I was a lesbo-kitchen child

When my mother was still in her twenties, her mother came to live with us. My grandfather had just died, and even though Grandma was sixty eight and able-bodied, and would live another dozen years, Diamond Lil said goodbye forever to her life in Washington and moved in with us. The year she came, my elementary school, Borinquen New Building, solved its overcrowding problem by dividing grades between morning and afternoon shifts. Fourth grade began at noon. So Granny and I spent the mornings together, just the two of us.

Most of my early memories of her are from that time. Granny in her flowered mu mu in the kitchen having a snort. Handmade noodles rolled out six feet long on the kitchen table and draped over the backs of chairs. Cigarette smoke wafting down the hall from her first floor bedroom, over the dull flash and drone of a black and white tv. Sitting between her thick legs as she pinned tight braids over the top of my head into a crown. Instead of using elastic bands, she wrapped the ends of the braids with hairs pulled from the hairbrush.

That year Granny started teaching me to cook. We began with scrambled egg sandwiches. She liked her scrambled eggs straight up (no milk, no water), loose, and cooked in plenty of butter. I learned to turn off the electric burner as soon as the eggs hit the hot pan – letting the residual heat finish the cooking. Then I’d spoon soft, shiny eggs between slices of thickly buttered white bread, give them a generous shake of salt and pepper, and cut the sandwich neatly on the diagonal.

From eggs, we moved on to grilled cheese sandwiches, which were prepared using one of those hinged griddles that could be used for waffles if you flipped the grates over. Butter the first slice of bread and lay it on the counter, butter side up. Butter the second slice and lay it butter side down on top of the first slice. On top of that, slices of longhorn colby cut from a red waxed cylinder, and long strips of dill pickle. When the orange light blinks off, the griddle is good and hot: lift the top slice of bread with its cheese and pickle onto the griddle, then cover it with the second slice and close the lid.

Those two simple recipes were enough to give me command of the kitchen. Most days, Granny attended to her soap operas and I was left to my own devices. I remember the day that I was standing on the kitchen counter reaching for the griddle in a high cabinet and fell backwards off the counter flat onto my back. Knocked the breath clean out of me. Another time when I was making grilled cheese, the frayed cord of the griddle began smoking and sparking wildly. I can’t imagine how, but Granny didn’t see or hear either incident, and rather than lose my new found culinary autonomy, I kept these as my secrets.

The next year my parents separated and we moved out of the big house on the Coast Guard base into a single-story surrounded by lime, pomegranate and papaya trees. Our landlords grew tall stands of corn, and a couple of horses rambled about a rocky slope just the other side of a barbed wire fence. For fifth grade, I switched to a private school with a proper schedule. Granny was still asleep most mornings when my sister and I piled into a kid-packed Volkswagen Beetle for the sweaty and songful (Rocky Mountain High! The Hills are Alive! With the Sound of Music!) hour-long drive to school. For that year, the cooking lessons would cease. I remember little about the food we ate at home, except that we cooked over Sterno canisters when Hurricanes David and Fredrick hit, and that we were indulged with powdered doughnuts on Halloween (sugar!). Nevertheless, the mold was set. The next year, there would be another school, another house, and at the tender age of 11, I would be promoted to my grandmother’s sous chef.

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7 Responses to “I was a lesbo-kitchen child”


  1. 1 Katie Rooney April 20, 2009 at 9:00 pm

    Jami,

    I like your grandmother stories. My grandmother also came and lived with us when I was in jr. high. She didnt cook because she really couldnt see too well. That was the reason she came to live with us. She almost burnt down her house one day and my Mom was like you need to come live with us. That probably explains why I tend to over cook things…… She rather enjoyed Long John Silver. Katie

    • 2 jami April 20, 2009 at 11:36 pm

      Hey Katie, I want to hear more of your grandmother stories! When I started this blog, I thought that what I wanted to write about was food – but it turns out that family is as much of the food story as anything!

  2. 3 Kelly April 21, 2009 at 12:21 pm

    Gramdma stories are the best. I only ever knew one Grandma and she was a great cook of traditional New Mexican food. Every meal – even Thanksgiving – had red or green chile in it somewhere and we ate pinto beans every day from birth until I was a teen and I never once got tired of them. Frijole love is something I share with Jami.

    My Grandma made tortillas every day on an ancient, tiny, cast iron griddle that had a permanent place on the back burner of the stove. It was pitch black from use and had a crack down the middle. One time, when her sister Gertrude (Antie Gert) came for a visit from California she tried to make a fried egg on that griddle. My Grandma was gone and my brother and I were in the kitchen with Aunt Gert. When we saw her break an egg over that griddle our eyes nearly popped out of our heads. That griddle was for TORTILLAS ONLY! Holy crap! Get that egg off of there woman!

    Hmm – maybe that’s who I got some of my rigid tendencies from?

    • 4 jami April 21, 2009 at 3:17 pm

      omg! I! love! this! story!

      our new stove has a griddle in the center. I think we need to revive your grandmother’s tortilla making tradition. if we did it every day for a couple of weeks, do you think they’d be as good?

  3. 6 Elaine May 15, 2009 at 11:37 am

    I miss living near all of you. . . :(


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