmas fish all along was great. The fact that it was ACTUALLY delicious, and that happy boys were eating seconds, was even better.

Home-maker

Posted in Uncategorized on January 14, 2010 by thatwasdelicious

On the first afternoon of the first visit to Matt’s family in Georgia, Kelly Wooten (his mom and an insanely delightful person) got up from lunch and said “I’m just going to whip up a snack cake.”

ms. kelly, wondrous whipperupper

Several discombobulating experiences had already occurred at the Wootens’. His parents greeted me with giant hugs, as if I had known them a very long time, and a beribboned journal and small welcome note on the guest bed. Then, candy dishes. It was noon, and three fistfuls of Hershey’s Dark Chocolate Nuggets and Dove Premonitions or Sentiments or whatever had already made their way into my tummy because candy dishes winked at me behind lamps and on bureaus. My parents don’t do candy dishes or welcome notes, and my urge to say  “thank you” every three minutes was beginning to embarrass everyone.

And now, this snack cake. How do you just “whip up” a cake? A cake, by my reckoning, is a complex, messy and mysterious object that

gets made over hours and days of saying “maybe we should make a cake…” and then procuring the ingredients and still missing a few of them and then substituting with Chai powder and milk and creating something so inedible that not even your humungous calorie-sucking younger brother will eat it.

Then I thought, Waverly would love this woman. “Whip up” is a phrase one may use to describe their cooking. When Wave writes about her childhood meals with such detailed sensory memory – and sense of recipe  – it’s obvious her mom introduced her into the life of the kitchen early. I imagine Wave chopping celery the way she does now (scary restaurant prep-style), a giant knife in her stubby five-year-old hands. Wave does not hold any misplaced wonder or fear about how food gets made.

My mother might have already pegged her daughter as too spacey to wield a rolling pin; also, she liked her dominion in the kitchen, and I was perfectly happy to be reading instead. So I mostly stayed away from the kitchen, except for omelettes with lots of chopped onions (the eggs had to be beaten in a copper bowl, according to my mom, for better aeration) and sometimes brownies from a box.

Until fifth grade or so, the kitchen was a warm, pleasant cave of bowls, NPR and the smell of melting butter (we must have cooked with a lot of butter, because I remember thinking it was essential to melt a big pat of it in every pan, including the first few times I made bacon). Things clanked, Terry Gross interviewed, butter sizzled, my mom frazzled, and food appeared.

In fourth grade, I learned how to boil water. It was a process that seemed dangerous to the point of foolhardiness, mostly because of the old gas-burning stove and its ticktickticktickticktickFWOOM! If the spark didn’t catch right away, the FWOOM would flash out blue for inches sideways from the bottom of the kettle (and maybe catch a nearby paper towel on fire and then maybe you would have to wave a flaming banner through the air and maybe drop it and stomp on it until crispy black shards littered the floor).

The first recipe to suffer at my hands was chocolate chip cookies, that self-fulfilling prophecy of a recipe on the Tollhouse chocolate chip bag. Unsure about fractions, I misread the cup measures (I thought that 1  3/4 cups meant one unit, being “3/4” of a cup, of flour). When we held the baking sheet vertically over the trash to scrape off the deflated mess, it dripped off the tin in goopy strings.

My senior year of college was the first year I closely watched someone cook.  Far from a conjuring trick, cooking turned out to be a practical process involving love, fear, experience, epicurious.com and presence of mind.Waverly’s hands worked systematically, with no wasted movement, and little external narration of her experimentations, so if you looked away for more than a minute, her dishes seemed to magically appear. Our roommate Michelle was a whirl of clanking bracelets, big sleeves, cigarette in the air, and at the center of it all, two small nail-polished hands chopping Japanese mushrooms and sprouts and whipping up bowls of noodles that she sucked down with total pleasure. Emily was a meticulous baker and chopper, her movements more languid, taking time to look at the incredibly symmetrical pieces of carrot she produced before they went in the pan.

energy bars for breakfast!

energy bars for breakfast!

