Have you ever eaten your grandma? I have. What did she taste like? Like 1 and ½ cups all purpose flour, 1 tsp baking powder, ¼ tsp salt, ½ cup unsalted butter (softened), ¾ cup granulated sugar, 1 egg, 1 ½ tsp vanilla extract (preferably from Tijuana but Safeway will do).
I follow her instructions as closely as I can. I always add a little bit more sugar than the recipe calls for because why not? Her handwriting is hard to read; it evokes the half-cursive type she probably learned in Elementary school sprinkled with sharp loops and an uppercase ‘l’ that is impossible to distinguish from her lowercase ‘I’’s.
I combine the dry ingredients into a medium sized mixing bowl. I stir for about two minutes, way more than is needed, but I like to imagine that the flour and baking powder and salt are merging into one white, fluffy atom. I roll the butter and sugar. Slowly add the egg and vanilla, beat. Preheat the oven. I know I’ll get sick if I eat her right now, but I sneak a bite anyway.
When I bite into her, I think I know her. She tastes really good: biscuity without the density, overly-starchy in the way I love it. She’s sweet but the vanilla extract overpowers the taste of pure sugar and provides a sense that at least what I’m eating has flavor. Not too much flavor, of course. How much flavor can a woman who lived in Ohio and died in Arizona have?
Just the right amount, I think.
It’s a dull taste but also a lingering, resilient one. She never liked to call attention to herself. She doesn’t like to tell you that she raised 8 kids and never had enough time for any of them. She doesn’t tell you how she was supposed to have 10, but miscarried a pair of twins. She never mentions her blackened lungs or her returning cancer or the way she used to beat my dad. It wasn’t called beating back then, my dad tells me, just parenting. She doesn’t tell you any of that. I don’t think she was ever taught to.
She did like to talk about Shakespeare. Her favorite play was Hamlet, my dad tells me from the living room. She relished Ophelia’s death and the melodrama, he says. Had she seen Macbeth? Of course, she loved all the witches and their double, double, toil and trouble. Isn’t that a spell in Harry Potter? Would she have liked Harry, I wonder, as the dough starts to settle in my stomach. Probably not — maybe Hermione though.
My stomach starts to grumble and I call my mom in. I never know where the cookie cutters are and it makes her irrationally (in my opinion) mad every time. “Jesus, Nils, You’ve lived in this house for 17 years and you still don’t remember? Top drawer to the left, end of the counter.” Okay, yeah, maybe she’s onto something. I tell her I’m an amateur and a provocateur, someone who plays by their own rules in the kitchen. “That’s not how baking works.”
Now, what shape was she? Grandma was plump but I could never really tell where the plumpness was coming from; it might just have been the floral dresses she liked to wear. Her cheeks were red, she wore almost exclusively fluffy slippers, and her bob looked like three shower loofahs stitched together and died gray. I can’t remember much else except that I think we had the same nose — an upwards-pushing thing that, whenever I complained I looked like a pig, my mom used to say that movie stars would pay millions for.
I cut her into Christmas trees. I sprinkle flour on a rolling pin and roll, roll, roll (until approximately ⅛” thick). I go a little too thin (maybe 1/10” thick?) and call my mom in again. I worry that the cookies won’t turn out fluffy. “It’s fine,” she tells me as she looks back towards the living room; Nadal is probably sparring Federer. Are you sure? Didn’t you just tell me that baking was an exact art. Mom ignores me and finishes cutting the cookies into trees.
I put her into the oven — one sheet on the top rack and one on the bottom. I turn on the oven light so I can watch her rise, slowly at first and then all at once until she seems to be done. She’s breathing now. What does her breath smell like? It smells insane. The whole kitchen smells like her. She smells better than any Glade candle ever could — like butter and sugar and a teaspoon and a half of vanilla extract — 100% real.
She smells nothing like she used to. I start to smell California burning, my roommates throwing a Saturday night shindig. Everywhere she went, a stench of tobacco followed her. I used to think it was her perfume and in many ways it was. It clung to her favorite armchair and the Tyson chicken casseroles and every tile of her Arizona bungalow. It even clung to her Shakespeare book. I’m glad she never tried to hug me because I probably would’ve thrown up all over one of her floral dresses. We kept our respectable distance.
