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.