I love all the styles of cooking I’ve watched, from cataclysms of frosting to clean-as-you-go assembly lines. The cooking style that continues to wow me,  though, is cooking without drama, the men and women who “whip things up.” They move from idea to creation so quickly. They don’t stop to mull on perfection, they take missing vanilla in stride, and they do it all with the knowledge that it will be gone soon. They are zen Buddhist monks creating brown-sugar mandalas.

Kelly did make that snack cake, in about fifteen minutes, with her stand-up mixer and a new recipe. She just for fun, just to have around under a big glass dish to snack on. When we came to visit for Christmas, she made chocolate chip cookies within about 20 minutes of walking in the door, and they were delicious: salty, sweet, chocolatey, chewy.  It’s the kind of easy doing and giving that’s adulthood, that makes homes and makes us at home in the world.

a fatty good year to you all

Posted in Uncategorized on January 3, 2010 by thatwasdelicious
*The traditional pork, saurkraut, mashed potatoes New Year’s meal with Blue Moon to celebrate the fact that we saw the new year in with a full, blue, moon.*

the least important food ever eaten

Posted in Uncategorized on October 25, 2008 by thatwasdelicious

From my balcony on sunday afternoon, I shout down at pablo, fruta o chocolate? it doesn’t matter, he tells me. yes it does, I shake my head at him, a little giddy.

ok then, apples, he says. I knew he was going to say apples. we’d gotten ice cream one time before and he’d chosen grapefruit and lemon and almond.  when I come down I see pablo coming across the street with a painted metal VENDO ALQUILO (for sale for rent) sign under his arm. i’ve been looking for one of these, he says, to cut off the ALQUILO and write “poetry” instead.

so what’s your specialty? I ask him when we’re in the car. oh. well. he laughs to himself, one of the first times i’ve seen him laugh at himself directly. fideos, pasta, he says. if I didn’t have pasta, I wouldn’t eat.
fideos? I should have asked you what your speciality was before I said i’d come over for lunch, I say.

pablo’s house is small and blue, connected to each of the other small colorful houses on the street. a desert version of west philadelphia row houses. little girls sitting on the steps, peeking their heads out from doorways. as pablo unlocks his door, a round little boy kicks the curb and asks where selva is. she’s not home now, pablo says, but she’ll be home soon. the kid nods and kicks the curb again, swings around the metal post of a street sign.

inside the door we encounter cool dark air, color, faces, and light. a giant painting in the entryway. a window looking out onto a tiny courtyard filled with cactI of all shapes and sizes. to the right, we pass into a living room, a chess board out on a side table, a game in play. family pictures and a carved wooden salteña head on a shelf, more paintings. a cool hallway, the large plain kitchen, and then a turquoise dining room.  more paintings and a big door with white curtains blowing out into a blue-walled garden.

the garden wraps around the house, scrubby grass interspersed with all varieties of bushes and cacti and flowers. flowering aloe. the coral-colored buds that we see only for a few days before they turn quickly yellow, pop open, and turn into dry sticks. tomato plants on woolen threads attached to the wall. laundry on a line. a yellow toy guitar and a pink wooden doll bed lying on a bench.

pablo leads me into the garden, tells me about each plant, each object, then suddenly crouches low to a dry spot of grass. first I see grass. then the grass grows legs. he shows me the team of five tiny frogs he found in the potrerillos dam when the water ran low in summer. when the water level goes down there are frogs by the thousands, and people don’t like to go past the dam because it “makes an impression.” but pablo went to go find frogs to bring back to the library for children to pick up as pets, and for people to put in their gardens to eat mosquitoes.

the frogs are fat, so the mosquito trick must be working. the amphibians are olive-green and so precise, their pouchy muscled thighs, curved nails, light little bodies, surprisingly dry to the touch. sometimes he lets them swim in a bucket of water, he says. we’re crouching on the ground talking, even after the frogs have hopped away. frog was my first spoken word, I tell him. everything stands out clear under the pale blue sky, intensely bright and hot.

