When my grandmother turned 91 two weeks ago, I called to wish her a happy birthday and we made plans to celebrate over dinner later in the month. But in a matter of days, like everyone else, we saw the world change around us and our plans evaporated. Now I’m self-quarantined in Brooklyn and my grandmother is in Florida. We won’t be seeing each other in person any time soon.
The 1,200 miles between us are made smaller by technology. We talk on the phone and see each other on FaceTime, although my grandmother is still learning the fundamentals of video chatting and sometimes I end up looking up close at her ear for a bit.
Our phone calls have been more frequent since I’ve been stuck at home. I like talking to my grandmother in times of crisis. She was a baby of the Great Depression and lived through World War II and 9/11. She typically meets my fears with the same dry reassurance: “Life goes on.” But she doesn’t have any reassurances about coronavirus, especially since people over 80 are the most vulnerable, like herself and my grandfather, who is 93.
So, we came up with a project that would give us something to talk about other than the virus and make the best of both being stuck at home. Over FaceTime, my grandmother is teaching me how to make the recipes that she used to cook for my dad in the 1960s. At a moment when the present is terrifying and the future is uncertain, we’re returning to the past.
I am not much of a cook. I work long hours in TV production and never felt like I had enough time to learn the basics in the kitchen. Also, I happen to live with a man who worked in a restaurant and is an exceptional home cook so I’m usually on cleanup duty. But being self-quarantined at home means that in addition to calling up my grandmother more often, I am also out of excuses not to learn how to cook for myself.
When we came up with our project, I expected to learn how to make some of her classic recipes. I didn’t expect to learn so much about my family in the process.
The first one we did was tuna casserole. As I opened the cans of tuna fish and condensed cream of mushroom soup, my grandmother told me over FaceTime that this is what she used to make for her three young kids before leaving for work. The casserole was easy for the kids to heat up if she wasn’t home in time for dinner.
My grandmother was a rare entrepreneurial working mom in the early 1960s. She had three children by the time she was 30. At 33, she returned to work full time, opening the clothing store that she and my grandfather had dreamed of, while my grandfather kept his job at Macy’s to pay the bills.
Tuna casserole was a common meal at their house in those years while my grandparents got a discount clothing company off the ground. So common, she said, that my dad can’t go near a fishy casserole to this day. Then she told me to keep stirring and to add a little more cream of mushroom soup.
A few days later we made split pea soup. When I asked for her recipe, my grandmother started reciting ingredients and then paused and said, “I think it’s on the back of the bag of beans.” Of course, there’s a secret ingredient: a hock of ham, stuffed with cloves.
I asked my grandmother when she learned how to cook. She said, “I never did!” When she moved to New York City in 1952, her first apartment didn’t even have an oven. She lived with two other women, and the three of them managed by eating out or making simple things like hamburgers on the stove. It was only when my grandmother moved out to the suburbs a few years later with a husband and a baby in tow that she began to cook by necessity. Mostly easy recipes that she could make her own with small additions.
The trick to make split pea soup look fancy, she told me, is to slice up a few carrots because they add a nice color. “You know it is done when you stick in a spoon and it stands up.”
I am nearly 30 years old myself. It’s hard to picture my parents at my age, let alone my grandparents. But standing at the stove over my yellow pot, actually over my grandmother’s pot, a classic Dansk design from the 1950s that she gave me from her own kitchen when I moved to New York City, I imagine what her life was like when she made these recipes for her family.
She had three kids under 7 and a fledgling company that she and my grandfather were staking their life savings on, and yet every night she still managed to make meals, with love, for her family. If I was hoping to learn heirloom recipes from my grandmother, full of complicated steps and fancy ingredients, I would have been disappointed. Her recipes are simple, basic, and sometimes found on the back of a bag of beans.
But I learned something better. My grandmother made it work through all the challenges that her life brought. She didn’t cook because it was a hobby. She cooked because she had to and these were the things that she had time to make. Her recipes are all the more precious to me because of that.
When I ask her over FaceTime whether it was difficult to balance her children, her husband, her career, especially at a time when mothers weren’t common in the work force, and the everyday task of keeping her family happily fed, she shrugs and says: “Sure, but life goes on.”
Ali Jaffe is a segment producer at “The Late Show With Stephen Colbert.”