Adapted from Dawn Lerman | My Fat Dad | Berkley, 2015
No one can contest a grandmother’s love. Yet some grandmothers tend to express this in more poignant, soul-soothing, life-changing ways than others. Here, author Dawn Lerman extols the virtues of her grandmother Beauty’s manner of caring for her young granddaughter, excerpted from Lerman’s compellingly written memoir, My Fat Dad: A Memoir of Food, Love, and Family, with Recipes. If you’ve got a grandmother story of your own to share, kindly let us know in a comment below.–Renee Schettler Rossi
My maternal grandmother always told me if just one person loves you, that is enough to make you feel good inside and grow up strong. For me, that person was my grandmother Beauty.
I spent most weekends with my grandmother because my parents liked to go out and stay out late, and my mother hated to pay good money for a babysitter only to find her asleep on the couch with Tinker Toys and Mr. Potato Heads sprawled all over the plush white, blue, and green patterned shag carpet in the living room when she returned home. It infuriated her that her Moroccan ashtrays on the side tables would inevitably be filled to the brim with menthol cigarettes and Juicy Fruit gum, and my dad would expect her to empty them while he would gleefully offer to drive the babysitter home.
I would spend most mornings, when I was not at my grandmother’s house, outside my parents’ door listening to them have the same argument over and over again. Often, they would forget I was even in the house, raising their voices behind their closed bedroom door, and no matter how many times I knocked, they never seemed to hear. Hoping someone would remember I had not yet had breakfast, I would write a note, with pictures instead of actual words, and slip it under the door before I rushed into my room and packed my little paisley suitcase. I didn’t really want to run away; I just wanted to be found. No matter how long I hid in my closet, my parents never seemed to search for me; nor were they ever thrilled when I magically reappeared. Even though I was only three and a half, I was often consumed with an overwhelming feeling of sadness and pain in my stomach that would linger from Sunday till Friday. I knew the days of the week because my grandmother showed me how to check them off on a calendar.
Each and every Friday night, when I arrived at my grandparents’ house, my grandmother would run down her front porch stairs in her lacey matching nightgown and robe set and scream in excitement, “My little beauty, my little beauty!” I thought when I heard her say “beauty” over and over again, she was trying to tell me her name—so Beauty is what I called her. The name stuck, and soon everyone in her small neighborhood of West Rogers Park in Chicago knew my grandmother as Beauty.
Beauty always had a pot of something cooking on the stove. For meals, she would lift me up and sit me in a special chair, which she piled high with several phone books—both the white and yellow pages—and an overstuffed round corduroy pillow. She wanted to make sure I could see above the table, which was set with silverware that she polished every week and an embroidered tablecloth.
“Katchkala,” my grandfather would say, calling me by the pet name he had for me, “there is nothing like Beauty’s soups and roasts to make all the problems of the world go away.” Before I even had words to describe the delicious, thick-as-fog split pea soup flavored with bone marrow, I knew what he was saying to be true. No matter what I felt during the rest of the week, the anticipation of Beauty’s food and of time spent with her lifted my spirits. Little Beauty is what she called me, and beautiful and special is how she always made me feel.
I loved strolling hand in hand with her up and down Devon Avenue. As we walked by each shop that she frequented daily, the owners would always run out and say, “Beauty is here.” They would hug her and she would hug me, saying, “Look who I brought with me today. I am so lucky to have my little beauty with me, my precious Dawn.” Everyone seemed so happy to see us, gifting us with all sorts of goodies. Gittel at Levinson’s Bakery would give us cinnamon and chocolate babkas to taste—flaky and buttery, filled with chocolate almost as gooey as raw brownie dough. Robert at Robert’s Kosher Fish Market would give us lox tails to suck on—smoky, greasy, and a little too salty for my tastes. And the old women at the fruit stand would always give me a couple pieces of dried apricot—naturally sweet as candy—to enjoy while my grandmother filled her basket with the freshest produce. They would all tell me what a nice, good girl I was, and Beauty would say there was no better girl than me, making sure to compliment them as well.