our friendship began in my favorite nondescript cafe as interviewer and interviewee. I had seen a picture of pablo in a teen-run magazine in mendoza, with an article about a poetry workshop he ran with kids in juvie. then I ran into him at an asado for the magazine. he was standing by the grill in a yellow t-shirt, tending the logs, a slight guy in his early thirties. people came up to him one by one, made conversation, and drifted away. I brought an apple over to the asado. should I put it “en” the asado or “por” the asado? I asked, and laughed self-consciously. he looked at me for a moment. I don’t know, he said, por. and turned back to the flames. I felt like an asshole.

later I went over to him again and started asking him questions about his work. he barely spoke, but gave me his email address and we set up an interview. after a series of curt text messages he showed up at the appointed time in the plaza, a small upright figure standing there in the dark. his glasses glinted underneath the streetlight and he held a copy of the book the boys in the detention center had put together. we went to sit in the cafe, a place I like because it is exactly like every single other cafe in mendoza, the average of every cafe put together. the medialunas are mediocre and the banana milkshakes are good and the coffees are too small, but the waitress is a sweetheart.

I didnt’ know how to start the interview, and pablo looked ill at ease. it was eleven p.m. and I was almost falling asleep. I asked a few questions about how he started out the project, his philosophy, his techniques. pablo blinked a few times behind his glasses and launched into a discussion about making meaning and how metaphor frees us from accepting everything without question. over two and a half hours, I said barely anything, trying to keep up with the flood of spanish and ideas. he became animated, used his hands, built a stack of cups, drew diagrams. when we nodded goodbye politely, I had a million scribbles in my notebook and the top of my head blown off. I couldn’t tell where the conversation had gone, just that it was good to think hard again. and he was back to being the silent man at the asado.

now he’s invited me over for sunday lunch, to keep chatting. standing in his room, lined with bookshelves, he watches me with his impassive coffee-colored eyes. he keeps handing me books, projects, telling me about this memory project in chile, this kids’ magazine. I don’t know why he wants me here. when presented with all of these things, this earnest show and tell, I have to think of something to say with effort, half-wondering if my response matters. except the frogs, which remind me of my grandmother’s garden and utterly delight me.

i’m going to fall asleep, I tell him honestly. so he makes a mate and we sit and talk over bitter tea and little cookies. I don’t even know what we talk about. childhood memories. he says once in salta, the northern province where he grew up, when he was a very little boy he would climb on the back of a giant turtle that lived in a cactus, and go for a ride. I do not believe him, but he tells me it’s true.

we talk about reading, the hours he spends reading. you have to make time for it, there’s never going to be time, he says. you just have to do it. you have to sacrifice. what have you sacrificed for literature?

I can’t believe he’s asking me that question. nothing, I say, and ask him, do you know what each of this kind of cookie is called? I hold up the little chocolate biscuit. we are eating a mixed variety of cookies from a shiny red bag. there are purple-iced stars and circles, little shortbread squares, and dry chocolate drops. iced stars, he says. no. “anillos magicos.” magic rings.

he keeps talking about theories and the word and reading and the families he works with. his fine nose is freckled from the sun. I watch his hands as he pours the mate. they’re mediumsized, tan from being outside all day, clean pink nails. I interrupt once in a while with a comment, or to quiz him on the name of a cookie. little squares? he ventures. no, wrong again. this one’s a “mini-lincoln.”

it’s been an hour. at some point we’ve eaten all the cookies and we’re still at the table talking. let’s be useful, I say. I start peeling the apples. we both eat the skin. I give him pieces of skin sliced from the top of the apple, the roundest ones from just around the stem. we move in the kitchen without remark, talking as if we were not cooking, or as if we have cooked together before. I am making apple crumble. he is making the pasta.

