Simmering on the stove this afternoon before Yom Kippur: a pot of my grandmother’s meatball fricasee.
As I shaped the tiny meatballs (they have to be small–no rushing here), I found myself thinking of my grandmother’s apartment in Brooklyn, of how when we went to visit we’d smell cooking smells from all the way down the hall. I loved that smell; it was tied up in the hugs we’d greet both my grandparents with; and it filled me with longing for potato pancakes and matzo ball soup and whatever else Grandma might have cooked for us. Her cooking was special; nothing Mom cooked, or that I cooked as I got older, ever quite measured up.
I most strong associate Grandma’s meatball fricassee with holiday dinners, though. I was an extremely picky eater–sometime before age 10 I decided I simply would not eat anything new, but would only eat things I’d tried before. This limited my diet considerably, and the strong-smelling gefilte fish that served as an appetizer at family gatherings was definitely right out.
So Grandma made me fricassee instead. Everyone else liked it too, and cheerfully ate it alongside their gefilte fish–but I always knew the fricassee was there for me. Someone else might either forced me to eat that gefilte fish, or simply shrugged and said I could skip it and fill up on the other courses–it’s not as if food was ever in short supply when Grandma was around, after all. But as far as Grandma was concerned, none of those other courses mattered. What was important was that there be something there for me, too.
I was important, was what that really meant. Even then, on some level I understood that.
The summer before my senior year of high school, I had jaw surgery to correct an underbite. Soon afterwards, while my jaw was still wired shut, Grandma brought fricasee out to me, from her apartment to our house on Long Island. Mom and I added water, put it in a blender, and I was able to have fricassee as I recovered.
Sometime after Grandma died Mom sent me a copy of her recipe, and I printed it out on an old dot-matrix printer. The first time I tried that recipe–yes. That taste: it brought me right back to Grandma and her apartment. Even now, as an unpicky eater who will try anything at least once, nothing else I know tastes quite like Grandma’s fricassee.
It takes a long time to shape so many small meatballs. I know that now. Grandma was probably a little faster, but even so, she must have spent a lot more time making me fricassee than I appreciated back then.
The dot matrix printout is fading. I’ll have to copy it again soon. When I come to some parts of the recipe, especially the part that calls for a “half glass” of water, I have to think back, because I know Grandma didn’t mean a half cup–she meant a half glass from one of the glasses in her kitchen. Over the years, as I forget just what size those glasses were, as I forget other small details, my recipe slowly diverges from hers.
Yet there’s still that indescribable something in that taste. To say the something is love is a bit more sentimental than I’m comfortable with. Better, perhaps to say that love is what I feel as I follow the recipe she followed, love and perhaps something of presence, too. Or of standing here in this place and this time, following what came before.
Or perhaps of simple remembrance–of Grandma, of a child who knew she mattered, and of whatever else there was between us.