Happy New Year. My reflections always turn inward at the changing of the year, to my childhood rituals and the people who created them. My intention this year is to capture more in writing and to share it with you, when that makes sense.
A Tale of Two Grandmothers
My maternal grandmother, Meme George, could make a feast with whatever was available to her. She was a real cook, instinctively grasping taste and technique. And when I close my eyes tight I can smell her succulent pot roast and carrots simmering on the stove. (Her grandkids called her Meme George because she was always chasing down her young boy… George, George…”)
My paternal grandmother Meme Chew spent as little time in the kitchen as possible, perhaps owing to her years as a feisty young secretary on Capitol Hill, where she worked to help support her family back in Ohio. . She made reservations—as well as angel food cake. Meme Chew got her name because much to my young mother’s chagrin she always brought us contraband chewing gum.
Most Sundays, and many Thursdays, they were at our supper table.
Being of a nostalgic turn, I have found myself thinking about them a great deal lately, particularly Meme George, who urged everything in moderation, except margarine. She would eat lard or goose fat, but not much oleo. (Remember that word?)
I like to think of my own round table as a place where people of all dietary stripes can gather and find something to share. I count, among my dearest friends and relations: vegans, vegetarians, carnivores, omnivores, those who eschew fat, dairy free folks, even a niece with celiac. I also regularly feed a reformed dessertatarian, which is what my son Shane declared himself at about five years of age. (That was before he discovered you could actually enjoy a hot dog with your bun and ketchup.)
My musings make me realize that my Meme George was on to something; you can make a feast of anything. And that at its best, a meal is a source of communion, not a division along dietary lines. Sharing food is a central part of our human experience, so break bread, or not bread. The important thing is to gather.
While I don’t have the same sensory memories of dinners with my paternal grandmother that I do of my other Meme, I will never forget putting on our Sunday best and going down to Smiths Cafeteria with Meme Chew. My parents were not invited. Meme made Friday night reservations—and then after dinner gave us $1.00 to spend on our ritual trip to the dime store Kresges, and for her grandkids, that was more than fine. (Well actually my towheaded sister got whatever she wanted at the dime store, but that’s a different story.) My grandmother Margaret was Irish, did I mention that? So her loyalties were her loyalties and I was not entitled to question them, and neither was my opinionated young mother. Hence the countless packs of chewing gum.
No, the important thing about Meme Chew was not the food she served, but the fact she found her unique way to gather us in. Forty-five years later, this dark-haired Irish twin lovingly recalls her rituals.
She gathered us in.
My meme’s roasted carrots, circa 2015
Preheat the oven to 400 degrees F. If you are using a cast iron skillet as I do, let it heat up with oven. You can also use a sheet pan. Slice 1 1/2 to 2 lbs carrots diagonally in 1 1/2-inch-thick slices. If they are really thick you can slice carrots in half vertically before you slice. You are aiming for pieces of similar size. Toss them in a bowl with your hands or a wooden spoon with 2 or 3 T. olive oil, a teaspoon of salt, and a generous dose of freshly ground pepper. Transfer to a sheet pan in 1 layer and roast in the oven for 30 to 35 minutes, until browned and tender. I also add parsley or rosemary, even some Italian seasoning if I am feeling reckless.