I take her recklessly out of the oven. I forget where the oven mitts are, and I don’t want to call my mom in again, so I pile two paper towels on top of one another in the palm of my hand and establish a firm grasp on the first cookie sheet. I burn myself tremendously as I half-set, half-throw the steaming cookie sheet on the kitchen counter. My mom hears the clang, my shit, Jesus! and comes running in, taking the checkered oven mitts out of a nearby basket on the cookbook rack, and pulls out out the second sheet of Grandma Joan.
What does she feel like? She’s slightly under-baked, little globes of moisture erupting the second I rip open the first cookie. It’s still hot so the dough falls apart onto the kitchen floor the second it’s handled. I scoop up the fragments that remain from the tree, the stump, the second branch, the misshapen star at the top, remove a couple strands of dog hair, and bulldoze them into my mouth. My mouth burns so I swallow the cookie swiftly and my throat throbs even hotter. I follow the bite with a swig of 1% milk and my stomach grumbles — I probably should have taken a few more bites. I repeat.
What did she feel like? I wouldn’t know, we never touched. I remember her almost touching me when I spilled easter egg dye on her tablecloth but my mom got in the way before that ever happened.
Whenever she yelled at me, her cheeks jiggled up and down, almost jovially. I would laugh and escape under the table, imagining that an especially angry Santa Claus was coming to take their revenge. She usually got over it in a second and usually moved to her armchair in the living room to smoke another cigarette. I would crawl out from under the table and watch her closely.
I set her out on the table, now solidified without a jiggle, and I stare at my sister begrudgingly as I see her take a giant bite out of one of the cookies. Too bland, my sister tells me, it’s all sugar. Don’t forget the butter, I reply.
As I watch my sister retreat back to her room, I begin to think. I never knew my grandma. I can’t remember what she sounds like or what she looks like or what she felt like. I remember her screaming at me and her watching Jurassic Park while I watched her watch Jurassic Park. But I lived 400 miles away and she died when I was 10. We buried her in the Mojave outside of Phoenix and I was sure she’d haunt us for the rest of our lives for leaving her in such a deserted place. I spent her funeral playing hide-and-go-seek between the tombstones with my cousin, watching out for rattlesnakes and scorpions while at the same time wondering why my dad was crying. I mean I knew why, but it seemed silly. This was a woman who yelled a lot and complained a lot and smelled like her own raging forest fire.
My dad told me he always understood why Grandma Joan didn’t have enough love to go around. When you’re a poor woman who has to raise 8 kids, clothe 8 kids, feed the friends of those 8 kids who couldn’t afford to eat at their own houses, send those 8 kids’ friends home with a turkey sandwich or two, and then make that same meal count for at least 3 future meals, you would have been exhausted and crabby too. They only ever went out to eat at my great-uncle’s restaurant and that was only when someone was pregnant, married, or happily divorcing. There were a lot of those last ones in our family.
She loved her children, my dad reminds me, just differently. She loved me too, even if all I remember of her is poofy hair and jiggly cheeks. Just differently. She didn’t have time to dote; her love was in her labor and she gave it her all.
But now I’m eating her. More than that, I’m eating her labor. I’m eating her trial and error, her kids’ only treat for the holidays. My dad and his siblings were rarely given presents or boxes or clothing or toys but at least these cookies were always there. They were her gift.
I comb through the rest of our house, looking for anything else from Grandma Joan; maybe a note or a worn Shakespeare volume or even just an early email. I find a couple photographs: one at a dinner 15 years ago and one with my dad when he was 16. He really did look a lot like me, just skinnier and redder.
I go back to the hurried recipe and hear a voice in my ear as she instructs to stir slowly, quickly, or just give up and use an electronic mixer. I can only imagine she yelled that last part. As she tells the reader to roll the dough, I imagine how she might have rolled (probably more quickly, thoroughly, and thickly then I am). I used the ingredients she used, followed the steps she scribbled, rather messily, and probably snuck the raw dough she snuck. If she was a Jepson, she snuck that dough, raw eggs be damned. She had tasted what I was tasting, she was what I was tasting. What did she taste like? Like a sweet, buttery something I’ve known my whole life. Like a gift.