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A life measured in recipes

cameron cravings

I had a good column planned out for this week. It was topical and Duke-specific and at least passably entertaining. And then, about seven minutes into the first quarter of the football game this Saturday, my mom called to tell me that my Nana had passed away in hospice care that afternoon. And suddenly, I couldn't write about anything but her. 

Separated by a thousand miles of curvy mountain highways, Great Lakes, and corn fields, we usually only saw my mom’s side of the family once a year when I was growing up. But the distance from Vermont to Kentucky shrank to nothing when Nana called, which she did on every birthday. She would always ask, in this order: “How are classes going? Do you have a boyfriend? How are your friends?”

(Classes are hard, Nana. And no, I still don’t have a boyfriend. I don’t know why either! But my friends are doing great.)

She and my grandfather were high school sweethearts, and married right after graduation, moving across the state with his work as a bricklayer. She raised six daughters, knew how to ride a motorcycle, danced on the table at my parents’ wedding and painted china: everything from tea sets and porcelain Easter eggs to the urn for her husband’s ashes. She loved to drive her “grandbabies” around town and point out her favorite places—the library, the art gallery, all the buildings my grandfather had worked on. But most of all, she cooked.

My grandfather’s greatest gift to her was the house he built for the two of them. Sitting at the top of a steep ravine, the house was not particularly grand, but what it lacked in size it made up for in thoughtful touches that expressed his love for her more plainly than I ever heard him say aloud. Papaw built her flower and vegetable gardens outside, space in the garage for an extra freezer just for her leftovers, and a kitchen with large windows so she could watch her birdfeeders while she cooked.

He built that kitchen for Nana, and it was truly hers: I cannot imagine that room without her in it, and I cannot remember Nana and not her cooking. She was an artist, her talent built on decades of improvising to feed six hungry kids and absolutely immeasurable quantities of butter. We joke that all of her recipes begin the same way: “Start with a stick of butter.”

Papaw used to pitch his voice high and plead, “Honey, my blood sugar is getting low, could you please just put one of those little brownies on my plate?” She’d smack his hand away from the platter and remind him that they were supposed to be watching his diet, but then would turn a blind eye when he got a grandkid to sneak one to him. She knew that her brownies were worth faking a hypoglycemic fit over.

Her dinner rolls (long since named “company rolls” because they were too elaborate an endeavor for everyday family supper) were legendary—one memorable Thanksgiving, my cousin kept a tally and ate 19 before he had to stop. Her sweet potato casserole was heaven in a dish; her sloppy joes made a joke out of school lunches everywhere; her pimento cheese transformed white bread into tea sandwiches fit for the Queen. She had a Gift, with a capital G. 

Papaw passed away seven years ago, and it felt like the whole state turned out for his funeral. The fridge, already packed with Nana’s cooking, was filled to bursting with casseroles, lunch meat platters, and desserts from friends and relatives, expressing their love and sympathy through food. I remember sitting with my aunts at the old kitchen table writing thank-you cards to all these people, people I had never met but who still cared enough to bake a cake. What else can you do? You write the card; you bake the cake.

She had lived with Papaw since high school, and Nana never really re-learned how to live without him. She started forgetting things; we started ordering in Thanksgiving dinner rather than letting her prepare it. I don’t like to linger on her years in the memory care facility, the place that did everything it could to help but still couldn’t stop her brain from decaying, day by day.

What I do want to remember is her cooking.  Of course it’s not just the food, although that alone could have made miracles happen. It was the way she would silently assign tasks to idle hands, just by tapping the dishwasher or pointing to a cutting board. It was the heavy wooden table stretched long with leaves and packed elbow-to-elbow with family. It was the warm, still nights after dinner, with the table cleared and leftovers packed away, when the adults would finally send us outside where hundreds of lightning bugs were just waiting to be caught.

Nana’s recipes don’t really show up on the Food Network. Ooey Gooey Butter Cake, Downtown Charlie Brown Pie, Burgoo, Doctor Pepper Ham, Jell-O Salad (with cinnamon and celery). There are some uncommon ones, I’ll grant you that. But these recipes are some of the greatest measures of her life, and right now I want to make them all. 

As I walked out of Wallace Wade Saturday night, skin still prickly from drying tears, I thought about Nana’s legacies: her family, her paintings and the box of her recipes in my mom’s kitchen, copied onto index cards in her scribbled cursive. There had been a beautiful sunset, followed by a gentle moonrise into the dusky lavender sky. Duke won the game, which would have made Papaw (a diehard UK fan) turn in his grave but still felt like a sign of good things to come. I had a lemonade in my hand and friends at my side. And somewhere, as the first stars were making their appearance, I know that Nana was sharing a meal and a dance with the love of her life.

Gretchen Wright is a Trinity senior who is wondering what stage of grief sweet potato casserole fits in. Her column, “cameron cravings,” runs on alternate Thursdays.

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