It will soon be four years since my grandmother died and ten years since she hosted Thanksgiving and I miss the smell of her home and cooking. High on the list of olfactory pleasures: leaf piles, gardenias, lily of the valley, lilacs, baking bread, sauteed garlic and onions, balsam fir and my grandmother’s house.
Residing in one half of her side-by side duplex, her home was small, beautifully decorated and deliberately ordered; if you moved the refrigerator or any given piece of furniture, you’d find it as clean and dust free as the kitchen counter, her cleanliness bordering on obsessive. She belonged to the garden club and always had stunning flower arrangements or greens on her table at holiday time. I appreciated her precision and zen and took deep breaths inside her house. She hand-washed dishes with Dawn where in the summer, fresh air drifting in from above the sink would mingle with the scent of soap to form the very definition of clean, and she’d hang sheets outside above her little brick patio so that when I’d sleep on their crispness, I’d smell sunshine, a hyperbolic pronouncement reserved for advertisements for fabric softener. Now, when I hang my sheets on the line, I cannot recreate it. She wore Coco Chanel number 5 and on her skin it smelled like heaven, simultaneously lightly scenting her house, which at Thanksgiving time, delicately mixed with roasting turkey and dark gravy. It was the smell of tradition and civilized living and most of all, it was the smell of comfort.
It was always the same: bronzed turkey resting on the stovetop when we arrived, inside of which steamed the family’s Portuguese meat stuffing; ground pork, beef and chourizo added to the requisite bread, onions, celery and chicken stock. Creamed pearl onions stayed hot in their saucepan. Baked apples and sweet potatoes sliced and layered with cinnamon and butter waited in their covered glass dish on a hot plate as did creamed spinach baked with cream of mushroom soup, grated cheddar and beaten egg and topped with crushed whole wheat breton crackers or ritz. There were two kinds of canned cranberry sauce and always the jellied can-shaped mass that shivered onto its serving dish because my mother preferred it, and we always began the meal with individually plated soft red and green lettuce salads topped with pears or grapes and drizzled dressing. There were pillsbury crescent rolls placed in a cloth-lined basket and black olives. We crowded around her kitchen table, extended for this day by extra leafs, sitting on chairs brought from other places in the house, eating and drinking from china, crystal and silver. There was homemade pumpkin pie with well-done crust because all of her baking was well-done, but still perfect, and redi-whip in a can, and there was Boston cream pie from some impressive, understated Cranston bakery. Rhode Island was filled with Italian and Portuguese immigrants who opened bakeries and restaurants and submitted incredible family recipes to the newspaper, many of which were clipped and saved by my grandmother, many I’ve now inherited. The Boston cream was birthday cake for my mother who was born on December 6th, so we celebrated then. We ate our big meal around one o’clock and then took a walk around the block, after which the adults talked downstairs while we watched Ben Hur or a Peanuts special upstairs on the guest bed. We’d gather again around four to dole out leftovers or eat a turkey, stuffing and cranberry sandwich.
Now, we have a new tradition, one still in it’s early stages of definition, and as I incubate the soon to be newest member of our family, I look forward to cultivating reliably memorable moments for us, ones with new foods and smells and adventures. For most of the six years Chris and I have been together, we’ve spent Thanksgiving at his Dad and Pam’s house in Boulder, Colorado. The visit is becoming one of our favorite times of year.
Boulder is: thin air and great expanses colored in the palette of ocean so that if you squint you can imagine you’re looking out at sea and sand. It’s homogenous and athletic, with views of mountains almost everywhere you look, and its downtown is filled with little shops and restaurants. No one is making a fashion statement or wearing the kind of artful high heels you see in Florence or Manhattan because they’re busy cycling up switchback mountains and scaling rock faces. On Thanksgiving day, Whole Foods is open and brimming with folks in wick-away attire hungrily eating pizza standing and drinking juice because most likely they’ve begun their day with a marathon. There are homes made of stucco and there are students roaming about and families outside together.
Keith and Pam’s house is so clean and minimal that is reminds me of my grandmother’s and their fridge isn’t positively stuffed with condiments like ours is, or cookbooks out on display busting at the seams of their shelves and there aren’t piles of things to contend with, put away and dust. We are fed and catered to and driven around to hike and eat and shop. Here, we are cared for, a fact I cherish as I make my living caring for folks. The bed here is far more comfortable than ours and there are soft modal sheets and fluffy pillows. We typically travel on Thanksgiving Day and dinner is prepped when we arrive so that all we do is lazily help with finishing touches, all together in the kitchen. We like that we eschew the habitual turkey for salmon on the grill and various sides, such as biscuits, creme fraiche proscuitto twice baked potatoes and roasted vegetable salads.
