My grandmother outlived five of her doctors and died just 15 months shy of her 100th birthday.
I took her to many of her appointments and would watch with amusement when the docs would invariably ask her about her diet. They were seeking sage advice on how to live a long and healthy life, mentally and physically. Did the secret lie with yogurt and a serene outlook? Was she vegan? Perhaps she followed an early version of the Atkins diet?
Try doughnuts, Pepsi and pork-fat sandwiches.
My grandmother, a Polish immigrant, arrived in Detroit in 1928 and tended bar for 60 years. She was a terrible cook with notoriously bad eating habits.
I would love to write that she left us treasured Polish recipes for paczki (doughnuts) or kapusta z zeberkami (sauerkraut with pork), but she didn’t.
I was reminded of her dreadful eating habits this summer as I read a great new book called What She Ate by Laura Shapiro. Shapiro chronicles the eating habits of “six remarkable women,” including Eleanor Roosevelt, who, she says, waged a culinary Cold War in the White House against her husband. My grandmother could have been Eleanor’s protégé.
Grandma opened the bar on Michigan Avenue every morning at 6 a.m., muscling past a line of auto factory workers waiting for their shot-and-a-beer before starting work at the Cadillac Clark Street plant or Chrysler’s McGraw glass plant.
She would always stop at the bakery across the street first and buy a bag of three or four cream-filled doughnuts. After serving her first customers, she would make a pot of coffee and cut the doughnuts in half. Then she would slather them with butter and roll them in sugar. Thus properly fortified, she would serve drinks until my grandfather relieved her for the second shift around 2 p.m.
In addition to the coffee, my grandmother would down anywhere from six to 12 bottles of Pepsi every morning. She was a true addict in this sense and no one realized her problem until my grandfather’s accountant noticed a discrepancy in the books. Grandma was drinking the profits, although not in an alcoholic sense. She was a teetotaler who often told me in broken English, “There’s nothing worse than a drunk womans (sic).”
My mother recalls living with a mother who hated to cook. Grandma didn’t mind if my mother’s diet consisted of little more than a bag of oranges and candy bars.
Growing up, I would spend my summers with grandma, dreading meals but loving everything else.
Her idea of lunch was opening a can of pumpkin — plain pumpkin, not pumpkin pie filling — heating it up and serving it with a generous helping of butter. Another favorite on the lunch menu was sardine sandwiches, which also came from a tin.
Like others in the neighborhood, she had a fondness for pork-fat sandwiches. She would fry a pork steak the night before and then cut off and save the fat, which was stuck the next day between two pieces of pumpernickel bread — mustard optional. She also liked to mash a slice of bread into a glass of milk for a slurry snack.
A real treat was heading to downtown Detroit on the bus with grandma and having lunch at Sanders, a local confectionary. It was always a “brown lunch.” Grandma would go through the cafeteria line and pick out two things for us: mashed potatoes with brown gravy and hot fudge sundaes. It was hard to tell them apart and they were delicious.
Bread, coffee and French fries were her favorites until the day she died.
The one thing she did well was chicken soup, probably because it was so simple. She would put a whole chicken in a large stock pot, throw in an onion cut in quarters, two chopped carrots, two chopped ribs of celery, a sprig of dill, and salt and pepper. It had to be simmered for eight hours. Grandma made her own noodles on her Formica-topped kitchen table, dropping an egg yolk into a pile of flour and mixing it by hand.
The soup was always served with a scoop of mashed potatoes in the center (along with the noodles), for a true carbohydrate feast.
I didn’t realize until later that it was all poor people food.
Grandma grew up in a Polish village that was often overrun by Russian soldiers in the early part of the 20th century. They would commandeer her home with its single bedroom for nine people and take whatever food the family had. Always bold, Grandma told me that she once stood in the mess line behind the soldiers when she was nine. When she got to the front, she held out her hand for some bread. Luckily, the cook laughed so hard at her daring that she was given a whole loaf and told to go away.
Grandma ate and did whatever she could to survive. It reminds me of How to Cook a Wolf by M.F.K. Fisher. The book was first published in 1942, not long after the Depression, when wartime shortages were at their worst. What do you do when the wolf is at the door? Cook him. To my knowledge, grandma never cooked a wolf, but would have, given the right opportunity.
When she wasn’t serving her grandchildren pork-fat sandwiches or chicken soup with mashed potatoes, Grandma used food as entertainment. A favorite growing up was her “burglar pie.”
She would hand us a pie tin and tell us to mix up anything that we wanted in it, including the cleaning supplies under the kitchen sink. We were not to eat it, but leave it on the kitchen table overnight in case any burglars showed up. They would eat it and die and we would be safe. We all slept well at grandma’s house. It was her recipe for reassuring scared kids. Burglar pie became a family favorite.
She only made one holiday meal that I can remember. It was Thanksgiving and the turkey was in the oven. Unfortunately, she forgot to turn the oven on. It was hours before we ate. My mother made all the holiday meals after that until I took over.
My grandmother was not terribly overweight, despite her questionable diet. She walked to work every day until she was 84 and did a lot of yard work when her shift ended. She was fit.
She would probably scoff at the books I read today, including Anti-Cancer: A New Way of Life. “Every day, at every meal, we can choose food that will defend our bodies against the invasion of cancer by detoxifying carcinogenic substances and supporting our immune system,” it says. The diet does not include cream-filled doughnuts and Pepsi.
Not being overly concerned about what you eat, as long as there’s something on the table, is part of grandma’s legacy. However, I do get anxious about my granddaughter Eleanor, who is being raised as a vegetarian by a strict vegan mother. No pork-fat sandwiches for this little tyke. Eleanor’s organic food comes from Trader Joe’s and Whole Foods. She actually seems to like kale. I watch her twirl her whole-wheat pasta in her hands and eat it with a smile. I hope she never has to stand in line and beg for bread.