for his speciality, the pasta is completely average. he warms up tomato sauce and oregano and garlic in a big metal mug on the stove top and starts boiling water. I cut apples into the big glass bowl and pour maple syrup all over them, begin to mix flour in, pour in vanilla extract and then dump cinnamon by the handful and squeeze in a lemon. when I needed to ask pablo for the mixing bowl, I couldn’t remember the word. instead I just made a bowl-shaped motion with my hands. the limitations of the word, I think to myself. the gesture of a bowl is a very satisfying gesture to make.

the radio is playing nineties hits and the breeze blows in the white curtain and the smells of the garden outside. as I stir in the flour I am reminded of making apple pie in the WRC with wave and my discovery that you put in a little flour to make that good gooey stuff that holds the whole filling together, and of the grainy dirty wood floor beneath my feet as I peeled apples. I use a block of butter to smear around the insides of the white enameled pan and end up deforming the block, which has warmed slightly in proximity to the oven.
I messed up your butter, I tell pablo. that’s what it’s for, he says.
the filling goes into a pan, straight, with oats and sugar and flour on top.

the pasta comes out onto the plates, slick yellowy strings with a pale red sauce. flecks of dried oregano drift in the pool of sauce at the bottom. there are warmed up fried potatoes on the side, bread and water to drink. pablo says, like a blessing, if you don’t like it, don’t eat it.

I take a bite. the pasta is garlicky and good, and otherwise totally mediocre, and I am already full of cookies and mate and apple skins and apple pieces and my stomach hurts and I do not want to eat pasta and potatoes and bread, which is really a meal only an argentine could create. and i’m wondering, while I listen to him talk, what he is thinking. he seems to need to fill up space in his kitchen, in this beautiful house full of art where he invites the kids he works with to draw on the whiteboard in the hall.

from what i’ve gathered from various anecdotes, this is a man who spent his entire childhood either reading, or out in the desert or the woods. he was “amargo,” he says, “acido.” bitter, sour. he discovered people when he started social work and then spent all of his young and not-so-young adulthood working with street kids, making art and writing and reading. when he was giving the poetry workshop to the boys, he had the night shift: they wrote together between midnight and seven in the morning. now he does poetry interventions and writes essays and reads for four hours a day.

it’s cool, really cool, and he seriously lives this way, it’s not an act. but there’s a missing piece here. he’s good at asking weird, hard questions, and he’s so straightforward about going to the kiosko for the vanilla extract I forgot, and he’s composed about whatever topic seems to come up, and comfortable talking about the people and situations he sees in his work.

but then he’s so serious. so serious and only interested in talking about ideas and work and even when we are talking about our lives he manages to weave it back into a theoretical discussion. he has invited me to come chat three times in a row, relatively close together.

but if he’s romantically interested, he does not show it at all: each meeting feels like a seminar. so I keep accepting his invitations, curious, enjoying the conversation, and slightly uneasy about the calm way he looks at me from across the table.

we go for a walk around the neighborhood before dessert. the sun is unforgiving now and the streets are empty. everyone is inside for siesta. my stomach is killing me and the sun is burning my bare shoulders. my blue and white flowered skirt-pulled-up-into-a-dress floats around my knees and I pull my shoulders back up and straight as I pad along the pavement in my dirty black loafers.

what do you really want to do with your life? he asks me. we pass by neat colored houses, and a giant pink flowering bush. he says, bottle-cleaner bush, naming it automatically.
I don’t know. I think I want to teach, but I know that i’m not ready yet. you kind of have to really know yourself so you can stop thinking about yourself, I guess.
but you’re never going to know yourself. you’re not just going to wake up one morning and say, today is the day I get it, today is when I have it figured out.
that is an excellent point, pablo.
you have to do things. you have to write. start something. start a workshop or an organization. go out and talk to people, get your hands dirty. what do you love?
oh jesus. I love watching good teachers teach. I love figuring out how to ask the right question. I love talking about books with people. beyond that i’m chicken.

