My Grandmother Was Made of Cast Iron
She gave me more than her recipes.
Material possessions don’t carry a lot of weight with me. They’re just things. But, there are exceptions.
I am the owner of my 102 year-old Italian grandmother’s cast iron skillets. They are as small as she is. They are well seasoned after years of use making pasta crepes for cannelloni.
My sister and I didn’t spend a lot of time with our grandmother growing up. Our family was riddled with strife. Years passed without communication so when we had time with her, it was well spent. We were too young then to understand what family strife even was.
Our visits always involved food. My grandfather passed away in 1972, leaving my grandmother to live the entire second half of her life alone.
When she had people to cook for, that was her time, her love. We were the happy recipients of that love.
Growing up in an Italian family means you grow up in the kitchen. The smells. The warmth. The music. The occasional smack on the back of the legs with a wooden spoon if you got out of line. My grandmother’s kitchen was no exception. It wasn’t fancy. What she cooked with was old, well worn and banged up.
If you stand still around my grandmother for more than three minutes, she’ll tell you how she was one of the best dancers in the city. She frequented the dance clubs in Harlem and would dance the Jitterbug all night long. Men always wanted to dance with her even though she says no one thought she was pretty. She never had gentlemen callers until my grandfather.
Even well into her 90’s, if you stood still for five minutes, she’d show you how she danced. All 4 feet 10 inches of her with arms and legs all over the place.
She always danced in the kitchen to Glenn Miller. It’s her favorite. I’d sit on a stool at the counter and watch her and laugh. She’d make me a chocolate egg cream. Everything she cooked was without a single recipe. Just by heart. Learned from doing the same thing with her mother and grandmother in a tiny apartment in New York City, inhabited by a very large family.
My grandmother swears the key to longevity and good health is a clove of raw garlic every morning. She has preached this to everyone for decades now. She still does. It’s worked for 102 years. What it doesn’t do is stave off dementia.
It started in her early 90’s. She became more than forgetful. I had started going to her apartment once a month to pay her bills for her. I’d lay out all the bills and write the checks for her to sign. She’d cook for me. When everything was done, I’d put the checkbook and bills in her dresser drawer and we’d have a big lunch.
After a little while, she started forgetting I had been there. She forgot it was me that put the checkbook in the drawer. Paranoia snuck in with the dementia. Anger and fear came right behind. She became certain someone was coming in her apartment and moving things. We couldn’t convince her otherwise. We became afraid she’d hurt herself or someone else.
In the Fall of 2010 it was clear she could not take care of herself anymore. She needed care we couldn’t give her. We had to move her out of her apartment and into a home that understood what was happening to her because she didn’t.
The last time I visited her apartment, she made me cannelloni. I wanted to hold on to that moment. To her. I asked her to show me how to do it.
She laughed at me and looked at me as if to tell me I was crazy. I should just know. I’m Italian. I was born knowing how to do this. After we ate, we cleaned up. She dried the small skillets and handed them to me with no formality or presentation.
“Here. Take these with you. What am I going to do with them?”
I knew that once we moved her out of her apartment, she would never cook again. I think she knew that too.
Those skillets are two of the most prized possessions I have. As long as I have those, I have her. This Christmas Eve, one of my courses will be a crab meat stuffed cannelloni I’ll make with her skillets. I’ll play Glenn Miller. There will be dancing. I’ll bring her some to enjoy for dinner. Bringing her that meal is the greatest expression of my love for her that I can conceive. After what she gave me, I hope it’s enough.