Weird Lunches with My Grandmother

August 24, 2010 · 12 comments

There was a definable period of time back in the mid-1970s when every Sunday afternoon seemed to be punctuated by a silent lunch in my father’s mother’s Brooklyn kitchen. It wasn’t so much that we didn’t have anything to say to each other. What rendered me speechless was the fact that, for a very long stretch, her food was particularly odd and usually involved a lot of staring.

One one occasion, she tottered over to me from the attached kitchen, whose thick, white walls had been painted annually since 1934, making it impossible to close the cabinets. I was sitting opposite my father, who was reading a properly folded New York Times and drinking a cup of Sanka, when my grandmother shuffled around behind me and put down a soup bowl whose contents resembled exactly the Pepto Bismal I’d been dosed with a week prior, after coming down with a stomach bug. I just looked at it.

My grandmother shuffled back to me a minute or so later, and dolloped a heavy tablespoon of thick, white sour cream in the middle of the bowl.

“Swirl it around—” she said.

I sat with my hands at my sides and stared.

“Try it,” she implored, untying the flowered apron from around her substantial waist.

“I don’t eat pink food,” I replied, looking at my father for help.

“What does she mean, she doesn’t eat pink food?” my grandmother asked him. I loved it when my family talked about me like I wasn’t there.

“She doesn’t eat pink food, mom,” he said. “You heard her—-”

“She’ll eat this,” she responded, pointing at the bowl and staring at me.

I picked up my fork and gingerly dipped the tines into the rose-hued liquid, and tasted. It was sweet and peppery and earthy, and I loathed it. I put my fork down and stared at the bowl. A minute later, it was removed. I heard it land in the sink from a great height.

A week later, we were back at my grandmother’s apartment, having another lunch. We had just seen Young Frankenstein at the Ziegfield in Manhattan, and it was all my eleven year old self could do not to act out the various parts. I thought that both it, and I, were hilarious. My grandmother was unmoved.

“Sit,” she said, and I did. My father was in the other room, on the phone with my mother who had stayed behind in Forest Hills. My grandmother toddled into the kitchen and opened the refrigerator door. I heard the telltale bang of jar lid against counter, and then the sound of released air compression. A plate was put down in front of me, and on it was a small, gray calves brain.

The words Abby Normal coursed through my mind, and I just stared.

We stopped having lunch at my grandmother’s house right after that, since it was clear that she had absolutely no sense of what was appropriate to feed kids, and what wasn’t. This wasn’t a situation like the ones my friends complain about today, where they can’t get their children to eat a piece of fish, or a spear of asparagus. This woman was feeding me borscht, and brain-on-a-plate, and wondering why I wouldn’t eat it.

Years later, after my parents divorced, I’d spend pretty much every Saturday night at my grandmother’s house, along with my father, who was living there for a while. And every Sunday morning, I’d shudder in fear over what might be served to me at the breakfast table. One day, she ambled over to me carrying a cottage cheese container shrouded in an air of culinary mystery. I knew that what was inside was probably not what was on the label. I looked at my father for help.

“You’ll eat this–” he said, “Trust me.”

I trusted my father implicitly when it came to food; after all, he was a man who would drive for two hours to get to a pastrami sandwich.

My grandmother pried the lid off, and inside was a strange amalgam—a sort of spread that looked like a beige combination of cottage cheese mashed together with cardboard packing material. She dolloped some on my plate, and my father handed me an indefinable Scandinavian cracker that had the consistency of styrofoam.

“Put the spread on the cracker,” he said–“Just try it, once.”

It was remarkable, if you like fish for breakfast (which I do). Somehow, my grandmother had gotten it into her head that blending together large curd cottage cheese with skinless, boneless sardines was a good idea. I’m not sure how she got to it, and even now, I would make fun of it, but I can’t: it was delicious, and to this day it remains one of those weird things that I eat when I eat alone. When Deborah Madison and Patrick McFarlin‘s book, What We Eat When We Eat Alone came out last year, it was this dish that I immediately thought of, mostly because Susan doesn’t want to be in the same house, or the same state, when I make it.

But now that I work from home full time, she doesn’t have to be.

Cottage Cheese and Sardine Spread

Cheap, simple, and actually packed with calcium, this is a spread that either you love, or you run screaming from. When Susan and I go grocery shopping together and she sees me standing in front of the canned fish, she knows what’s coming next: a trip to the cottage cheese department. A quick and easy lunch that’s ideal for when you’re sitting in front of the computer and on deadline, I usually eat it on Wasa crackers, or a whole grain bagel, or similar edible cardboard.

Serves 1-2

3/4 cup large curd, unsalted cottage cheese

1-2 tins skinless, boneless sardines packed in water, drained

Possible additions: finely diced cucumber, dill, finely diced scallion

1. Spoon out the cottage cheese into a medium bowl, and fluff it up with a fork.

2. Add the sardines, mashing as you go. The resulting spread should be an even combination of fish and cheese.

{ 11 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Katherine Whiteside August 24, 2010 at 6:12 pm

I adore cottage cheese and I love sardines on saltines, so this has gotta be great!

My favorite way to eat sardines is to drain the oil almost completely and dump the fish on a plate. Next I cut pieces fennel bulb and dress them with bit of olive oil, cider vinegar and pepper. Then I eat sardines on cracker, a piece of crunchy fennel, sardines on cracker, fennel, etc. If you going to talk to anyone later, you definitley have to have gum in your mouth!

Thanks for this great grandma story. It’s a keeper.

2 Elissa August 24, 2010 at 6:26 pm

Thanks Katherine–sounds delicious!

3 A Davis August 24, 2010 at 7:38 pm

I’m telling you….I love your blog.

4 Deborah Madison August 24, 2010 at 9:35 pm

How weird and wonderful that your grandmother actually did that, and
that you liked it! I love sardines. I love cottage cheese. I have yet to have them together in the same bite. Not for long, though.
Thanks, Elissa for another great idea.

5 Elissa August 24, 2010 at 9:53 pm

Thank you so much!

6 Elissa August 24, 2010 at 9:54 pm

Bertha Altman is to thank, Deborah–let me know what you think. It’s also great with farmer cheese (if you can find the really good stuff)!
PS: Weird would be the operative word. Brains, no way. Sardines and cottage cheese? Count me in.

7 Ben Crumlich August 24, 2010 at 11:50 pm

For me, growing up Pennsylvanian, cottage cheese was always accompanied with a “plop” of apple butter. But since I can enjoy sardines from the tin I will have to give this a try. I have no brains and apple butter anecdotes.
The PA Dutch would have no part of this.

8 Susan August 25, 2010 at 9:21 am

In my own defense, I love cottage cheese and grew up eating sardines but this is a case of the whole being far weirder than the sum of it’s parts. Kind of like mixing ketchup and grapefruit sections, spreading it on a slice of chocolate pound cake and calling it lunch. Of course, I love those cinnamon buns that burst out of the tube when you smack it against the counter, so I obviously can’t be trusted culinarily.

9 Elissa August 25, 2010 at 1:12 pm

Your mother was big on daisy hams too, so look who’s talking…..

10 sharon eisen August 25, 2010 at 8:07 pm

I have to try this! I, too, had some very weird food set in front of me as a child, but never this. Gotta give this one a shot.

11 Lea September 1, 2010 at 2:24 pm

My grandmother poured me a glass of seven-up and milk whenever I arrived at her house, knowing it was my favorite. I assume it was her variation on a soda-fountain cream soda. Delicious, strange as it sounds.

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