the first night I interviewed pablo, he said to me, it makes me sick when people say they are writers in their free time. if you’re a writer, you don’t have free time. you have to get your hands dirty. you write whenever you can. you give stuff up to write. you write in the office, on the bus. and if you’re doing stuff for society or other people, it’s the same. you don’t do volunteer work in your spare time, drop in, drop out. you get your hands dirty. you know these people for their whole lives.

we arrive at a mural across a giant empty lot, next to the access to Route 40, the road that will eventually lead you to Patagonia and glaciers if you follow it far enough. three cubistic nude female figures in grays and blues cover a length of a hundred meters at least. one giant central figure, blocky, threatening, stretches her arms out, her palms covering the faces of the two which are posed, floating, to either side of her. graffiti covers the walls to either side of the mural, but nobody has touched the mural itself.
we painted this mural with women who were working as sex workers at the bus station, he says. we originally had the three muses, three nude women, but the neighbors complained about the nudity. after trying to explain the project to them they still didn’t like it. the women making the mural wanted to change the mural to a message about intolerance. these are women who want to see and hear nothing.

we walk home through dappled shade which is startlingly cool. when we enter the hallway, it smells like cinnamon. the dessert comes out, we eat it directly from the pan.
I think this will be better cold, pablo says. I keep my mouth shut about his pasta and potatoes.

I have to go get some work done and I ask Pablo to take me home. in the car on the way home, we pass a store called Dr. Bike. Another fast-food chain here in Mendoza is named Mr. Dog, and we pass the red-and-yellow facade of one of those too. Dr. Bike and Mr. Dog are friends, I say, joking. Mr. Dog is jealous of Dr. Bike’s professional success, and Dr. Bike is jealous of Mr. Dog’s more balanced lifestyle.
I look over at Pablo. I’m giggling, but he doesn’t crack a smile. Where did you get those characters, he asks. What? Those characters, he says. They have to come from somewhere.
I feel the need to have an answer to this silly question. My neighbors, I say, lying.
Do you have any enemies? he asks. No, I say. Well, one.
Who?
Guess.
A man or a woman?
A woman.
How old?
37.
When did your enmity start?
When I was six years old.
How could it have started when you were so young?
What do you think?
I don’t know. Did it have something to do with your age difference?
Yes.
What was it?
Well, guess.
That she somehow bothered you because she had power over you.
And?
I don’t know!

Ok, I don’t really have an enemy, I just wanted to see what you would say.
Boluda!
I’m sorry, I’m sorry, I’m sorry, that wasn’t really fair.

He looks a little upset at being tricked. I feel exhilarated. I don’t know why I lied, I was just sick of being serious. Lying to Pablo and then admitting it, instead of just lying because I don’t know what to say, creates a sense of legible friendship that has been missing all along. I am smiling when we pull up in front of my house.

So you’ll make soup next time.
Yes. I told you, it’s my specialty.
Ha. Ok. Entonces nos vemos.
Nos vemos.
We look at each other for a minute and then lightly touch cheek to cheek. I get out of the car and I wave goodbye.

That is the last moment that pablo and I can be friends. later that night I get a text message from Pablo. “were you bored?” it reads in Spanish. “The epidermis of the word is the most boring of all. next time, we will leave speech to the side.” Over the next week I get text messages of increasing urgency, asking me when we can see each other again, since both of us are going on trips in the next week, since if we don’t, “everything will end between us. sometimes it is important to do away with formalities.” i don’t respond for days. I’m trying to figure out how not to be disappointed. My students at the university, when I tell them this story, all laugh and tell me, Sunday lunch is the most important meal of all! You can’t go over to someone’s house for Sunday lunch and just think it’s for conversation.

