Good food is worth a thousand words—sometimes more. In My Family Recipe, writers share the stories of dishes that are meaningful to them and their loved ones.
“How’s your friend, that nice boy?” my grandma Clara asked.
We were sitting in the skylight-illuminated kitchen of her condo. She sat in her chair with the special cushion attached, walker keeping close guard by her side. The usual post-lunch bowl of ice cream was in front of her, two scoops of vanilla under a poof of crimped whipped cream. I sat opposite her, watered-down iced coffee for me.
“It’s not going to work out,” I said, holding the cup with both hands. “I probably won’t see him again.” I fought a smile, knowing what was coming next.
My grandma turned from her bowl and shot me her best you’ve got to be kidding me look. She made a great show of rolling her eyes before turning back to her ice cream and guiding a laden spoon to her outstretched, turtle-like tongue.
She thought a minute and adjusted her expression, remembering that this was Serious Business Time (anything outside of “pleasant and friendly” did not come easily to her, so she really had to make a go of it).
“Why not? He’s such a nice boy.” (My grandma had never met him.)
I knew she wouldn’t drop this easily, so I slowly and loudly offered, “I don’t like him, we weren’t a good fit.” She gave me an if you say so eyebrow raise and plucked at the white peaks with her spoon.
I leaned across the floral placemats and extended my hand. “Don’t you trust that I will choose someone good? That takes time!” My grandma and I had different ideas about the importance of keeping “nice boys” around.
“Are you sure you don’t want any ice cream?” she countered (only because her hearing aids failed to keep up). I leaned back, gearing up to disappoint her again.
I shook my head, refusing for probably the fourth time that afternoon. “I’m okay.”
Some things skip a generation. Red hair, height, a particular adeptness at tennis. For my grandma Clara—the Queen of Ice Cream, descendent of Italian immigrants—it was cooking ability.
Her mom, my nana, had come to the U.S. after she’d sent a portrait of herself across the Atlantic, to some dude one of her cousins knew. Next thing, she was on a boat to New York, en route to meet my great-grandpa Benny. It was like Tinder, but you got one swipe and it only took two weeks to get to the first date. No one was "ethically non-monogamous"; instead, they were looking for someone to settle down with in the States. (Sorry, Nana. I swear I’m taking this seriously.)
And they did, happily! They raised a family in this big two-family home in Mineola, on Long Island. When my grandma Clara married, she and her husband, Celestino (or Chester as he elected at Ellis Island), moved into the downstairs apartment, and my great-grandparents took the upstairs.
Upstairs, Nana churned out mass quantities of tomato sauce, homemade pasta, herby lamb chops, roast chicken, fresh fruit, and vegetables, almost constantly. In a kitchen the size of a closet—truly. It was some real Strega Nona shit.
My mom, 12 years old at the time, would come home from school and head straight upstairs to hang out with Nana (and to see what snacks were in store for her that day). Sometimes it was fresh bread with olive oil and salt. Other times, during the summer, Nana would split a watermelon down the middle for the two of them to share. One side for my mom, one for Nana. Other times, it was bowls of cherries, English muffin pizzas, and so on and so forth.
Downstairs was a different story.
Downstairs, Grandma Clara took things a more ... modern route. I think it could be summed up as: various riffs on meat and potatoes, with the occasional raisin toast and rainbow sherbert. Lots of hot dogs.
Sometimes, to mix things up, she would experiment with new recipes or off-the-cuff, uh, flourishes. One such experiment stands out in my mom’s memory in particular.
“They were called cheese dogs," my mom tells me over the phone, years later. And they were exactly what they sound like.
You take a hot dog, split it down the middle (or maybe you boil it first, warm it up, and get a nice hot dog water aroma going in the kitchen), then stick some American cheese in the little pocket, and put it under the broiler. Once the cheese is melted, you take the cheese dog out and douse it in ketchup. It's better that way. If you want to be gross about it, chase it with a glass of whole milk like my grandpa Chester did.
