My Kitchen Visit with my grandma this winter lasted four days and produced hundreds of cookies. It also produced the below—something a bit different from (and longer than) my standard weekly post. Hope you enjoy!
My mom has become a sort of in-house mediator between me and my grandma. While on vacation with my family at a beach house in North Carolina a few years ago, it was my mom who I approached as to why the entire house suddenly smelled of skunk. And in a tone that communicated nothing could be more normal, she explained: “It’s just the gizzards Grandma brought for Jinxy.” Allow me to translate. Gizzards was Grandma’s catch-all word for the not-as-commonly-eaten parts of the chicken, which she had brought from her home in Pittsburgh, so as to not pay top dollar for gizzards at the overpriced beach grocery store, and Jinxy was Grandma’s obese 115-pound dog to whom she fed home-cooked human food three times a day. I knew he liked spaghetti and meatballs, bagels and cream cheese, and chicken noodle soup, but hadn’t realized he had also developed a taste for gizzard.
We needed a mediator. Because if Grandma is the 92-year-old Great-Depression-era hoarder of the family to a fault, I am her 29-year-old control-freak, clean-as-you-go, clutter-phobe polar opposite to a major fault. While Grandma can say things like: “I think Jinx and I may have a rat in the basement,” without emotion or fear, I am the one who, after hearing about a cockroach found in the dishwasher at work, could no longer use a single glass, plate, or fork from that kitchen. Filtered water there was deemed untouchable as well. I take pride in hoarding nothing. I sold my wedding dress a month after my wedding.
And so, this past winter, high on holiday goodwill, it was over the phone to my mom that I pitched the idea of making Grandma’s famous pizzelle cookies with Grandma and in Grandma’s kitchen. A few days later, Mom came back to me with Grandma’s verdict. It was on.
It isn’t until I have made the flight from Los Angeles to Pittsburgh, and Mom and I are in the car on our way to Grandma’s house when Mom informs me that Grandma wants to tackle both pizzelles and lady locks, the latter of which I am certain I had politely declined any interest in attempting with her on this trip. Lady locks are mini croissants stuffed with cream, but unlike traditional croissants infused with layers of butter, Grandma uses butter-flavored Crisco. Not exactly the stuff dreams are made of. I feel a bit duped. But we are already parked in Grandma’s driveway. It’s too late to turn back now.
Or is it? I pull open the front door of Grandma’s four-bedroom, two-story house where she’s lived since 1959, and after Grandpa died in 2001, where she’s lived with only her pet dog for company, and I instantly feel like I’ve made a mistake. The house is a hoarder’s paradise and the kitchen, its Mecca. The countertops are packed well beyond capacity with 92-years worth of products, ingredients and open-air leftovers. A bulky, far-too-large-for-this-small-of-a-kitchen island takes over where might have existed any breathing room and partially blocks access to the sink, oven, and refrigerator all at the same time. (My aunt sent her the island as a gift years ago with the intention of giving Grandma more counter space, but Grandma has chosen to use it instead as an additional surface for stockpiling.)
There is an extremely large pot on the back left burner with a head of cold, cooked cauliflower in it, and on the right burner, sits a pair of blackened bananas oddly packaged on a Styrofoam tray and covered in plastic wrap. On the front two burners rests an opened, ragged photo album filled with recipes she has handwritten on index cards or clipped from Ladies’ Home Journal, and in the center of the stovetop, on no burners, lives an oil-filled cast iron pan. A stepladder resides to the left of the island and even its surface area is being used as a resting place for something. In this case, it’s my nemesis, the jumbo size can of Crisco. The walls are yellowed and cracked. A brown rotary phone hangs crookedly on the wall. Talk radio blares from a non-digital radio. Cobwebs dangle from the corners of the cabinets, and if you stare up at the ceiling for longer than a moment, it’s difficult not to wonder how it hasn’t caved in already. It’s difficult not to think about life in terms of the accrual and maintenance of things. But mostly it’s difficult not to think: This house is on its last legs. This house is dying.
Despite all of this, it’s clear that Grandma has worked out a system. She puts away a few items from the island and reveals a white cutting board—a workspace! She finds a mixing bowl and places it on the board. She pulls a chipped coffee mug from the cupboard and bends down to scoop flour from a 25-pound bag on the floor. I wonder how she got the bag inside and marvel at the fact that it’s almost empty. She adds two heaping mugs of flour to the bowl with ease. She doesn’t seem worried about being exact, but then neither does the recipe, which specifies a coffee mug as the measuring device.
The recipe isn’t hers but that of an old friend who she used to make them with and who has since died. In fact, there used to be three of them. They got together every December to spend the day making cookies. “What about the other woman, Grandma?” I ask.
Grandma points to her head and swirls her hand around. “She’s senile,” Mom clarifies from the dining room. Grandma adds water to the flour and then sprinkles it with salt. She stirs the mixture until it comes together into one large dough ball, which she divides into three equal plastic-wrapped pieces and places in the refrigerator.
“That’s it?” I ask. “Just flour, water, and salt?” Grandma nods.