Last year Pam and I went on a hot air balloon ride and this year we fly fished, Chris Keith and I (Keith’s and my first time ever) with Antonio, our guide from Quimba Portugal. He was serious but twinkle eyed. He moved here in July and his wife and two daughters aged two and six are slated to join him in June. He was patient and I was afraid I’d have to do lengthy false casts back and forth to project the line like I’ve seen Chris do on large rivers and the ocean but these were short casts into the cold Boulder creek. The first spot was chilly and shady and an hour and a half later (no fish for me or Chris but two for Keith who was stationed further down the river) my fingertips and toes were getting numb and I looked at my watch and wasn’t sure how I’d last two and a half more hours. We had good boots and waders from the company and a lot of layers of clothes but Antonio could tell I was frozen so we got in the car and moved to a sunnier spot. Suddenly, in typical first trimester form, I knew I had no choice but to take a quick nap, so with the car pointed at the sun and the boys down stream fishing, I sunbathed and slept for fifteen minutes. I sat there for another ten after waking up and then made my way down and found Keith. Chris caught two trout and Keith caught three.
Antonio found me later and took me to another two spots. He carried my water bottle and helped me aim for the right places, saying “Perfect. Perfect cast, now do it again. Again.” So I kept casting and hypnotically watching the dry fly with its little pink tip as we stood in the shadows of rock on top of rock, watching the dance of river and sunlight. I learned to throw again and again, keeping the line slightly upward and aligned with the fly, taking its small repetitive trip down the current.
We made pizzas that night, with this homemade crust recipe (though we replaced all purpose flour with einkorn flour and only let the dough rise once so it was a nice thin crust) and laughed and went to bed happy. We went out to lunches and dinners and hiked in the Boulder Reservoir because so many trails were still closed after all the fall flooding.
Pam made these treats for us when we were there and I’ve been making batches of them for friends for Christmas. This year I feel so behind in getting everything done for the holidays, because between working a lot and needing more sleep during pregnancy, I can hardly keep up. I’m sure trying. I know I try to do a lot, always, but homemade gifts are so rewarding to give. Next year at this time, we’ll have a new member in our tribe and be creating new Christmas traditions. This, friends, is a very exciting prospect. This treat is raw, gluten free and refined sugar free and of course filling and delicious.
Healthy Candy (from Gwyneth Paltrow’s new cookbook, It’s All Good)
- 1½ cups raw cashews (or cashew flour- I saw some at Trader Joes this week)
- 1½ cups dates, pitted and roughly chopped (I used a mixture of degelt and medjool)
- ½ cup raw almond butter
- ½ cup grade B maple syrup
- ½ cup coconut flour
- ½ cup unsweetened shredded coconut
- ½-1 teaspoon almond extract
- 1½ cups dark chocolate chips (60% or higher cocoa content)
- 1½ tablespoons coconut oil
Grind the cashews to a very fine meal in a food processor. Add the dates and pulse again until fairly combined. Ass almond butter, maple syrup, coconut flour, shredded coconut, and almond extract and pulse until you have a sticky ball of dough.
Line a small sheet pan with parchment paper and press the cashew mixture out onto the paper, making a rectangle 1 inch deep. It helps if you put a drop of oil or water on your hands before doing this. Refrigerate the mixture for 2-4 hours, until it’s firm. (or speed up the process and place in freezer for 30 min if you’re impatient like me)
Meanwhile, combine the chocolate chips and coconut oil in a stainless steel or glass bowl set over a pot of simmering water (make sure the water doesn’t touch the bowl). Stir the mixture until it’s just melted, remove the bowl from the heat, and pour the chocolate mixture over the cold cashew mixture.
Return the bar to the fridge and let it cool until the chocolate coating is set, at least 1 hour. Using the parchment, lift the bar out of the sheet pan and cut it into rectangles (or you can use cookie cutters to make fun shapes for kids!).
Serve at once, or store in an airtight container.
Erin! Congratulations!!!! love, Laura & Guy
Love, love love your writing Erin.. This blog especially about the memories of your grandmother. I can literally smell and taste the ambience.