I didn’t think it was solely for conversation. The kitchen is a place for creation, a place of process where our characters and intentions make themselves visible more clearly than in an end product. Watching how someone stirs batter tells you more about them then looking at the pancakes. In the kitchen, waverly moves precisely, with small movements that conserve energy. She gets in her own world and can seem very far away as she wipes countertops, but always comes back just in time to invite passersby to make, contribute, feel part of things. Nick, when he cooks, lets ingredients explode over countertops and onto the floor in a gorgeous baroque splattery extravagant mess. Annie cooks from cookbooks, finding funny old recipes, following the lines with a shapely white finger like some languid 1950s housewife, usually with the apron to match.

I interpreted the meal Pablo and I cooked together as a sign of friendship, the casual way we could move in the kitchen together as a mutual understanding between two people glad to have met each other, enjoying one another’s company, curious about one another. I took the courteous distance between our bodies as we reached for forks and knives and bowls, as we sat at the table, as respectful and wordless confirmation of the nature of that relationship. That understanding intrigued me. but i misread the situation, and Pablo.

Maybe I should have paid attention to the food, to Pablo’s preparation of the pasta. If he had had fresh vegetables ready to prepare with a complex recipe, or an actual specialty, would i have understood that he thought we were on a date?

In the end, i should have been able to interpret the gloppy yellow strings of pasta, those basic fideos with a pale red sauce. the invitation to cook was a pretext for conversation & company—not an enjoyment of the whole process. Pablo prepared his pasta without great care or interest or variety, and ate them as fuel, rather than for enjoyment. he called them his specialty, but obviously didn’t think about them that way: a disconnect between his treatment of things and their physical reality. and respect for that physical reality, how food actually tastes, where it comes from, what is actually said and done between two people in the kitchen, is very important. food doesn’t work in the imagination. and relationships don’t either.

breakfast at suzette’s

Posted in Uncategorized on October 8, 2008 by thatwasdelicious

This has to start out like a romance novel. Suzette wakes up at nine, wraps herself in a silk flowered robe, scrunches her short curly hair with her hands, squints and opens her almond eyes and lights her first Virginia Slim of the day. There are so many similarly stylish things to do and so little time.
At her giant glass table on the patio, Suzette eats orange marmalade for breakfast. She and my mother are the only two people I have ever known to enjoy orange marmalade. She slathers crackers in marmalade and drinks tea in between crunches. She peers over reading glasses at Los Andes and down her nose at the displeasing news. She looks for herself in the society pages. She delicately dips a finger into the tub of cream cheese, and offers the morsel to her gigantically fat tabby cat.
“Of course, how would I ever know if he was telling the truth? But he said no, he really had been hijacked and beaten and that’s why he hadn’t called me all weekend. Too bad, I had already called El Grandote and had my revenge…” The cat extends its neck past the bulk of its toddler-sized body, laps at the white paste, a lick, a lick, and a gulp. Suzette looks at the cat for a second, then at me, and then brings her finger to her thin pink lips and licks up what’s left.

earl gray with bergamont, brown sugar, and milk

Posted in Uncategorized on September 26, 2008 by thatwasdelicious

Yesterday I went to visit my grandfather. This was the first time in my adult life that I had taken it upon myself to drive up to his house and pay him a visit. I was formerly very sloppy in my relationships with my mother’s relatives, letting my mother decide when we would see them and for how long. And for a time in my life it was easy enough to consider granddaughterly duties fulfilled with a visit at Christmas and an invitation to graduations. There was also the added reassurance that my grandfather only lived half an hour away and I could go and see him at anytime.

But now I am leaving and I am not sure when I am going to be coming back. Two days ago my grandfather called to check in with my mom. He knew that she was moving to California and wanted to make sure that she had everything she needed. My mother and grandfather have a very complicated relationship. He was a WWII vet and when he returned, wounded, from the South Pacific his already inherent shyness and inability to communicate where compounded by the fact that he as an 18 year old (he had enlisted at the age of 16) had gone through the often unmentioned trauma of a war. When my mother was a child, he would hit when he was frustrated, clearly favored his youngest son over his two daughters, and was constantly threatening to send them to an orhpanage. My mother grew up fearful of speaking her mind and ends each story of her childhood trauma with, “Well, it was the 50’s what could he do?”

