The spinach stems were too long; that’s what I got for shopping at the bougiest supermarket in Astoria, New York. But, I would make them work regardless. I dumped the greens — freakishly long stems and all — into a nearby bowl. I grabbed a pair of kitchen scissors, ready to chop them down to size. As my hands began to move on autopilot, trimming and discarding the stems, I found myself smirking, then smiled, chuckling aloud. My housemate, Alex, looked up at me. “I feel like my grandma,” I said, proudly. Alex let out a loud, “Awww.” I smiled even more widely.
When I was growing up, my maternal grandmother, Lois Ann, could usually be found in one of two places in her Queens Village home: at the kitchen sink or at the dining room table, peeling potatoes, washing tilapia, or snapping string beans. It’s a ritual that’s continued even as she’s entered her ninth decade. Just last month, during a casual Sunday visit, my grandma asked me to snap that night’s string beans with her. Grandma prefers to take charge in the kitchen, so an invitation to join in on meal prep always feels like receiving a golden ticket. She endearingly shook her head at the way I snapped my beans — clumsy and crooked — before finally saying: “Watch me.” I did, just as I always had, in awe of her speed and skill.
My grandmother grew up on a farm in North Carolina, in the years after WWII. Her mother died when she was six, so she was raised by her grandma, Ella Louise. Grandma grew sweet potatoes in the backyard with her younger sister and caught and killed chickens for Sunday dinner. She eyed Ella Louise as the older woman cooked, watching her grandmother’s skilled hands. When my grandmother turned 10, it was finally her turn. Soon enough, she was perfecting mouth-watering dishes like collard greens seasoned with bell peppers, onions, and bacon fat; coconut and pecan pies; and macaroni and cheese made with margarine. When Grandma left the South for New York and married my grandfather in 1960, she carried the recipes of her youth into this next chapter of her life with him in the Bronx. Grandpa, born and bred in South Carolina, quickly learned to love the North’s preference for rice over white potatoes.
The next two generations of her family held up my grandma’s dishes as the definition of what good home cooking was supposed to be. Even the most mundane weekday could turn into an impromptu gathering at her dining table.
Grandma would buy pounds of cod, tilapia, and flounder at the Sutphin Boulevard fish market in Jamaica, Queens, and set off a phone tree between my aunts, cousins, mom, sister, and me: “Grandma’s making fish, you coming over?” Every birthday meant a chocolate, vanilla, or strawberry cake — baked from scratch, of course — was waiting for the birthday girl — or Grandpa — at the head of the table. From the mid-2000s to the early-2010s, we observed “spaghetti day” every Wednesday — a tradition born out of our collective love of Grandma’s spaghetti dressed in meat sauce, which was always served with fried fish and a side of steamed carrots or broccoli.
There was only one downside to growing up under a matriarch whose talent was throwing down in the kitchen: Grandma allowed no one to help her fry, boil, or steam anything. And I never learned on my own. Why go through the trouble of learning to cook or bake if I could just wait for my grandmother to place a plate in front of me?
As a result, cooking instructions of any kind made my eyes glaze over. Advice about the ideal water-to-rice ratio or how to know when pasta is done went in one ear and out the other. The desire to prepare meals more involved than a tuna-and-cheese sandwich got further away from me as I got older. I was spoiled, but also intimidated, and clumsy around food. Grandma’s gusto in the kitchen had trickled down to my mom, aunts, sister, and cousins — all of whom taught themselves how to cook — but skipped teaching me.
I moved upstate for college in 2010, then commuted to and from grad school four years later. The time away from Grandma’s dining table jump-started my survival instincts. I learned some basics, though I still mostly stalled out at microwaved curry over minute-rice and rigatoni alfredo. It wasn’t until I moved into my first apartment an hour away from my family in 2018 that I became responsible for cooking all my own meals. And my transition from boxed pasta to glazed carrots wasn’t seamless. When I wasn’t charring vegetables by accident, I was drying out salmon. Grandma would have cringed if she'd seen me.
Progress was slow, but by the third preparation of each meal in my mental Rolodex, I’d gotten the portions of salt right and learned how hot was too hot. Mastering some more involved dishes also helped me realize that I was less proud of a perfectly prepared meal than I was of my burgeoning food prep skills. The times I most wanted to brag to my grandma were when I found myself expertly chopping tofu into cubes of eight, sautéeing spinach leaves in garlic, or seasoning a salmon fillet “just right” with jerk powder. The act of preparing each meal mirrored the familiar sight of my grandma sitting at the dining room table and snapping her string beans; it was when I felt closest to her.
My visits to Grandma’s kitchen have slowed to a near halt; commuting across the borough admittedly gets time-consuming and expensive, and the pandemic has only made it harder. But I still recount my efforts and milestones to Grandma over the phone, and am gratified when I hear the surprise in her soft laughter as I tell her of my accomplishments. The times I am able to stop by are cause for a celebration these days, events honored by Grandma frying flounder, making spaghetti, and steaming broccoli, even if it’s just the two of us catching up at her kitchen table. Occasionally, one of us has brought up the spaghetti days of yesteryear, over a decade earlier. I’ve asked Grandma if she misses them, and she rested her chin in her hands. “Oh yes,” she said wistfully. “But it’s just not the same anymore.”
Outside of holidays like Thanksgiving and Christmas, my grandma's kitchen is the emptiest it’s ever been. The years have moved not only me, but also my aunts and my cousins further away. Age and illness have slowed my grandma down. But even so, Grandma recently told me she never stopped calling my cousins on Wednesdays to ask if anyone was coming over. The days of us gathering around her table while she refilled our plates with a smile stayed fresh in her mind. “Anything for the grandkids,” she still says.
There are times when the distance between Grandma’s kitchen and my own feel especially wide. But during mealtimes, I always feel close to her. I’ll stand by the stove and watch as the ingredients I chopped, seasoned, and toasted come together to create my breakfast, lunch, dinner, or dessert. As I eat, I imagine sitting at my grandma’s table, rambling excitedly to her about some dessert I read about that I just have to bake next, while she cleanly snaps string beans and watches me go on, a smile forming. I’ll watch her work the whole time, and consider buying string beans at the supermarket the next day. Mine may be more snapped more crookedly than the ones Grandma prepares, but they’ll still taste nearly as good.