November 1, 2010
For the next round of Inviting Writing, we’d like to hear your stories about “eating at Grandma’s house.” It doesn’t have to be holiday-themed, or sappy, though I admit my introductory story is both! Just make it true and engaging. Read previous examples here, and send your entries to FoodandThink at gmail.com by November 15, please.
By Amanda Bensen
Thanksgiving always makes me think of Bestemor, my Norwegian-blooded grandmother. Throughout my childhood, Grandma and Grandpa’s house in Vermont was less than an hour’s drive from ours. It was like my second home, and was often the center of family gatherings for holiday meals. She sold it this year, so I’m feeling nostalgic.
My brother and I were especially obsessed with the cupboard to the left of Bestemor’s kitchen sink, since we knew that’s where she stashed the jar of “candy buttons” and other sweets. We knew she wouldn’t let us leave without a treat in hand. And we knew that if we professed hunger, she’d rummage around and find ingredients that we’d never sighted in the aisles of the health-food coop where our mom shopped: bread as soft and pale as a cloud; peanut butter that somehow didn’t stratify; and magically gooey marshmallow Fluff. In other words, the makings of a “Fluffernutter” sandwich. (So, so unnatural, I know. But I still kind of want one.)
At Easter, Thanksgiving, and Christmas, my brother and I feigned annoyance while basking in the adoration of our visiting younger cousins, imaginative girls who were always eager to involve us in their games. Just when we were beginning to tire of tossing stuffed animals down the three-story laundry chute, Bestemor would call out, “Kommer, spiser!” (“Come, eat!”)
There were never quite enough chairs, and an uncle or two usually ended up awkwardly perched on an antique bench that had a reindeer skin draped over the back of it, presumably a souvenir from one of Grandma and Grandpa’s many trips to visit relatives in Norway over the years. They took me with them on one of those trips when I was sixteen, and Grandma and I returned a few years later, after Grandpa died. I didn’t expect it from a woman in her late 70s, but Bestemor was an ideal traveling companion—spontaneous, open-minded and prone to fits of giggles.
Before the family ate, we’d all hold hands and bow our heads while someone—usually my father, a pastor—said a blessing. That was in English, of course, but sometimes we also recited the traditional Norwegian “grace” that was written out on hotplates, potholders and wall hangings around the house: I Jesu navn, gar vil til bords, Spise drikke pa ditt ord.… I loved the way the round, rhyming words felt on my tongue.
Finally, it was time to eat. The food wasn’t particularly outstanding, in retrospect, but I was always impressed by the sheer volume of stuff on the table. A grocery-store turkey or glazed ham was the standard main dish, joined by several classic casseroles: sweet potatoes topped with mini-marshmallows, green beans topped with French’s “fried onions,” and a strange but tasty concoction of pineapple chunks baked with butter and crushed crackers. There were salads, sort of: a fruit salad made from frozen berries and scoops of sherbet, a green salad of mostly iceberg lettuce, and Jello “salad” involving slices of bananas or mandarin oranges. There was a basket of “brown and serve” dinner rolls and a butter dish, which never seemed to be in the same place at the same time; and a gravy boat that was always getting separated from the mashed potatoes (which were always my favorite, and may have actually been homemade).
Though most everything came from the freezer, a can or a box, Bestemor served it all with elegance, getting out her best tablecloth, silverware and fine china. There was always some sort of seasonal centerpiece involving real candlesticks, which the kids fought over extinguishing with an old-fashioned brass snuffer after the meal. There were cloth napkins bound with wooden rings, and blue-tinged glassware filled with sparkling cider or cherry ginger ale (though only after the kids had finished a requisite glass of milk).
For dessert, a parade of pies emerged, fresh from the supermarket baked-goods section (or frozen and baked at home, Marie Callender-style): pumpkin, pecan, cherry, and often two types of apple pie, always with Cool Whip to garnish. I liked to cut the tiniest slice possible of each one so I could try all of them.
After the table was cleared and the dishwasher loaded, the adults would play Uno or Trivial Pursuit and chat while the kids watched a movie in the other room. It was dark by the time everyone found their coats, boots, hats and mittens and stuffed themselves back into their cars. On our way out, we would practice the few Norwegian phrases we knew, to Bestemor’s delight: “Mange takk! Takk for maten!” (Many thanks! Thanks for the food!)
“Kjøre sikkert!” she would tell us. (“Drive safely!”) And of course: “Jeg elsker deg!” (“I love you!”)
The ritual continued as we backed out of the driveway, waving back at Grandma and Grandpa’s silhouettes in the doorway and honking until they were out of sight.
Jeg elsker deg ogsa, Bestemor. (I love you, too.)
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