She still does not really trust him but in his old age he is softening and trying and so my sister and I have received many more gifts, making the multi-generational relationship to this man who was a not so great father to my mother and a distant but generous grandfather to me complicated at best. And so I have avoided really taking it upon myself to extend any efforts towards a relationship. But, when he called my mom and asked to speak to me, I could hear the age in his voice. There was something there that touched me and I felt that before I started off on my journey around the world, a journey that would not put my feet back on the east coast for at least another year, I should see him.

I drove all of the back roads from Lancaster to Maytown. Maytown was a small town with four main streets, a school on the outskirts, a post office, and a general store. My grandfather and grandmother had moved to an apartment there when they were first married and I spent the entirety of my childhood roaming through the fields that were behind our house and riding my bike along the stretches of road leading out of town.

The rituals of going to grandpa’s house always included tea. My mom is a tea drinker, I am a tea drinker, my aunt is a tea drinker and my grandfather is a tea drinker. His side of the family is Irish and so perhaps that has something to do with it. My grandfather’s preferred tea is earl gray with bergamont. Instead of being served with white sugar there is a bowl of brown sugar on the table and a pitcher of milk. Tea is made by the pot and usually in the course of one visit about three pots of tea are made and consumed. When my sister was younger she would put a pile of sugar on the bottom of her cup, pour the tiniest bit of tea over the sugar (just enough to dissolve the sugar), and fill the rest of the cup up with milk. My grandfather would always tease her, “Would you like some tea with your sugar?” and Claire who has inherited his own brand of shyness would duck her head and flush. But my grandfather takes his tea the same way and he would always tell her that.

My drive up to his house was on pure instinct. I took all of the back roads that we would take from our house to his, making turns before I really had anytime to think about what I was doing. The weather was cold and the air had the first hint of the fall sharpness that feels so delicious when you have the right number of layers on. I almost didn’t recognize the house when I pulled up. My step-grandmother (who is about five years older than my own mother) had initiated an overhaul of the house including a glassed in room with a fireplace where my grandfather will be able to sit and watch the birds that they coax to the birdfeeders. My grandfather, at the age of 83, still goes into the office four days a week. He has been saying that he will retire since I was in middle school but this year is for real. He told me that he is going to become a hermit and sit in front of his fireplace and watch football and news all day long. The man is clearly ready to withdraw from the world.

My visit was a surprise. The house was in disarray and I liked that because for once there was not the mantle of the properness and social nicety that inevitably goes along with holiday visits where we all are on our best behavior so that we don’t mar the grace of the Christmas spirit. Kathy, my step-grandmother was up at the barn with the horses, the dogs were in the yard barking at the arrival of someone new, and my grandfather was watching one of the endless news broadcasts that is the soundtrack for most of our visits to him. Within minutes of coming down from the barn, Kathy had the tea pot on the stove and the sugar bowl and milk pitcher on the table.

This visit was only a two pot visit but in the course of those two pots of tea my grandfather spoke more to me than he has in probably the past ten visits I have had with him. I heard about his war stories, his sister, his work, his feelings about his retirement. He showed me his medals from the war and the Japanese flag he had taken from a Japanese soldier he had shot. When I left about five hours later, I had the taste of earl gray still in my mouth. The drive home to Lancaster gave me time to dig out all of those old memories and run my thoughts over them the way a thumb will run over the familiar edge of a favorite childhood blanket. And arriving home, I felt like I knew where I was in a way that I haven’t in the past month with travels pending and my mom’s move to California in the works.

I am not sure how to end this post except to say that when I took the first sip of tea and my grandfather’s house, I realized that all of the other times I have had earl gray it has been missing something. I think it might have been the brown sugar but then again, it might have been the company.