While the dough sets, we are going to press some chocolate pizzelles in Grandma’s ancient pizzelle press. Grandma made the dough earlier in the day and has already set up a pizzelle-making station in the dining room. I feel like I’m on the set of some strange, hoarders version of The Today Show. Everything we need, albeit ramshackle and stained, is ready and waiting, and we can shoot the segment in under a minute! But of course, it takes much longer. Grandma has quadrupled the recipe and by the time I have pressed all of the dough, I have five towers of stacked cookies; it’s late and I’m tired. But Grandma summons me into the kitchen. I look for my mom to translate that I’m ready to go home but she is in the living room watching some city’s C.S.I. I can hear the opening credits.
In the kitchen, Grandma instructs me to roll the dough out into a quarter-inch thick rectangle. Once I have it, she hands me a plastic spatula readied with butter-flavored Crisco and tells me to spread it across the entire surface of the dough. And even though, I’ve prepared myself for this moment, I can’t seem to stop myself from asking, “Why Crisco?”
She gives it a moment before answering. “I suspect it’s what she had.” She being her now dead friend whose recipe it is.
Once it’s completely covered, we fold it into an envelope, wrap it in plastic and place it back in the refrigerator. We do this with the two other dough segments, and this is what we will continue to do until the entire can of Crisco (minus the cup reserved for the filling) is incorporated into the dough. Though for tonight, we are done. We’ll finish this step tomorrow.
Save for some breakfast dishes in the sink, everything in Grandma’s kitchen is as Mom and I left it last night. The measuring cup of Crisco reserved for the lady locks filling sits on the ledge of the counter in front of the microwave, the can of Crisco is lid-less on top of the stepladder, the pot of cauliflower is on the back left burner, the bananas still on the right, and so on. Grandma is busy with the dog. So, working from her handwritten recipe, Mom and I begin to make the pizzelle dough. (Yesterday we made chocolate, but per Grandma’s instructions, we must now make a batch of vanilla.)
Mom begins the process of cracking the twelve eggs while I busy myself with noticing every weird thing in Grandma’s kitchen. Items that particularly concern me are a crinkled, rolled-up Wendy’s bag with something still in it lying on the countertop and a bulging plastic bag hanging from a drawer knob. I had taken a peek into a similarly placed bag one of the last times I was in Grandma’s kitchen, about six years ago, and found a mess of black, sludgy rotten potatoes. Mom sees me eyeing it and boldly grabs the side of the bag and squeezes. “Stale bread,” she concludes. I nod with my lower lip turned down and inside out, as if I was expecting that, as if I have the same kind of system worked out back in Los Angeles.
When Mom and I arrive at Grandma’s the following afternoon, we find her in full lady-locks swing. We’ve brought her a couple of leftover slices of pizza from lunch, but she’s so busy that she takes a slice and just keeps going. (The detail that she places the box with the remaining slice atop the oversized pot of boiled cauliflower, which I now feel well acquainted with—after all, it’s right next to my friends, the plastic-wrapped black bananas—is not lost on me.) She takes a bite, scoots past the kitchen island, pulls open the refrigerator door with the non-pizza hand and announces that she has been adding Crisco to the lady-locks dough with regularity since 7 a.m. and that it now only needs one final dousing. She pulls out the chilled dough and hands it to me. It seems to have almost doubled in size.
“Wow, that’s a lot of Crisco!” I say.
But Grandma doesn’t say anything. Instead, she takes another bite of her drooping pizza slice and with her free hand, begins shedding the dough of its plastic wrap. Because, Grandma, and here is where I’m suddenly struck with the real lesson in all of this: Grandma doesn’t think that Crisco is funny. Not only that, but you know what? Grandma doesn’t think that food in general is funny. Because historically, it hasn’t been.
I’m reminded of M.F.K. Fisher’s How to Cook a Wolf, which was written in 1942 with the intention of rallying and encouraging those facing the worst of wartime shortages. Specifically, I thought of the chapter titled, “How to Keep Alive,” where Fisher walks the reader through what to do if you have absolutely no money. “…borrow some. Fifty cents will be enough and can last you from three days to a week, depending.” She goes on to describe a dish that sounds like a large, flavorless pot of oatmeal with pureed vegetables mixed in and, if you are seriously lucky, some hamburger meat. “It is obvious to even the most optimistic that this sludge, which should be like stiff cold mush, and a rather unpleasant murky-brown gray in color, is strictly for hunger.”
Grandma and food stories run wild with infamy in my family, but the most infamous of all takes place during The Great Depression when Grandma was just a kid and came home to find that her pet bunny was now residing at the neighbors. I’ve heard the story at least a dozen times in the course of growing up, but after reading this passage for the first time, I get the urge to call Grandma and hear it again.
“Oh! I had a beautiful, big, white bunny!” she says, before telling the story in three short sentences. She came home and the bunny wasn’t there. Her mother told her that they couldn’t afford the feed and that he was now at the neighbors’ house. When Grandma later saw her neighbor, Mr. Sullivan, she asked him how her bunny was and he said that he ate him. After prying, she admits that she cried for a week.