Beauty was the perfect name for my grandmother. She was like a shiny star that radiated light on the top of a Chanukah bush. Everywhere she went she made people smile. She would jokingly say she was Jackie Mason’s real wife—he just didn’t know it. But it was not that what my grandmother said was so funny, but that she would just laugh so hard after she said something that everyone else couldn’t help but join in. “Laugh and people will laugh with you, cry and you will cry alone. The closest distance between two people is a good laugh” was a fortune cookie saying that she saved and always kept in her pocketbook. Beauty emphasized how important it was to make others happy, even if it sometimes meant putting your own feelings aside. “We do not know what goes on in anyone else’s house, but we can change their day by just saying hello and offering a kind gesture.”
No matter what time my Papa returned home—and it was often late, except Saturdays, when he walked in the door at seven o’ clock sharp—Beauty was ready for his entrance. Her hair was done up in a perfect beehive, and warm, delicious, homemade food was on the table—potato latkes, or a cholent, or chicken soup with matzo balls—which I always helped make.
Changing our clothes and putting our special aprons on before we cooked was almost as important as what we were cooking. While Beauty liked everything immaculate, she wanted us to be able to be covered in flour, chocolate, or whatever, and not worry about stains, no matter what we were cooking. If we did dirty our garments, we would scrub them on a washboard down in the basement before we ate. Sometimes, when we were doing chores, my grandmother would put egg masks on our faces—she said it would make us look young forever. Beauty made everything fun. I loved helping her chop, dice, mix, fry, and stew. If I asked her how much celery to chop for her famous chicken soup, she’d wave off the question. “Just use your creativity,” she’d say. “You can’t go wrong when you use fresh ingredients.” She’d throw in a few parsnips, sweet potatoes, garlic, chicken legs, chicken bones, even chicken feet, and two hours later it was the most delicious thing I’d ever tasted.
The matzo balls were a little trickier. They required a little more precision. Usually, Beauty was a little-bit-of-this, little-bit-of-that, taste-as-you-go-along cook, but matzo balls were not included in this repertoire. “I used to just mix the matzo meal with oil, eggs, salt, and throw them into some boiling water. But then when your mother became engaged to your dad and I went to your Bubbe Mary’s for Rosh Hashanah, I was transformed. Who knew a matzo ball could be so fluffy, not hard like a baseball!”
“Did you ask her how to make them?”
“I did. She told me it was her little secret. But on your parents’ wedding day, she whispered to me, ‘schmaltz and ginger ale!’”
“It took me a lot of experimenting before they stopped sinking to the bottom of the pot. But I think I have come close.” Beauty held her hand over mine as we cracked and separated the eggs, and added seltzer instead of ginger ale to the wooden bowl. She reached for the small jam jar that contained the schmaltz that she stored in her refrigerator—instructing me to take just two spoonfuls and no more. “I save the drippings when I roast a chicken. You don’t want to cook with schmaltz every day, but everything in moderation is okay. And a little bit here and there adds flavor.”
Once the mixture was chilled, we’d coat our damp hands with crumbled fresh matzo so our hands wouldn’t stick to the mixture when we rolled the balls. One by one, I’d hand them to her, and she’d place them into the stock—never water.
When Papa would rave about the meal, she’d always say that everything tasted so good because I helped.
We could sit around the table cooking and talking about our feelings for hours. Beauty would say, “God is in my kitchen, not in temple”—which was really upsetting to her very good friend and neighbor the rabbi next door. My grandmother lived in a neighborhood with many religious families, although Beauty never believed in organized religion or going to temple herself. “I am a culinary Jew,” she’d proclaim. “I honor tradition and those who came before me, and I want to pass the history of the food on to you. I can find my heritage in a bowl of soup. I believe in the power of sweet-and-sour meatballs. I believe that when I combine, eggs, raisins, cottage cheese, yogurt, and baby shells into a kugel, I honor my own grandmother. I believe that stuffed cabbage connects me to my father, whom I miss. My bible is recipes that fill your soul and will keep you healthy and nourished for years to come.”
From the time I could hold a spoon, Beauty always made sure I was the one who tasted whatever we were making first. In her arms, I was never hungry for food, love, or affection. She was my mentor and my savior—saving my life, spoonful by spoonful.
What a treasure chest of sweet memories! Well, I suppose I should say, sweet and sour.