Tender Parmesan

My first memories of the power and pull of cooking were born in my grandmother’s kitchen.

I’m not sure if it’s partly or wholly genetic, if it seeped into my blood and hands osmosisically, or if it has anything at all to even to do with nature, nurther, or neither. But I remember that kitchen and all of the food that came out of it. I remember big family meals, and smaller, quieter ones on weeknights. On nights I got to sleep over, I remember waking up in the morning to the smell of pancakes sizzling in the pan. On many an evening, I was lifted in my grandma’s arms just high enough so I could stir the sauce, and on summer Saturdays, it was to reach a strawberry from the army of flats waiting to be jammified.

But the significant days–the days whose tiny hands reached out to me and wrapped their fingers around my heart– were Sundays. For most of my childhood, Sundays were spent at my grandparents house “for dinner,” which was an all-day affair. Spoiler alert: we’re Italian.

My mom’s whole extended family moved from New York to Southern California when she was a teenager, so while born and raised just outside of L.A., I grew up in a sort of sunny version of Little Italy. My grandfather was a meticulous gardener, and I don’t know the history of how they landed their great little house, but it was small on dwelling and huge on yard. The lot was enormous, and it was filled with fruit trees. In the summer, when the trees were heavy with apricots, peaches, and plums, all the cousins climbed up inside them, and for hours and hours, we picked fruit.

Those fruit-picking days were great, and you could almost always find a game of croquet or Yahtzee happening; but for me, all the action was in the kitchen. Like I said, the house was small, and thinking back to those days, I can’t believe the meals my grandmother produced from that tiny space. The kitchen wasn’t a galley exactly, but there wasn’t room for more than one person at the stove, and the refrigerator was in its own little alcove, through a little doorway, on the way  to the backdoor. There was room for one to move between the sink and the stove, and across the room, in another little alcove, there was a small round table covered in a lace tablecloth, which was my grandfather’s grating station. There was no room to stand and loiter, and my grandparents, while incredibly warm and kind, were pretty much all business. And food was no exception. Cooking and eating were a serious endeavor. There was no hanging around in the kitchen shooting the shit, and I don’t remember anyone ever in there “helping.” My grandma was some kind of lone wolf cooking machine, now that I think about it.

But while there was no standing room, there was  a small stool–one of those old fashioned kinds with the slide out step underneath–right next to the stove, filling up exactly the eighteen-ish inches there was between the stove and the doorway. That was my favorite spot in the house. And if I was quiet and behaved like a little lady as opposed to an ill-behaved wild animal, I got to sit there. Mostly I watched, but I think my grandma knew how much I loved being in there, because whenever she could, she gave me little jobs. Sometimes that meant occupying the grating station to chop carrots or put olives in a bowl, and sometimes–more often than not–it entailed watching the sauce, and, when needed, giving it a little stir. When I got old enough, I was the designated pasta taster, testing for doneness, and as I grew through the years in that kitchen, the one constant was being invited into my grandpa’s lap to help with the cheese grating.

My grandparents didn’t have a lot of money, and I have no idea if they ever splurged on a single thing in their whole lives. But one thing they didn’t scrimp on was parmesan. It was perfect in every way. Just the right amount of dryness, nutty, light as fresh fallen snow when grated, with just the faintest sheen of oil on the outside of the block. My grandfather used a box grater with a plate underneath, and when he was usually about halfway done, he’d invite me off of my perch to come help him. What it really was was an excuse to let me eat the chunky bits that fell off the grater, but those afternoons grating cheese with my grandfather are the closest I’ve ever gotten to cognizant transcendence and pure joy. No matter what was going in my little child heart and head, all my pain went away in those moments. With every grate, the cheese fell to shards on the plate, and in return, I was made whole.

I’m old(er) now, and my grandparents are long since gone. I’m not sure how or when it started, but over and through the years I have built and found my heart beating right in the center of my own kitchen. Food equaled love for me long before I was old or smart enough to realize it. It wasn’t obvious or forced upon me, and I was never made to feel it was a debt to be repaid. It was an act of complete selflessness and the essence of pure generosity.

I know now, looking back on all the dinners, that while words have come up lacking more often than not, a hot bowl of polenta never has. I’ve said I Love You to many friends with braised short ribs on a rain-soaked night, and I’ve gotten to have my own family in my own kitchen, with a simmering pot of sauce on the stove. My kitchen’s a little but not much bigger than my grandparents’, and unlike theirs, it’s often full of people milling around and shooting the shit with drinks in their hands.

And as I look around my little kitchen space that I got to design just how I wanted it, I see that without even realizing it, I built into it, off to the side at the far end, in a little alcove, my very own grating station.

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