Grandma’s identity is wrapped up in food. She’s worked in the kitchen of the Presbyterian Church less than a mile from her house for 51 years. At 92, she helms the Monday Noon luncheon three times a year, which is service for 70. She’s been making these cookies for over 40 years. She always has something on the stove, always.
While watching Grandma eat that pizza slice and multitask in the kitchen, I begin to take these cookies seriously. Because it’s not just making cookies, I realize. I am taking part in a tradition that defines part of who my grandma is and, by proxy, who I am.
We finish the dough and put it back in the refrigerator to chill. And while we wait for it to set one last time, I sit down at the dining room table with one of Grandma’s recipe-laden, falling-apart photo albums. Grandma asks my mom to open a jar of marinated mushrooms she can’t seem to budge the lid of. I momentarily wonder why, but understand when she presents them to me in a bowl as a snack. Something in me melts—at 92, Grandma is still the consummate hostess. I continue flipping through the pages of yellowed recipe after yellowed recipe, some of which—wild cherry liquor and spinach soufflé—look particularly similar to ones I’ve recently dog-eared in cookbooks. She even has something called a 10-day Herman cake, which, as its title implies, takes ten days to make and strikes me as eerily suited for a bon appetempt.
For the first time in my adult life, I suddenly see Grandma’s dilapidated dining room as one that would fit eight people for dinner nicely. Grandma’s armoire, stuffed with crystal glasses, serving pieces, and bone china plates, takes on new meaning. I picture what a dinner party at Grandma’s might have looked like in 1966. She has these beautiful blue glass goblets and tiny little crystal cups too small for cordial glasses. I ask her what they are for. “Individual salt holders,” she says.
For the first time in my adult life, I suddenly see past Grandma’s age to the person who used to invite friends over for dinner, carefully plan the menu for a week, and task Grandpa with setting the table. I suddenly see the person whose fingers and feet aren’t arthritic and swollen so that she can wear her emerald-cut diamond wedding ring and dress in heels, and who doesn’t feel like an “old bag of bones” so that she might paint her lips red like I’ve seen in old photos, and emerge from the kitchen with plates of appetizers in each hand asking, “Who’s hungry?”
Mom and I arrive at Grandma’s in the afternoon to find the hollow, baked lady locks shells on the dining room table on the cooling racks just as we’d left them 24 hours ago. I check in on my cauliflower and black bananas. They’re still there too.
In my lifetime, food has been entertainment. It’s been funny. It’s been something to eat, and, most of the time, it’s been delicious. It has never been a life or death issue. I can’t even say that it’s been serious. But as we stuff the lady locks with a creamy mixture of sugar, Crisco, cornstarch, milk, and red dye, it feels serious. It feels important. It feels like a tradition is being handed to me, and like Grandpa used to say, I’ll be damned if I am going to drop it.
Lady Locks as handwritten for me by Grandma. [I’ve edited as little as possible.]
Using a large coffee mug, measure 3 cups flour.
1 teaspoon salt
1 ½ cups water
Mix above ingredients in bowl. Dough should be sticky. Refrigerate ½ hour. (I put in freezer compartment.)
1 – 3 lb. can Crisco less 1 cup reserved for the filling. I use butter-colored Crisco.
Place dough on floured board. Divide into 3 pieces. Flour board. Roll one piece at a time into ¼ inch thick rectangles. Using a spatula, spread Crisco thickly on rolled dough. With your hand, sprinkle flour on top of Crisco. Fold piece: bottom up, top down, sides in. Cover with plastic wrap. Place the envelope of dough into the refrigerator for an hour. Repeat with other two pieces of dough. Place them into refrigerator for an hour.
Repeat this procedure until Crisco is used. I leave the dough in the refrigerator overnight and start next step in the morning.
You have taken 48 clothespins and covered with aluminum foil.
Take first envelope of dough and divide into 3 sections. Mix a cup of flour with a cup of sugar and use this to roll out your dough. You want it shaped like a rectangle. You want to cut into pieces 4 inches long by 2 inches wide. Wrap this piece around clothespin and place on cookie sheet.
Heat oven to 400. You want a cookie sheet with sides. If you haven’t added enough flour, the Crisco will run out and you don’t want it in your oven. Since ovens vary, I check at 5 minutes, 10 minutes, 15 minutes. The dough will puff and when it is golden, it is done. Remove from oven and place on cooling rack while simultaneously removing clothespin. [This is tricky as they are hot!]
1 cup of Crisco
In saucepan: 1 cup of milk & 2 tablespoons cornstarch. Heat on stove, stirring to keep from burning. When thick, remove from stove and allow to cool.
In mixing bowl, add cup of Crisco, cup of sugar and 1 teaspoon vanilla. Beat until sugar is dissolve, then add cooled cornstarch mixture. This mixture needs to be beaten a very long time, until it’s light and fluffy and you can’t feel a sugar grain. I put a drop of red or green coloring. I think they are more attractive than just white.
[After shells have cooled completely, pipe filling into the hollow centers. Do this until they are all filled. Sprinkle with powdered sugar. Enjoy your lady lock!]