As my mom puts it: Someone said "I like this," and that was that. Cheese dogs were on the menu every Friday for years and were, by default it seems, Grandma Clara's signature dish.
I never knew the cheese dog days, though. The Clara I knew didn’t do a ton of cooking, if at all. Eventually she stopped altogether.
When Nana passed away, Clara moved out of the big two-family home and into a condo five minutes down the road from my parents’ place. She made herself things like egg salad and tuna salad, and my mom would bring over sauce and meatballs. But she rarely cooked for herself. When I was old and tall enough to work with small appliances, she taught me how to murder steaks on the George Foreman grill. We ate Taco Bell at her table when my parents’ kitchen was gutted. She paired my mom’s pasta with a salad and made me finish all that was left after we’d each had our fill.
I spent my adolescent, teen, and early adult years at her place. Watching Family Feud, sometimes throwing out bits of my love life like birdseed, and denying various “treats” at every turn. Fiber One bars (kind of like dessert), ice cream, fun-size Milky Way bars, Rolos, toast when there was nothing jazzy available (sometimes even the raisin bread kind, her favorite). I wish I’d accepted her offers more often. She was only trying to share what she could, and what she loved.
My grandma died at home, with my mom and two of her home aides by her side. They knew it was coming and were her cheerleaders until the end, encouraging her, loving her, even when they didn’t think she could hear it.
My mom even brought me into it. Later, when she knew that my grandma Clara didn’t have long left, my mom told me what she'd said to her.
“Mommm!!!” was my first, and very proportionate, reaction. “What the hell?! WHY?”
“What! It makes her happy.” My mom was defenseless, but smiling like an idiot.
I laughed through the tears, in that part of grief where you don’t know which way is up. What's funny, what’s sad. Happy tears turn into sad tears real quick. But I couldn’t stop laughing.
“Christ. Well now she knows you’re lying!” If I’m being honest, I was delighted. Because, really, it was just the most “us” way for Grandma Clara to go.
In her litany of encouragements at her own mother’s deathbed, my mom had very conspicuously inserted one about me, one she knew my grandma would happily cling to and, my mom hoped, would move on peacefully knowing:
“And Celeste found someone wonderful, isn’t that great? He’s a nice man and she’s very happy.”
Obviously, this wasn’t true. I was so contently single, waiting for absolutely no one to come into my life and turn it upside down.
More recently, Mom said to me, shaking her head and laughing, “She knew I was lying. She was probably so annoyed with me. But I couldn’t help it—it just came out!”
It was okay in the end. Because it was the culmination of our little bit, mine and Grandma Clara’s. I know she was laughing with me after that. None of the boy shit really ever mattered. We only ever loved one another, beyond everything, just a little more than she loved ice cream, raisin toast, and cheese dogs.
Unsurprisingly, this family recipe skips over my grandma. She actually never made sauce or anything Italian now that I think about it. It’s somewhat of a generational tribute, though, taking a bit from my nana and a bit from my mom. And now me.
I grew up on this soup. Nana brought a plastic container of it to my parents’ house every time she and Clara visited. Nana never gave up the recipe because, well, no one thought to ask. It was hers. It was almost more special that way, because not just anyone could make it. Until I did.
One night, by accident, I added too much pasta water to a pot of orzo and some leftover sauce my mom had sent me home with. It was a happy accident, and it reminded me of my grandma’s cheese dog discovery: It combined some of my favorite things and is something I’ll never not make again.
And yes, to make it, you’ll have to make the meatballs first, which go into the sauce. All of which might seem like a deceitful way to get you to the very simple, comforting soup. But in the end, you get meatballs—maybe the best you’ll ever have. (I am comfortable making that claim, even as a non-hyperbolic person.) So it’s a win-win. And if you don’t want to make my mom’s sauce, feel free to try your own favorite recipe.
To get the full four-generation picture, eat it accompanied by a Diet Coke (for me) and some ice cream for dessert (for Clara).