Sonja Condit

An Inheritance

My grandmother was the world's worst Southern cook. She did not hold this position unchallenged, believe me. The South brings forth some of the greatest cooks in the world (ah, fried chicken, Carolina barbecue, sweet tea and coconut cake!), but let's not forget the others: the people who'll boil spinach gray and then slap a wad of lard on it. But my grandmother had a special gift.

Her people came from Texas, and she moved to California as a young woman, where she forgot everything she had been taught by her mother and her eleven aunts. That's my version, because I would hate to accept the alternative: that was just the way the Starling girls cooked. All twelve of them.

My grandmother knew that she was supposed to keep bacon fat, but she wasn't sure what to do with it, so it accumulated in the back of her refrigerator in yogurt tubs. She made cornbread with it every now and then—it was the one thing she could cook well, melting the most recent bacon fat in the iron skillet, so that the batter sizzled when it hit the pan. Her cornbread had a salty, greasy under-crust. I loved it hot from the oven, with a slab of butter melting into my slice. But my grandfather disliked cornbread and adored bacon, so the fat built up much faster than she could use it.

Although she remembered the cornbread, she branched out into other cuisines in California, land of many ingredients. She discovered garlic, a vegetable unknown on the San Antonio farm of her childhood. Her passion for garlic was unrequited; it fled from her body, steaming out of every pore until even her hair smelled of it, partly because she never cleared up the difference between a clove and a bulb. When she left the house after an hour of peeling and slicing an entire garlic bulb and shoving it into knife-slits in a pork roast, people in the street would turn to look at her in a thoughtful way.

Once a month, she gave a party. Her friends started bringing their own food in self-defense, and soon it became a potluck tradition. Every month she tried a new dish, usually involving some sort of ground meat as the base. Ukrainian cabbage rolls, for instance. She used red cabbage, and it cooked into an unspeakable mess of purple clots, like a tray of leftovers from the morgue. It tasted better than it looked; but then, it couldn't be worse. My grandfather prowled the party with the dish, sidling up to people and dumping the slick, kidney-shaped objects onto their plates.

My grandmother was a brilliant woman, the first of her family to go to college, where she earned a master's degree in medieval French. Not bad for a Depression farm girl. For twenty-five years, she taught Latin, French, Italian and Spanish. Recipes bored and annoyed her; she skipped steps, interpolating and extrapolating based on the final product. In the same way, she evolved a decent reading knowledge of Rumanian and Portuguese, even though she never learned to speak those languages. Apparently, this technique works better with languages than with food. Her dishes often showed the lack of certain necessary steps. For instance, when she made stuffed peppers, she didn't cook the meat filling before stuffing the peppers. The peppers were beautiful, roasted until their skins split; but the filling was raw hamburger and garlic.

One summer, mushrooms grew on her lawn. They triggered an atavistic country-girl instinct in her: food grows on your land, so you eat it. She looked them up in a book and concluded that they were edible, so she started cooking them: in chili, in spaghetti sauce, in stews. She said they were delicious; all I tasted was the garlic, but I took her word for it. Then the day of the monthly party came around, and she decided to make a salad. Possibly the failure of the stuffed peppers had scared her off serving cooked food. First, of course, she crushed five or six cloves of garlic and threw them in the salad bowl. In went all the diced vegetables: celery, red peppers, tomatoes, broccoli, some rusty cauliflower, and whatever else she found in the hydrator. In went the sliced mushrooms from the lawn. It was the first time she had served them raw.

Everybody loved the salad. Other people had brought pork chops, white chili, sausage rolls, several desserts, artichoke dip, and the usual array of things-suspended-in-Jell-O. My grandparents and their friends spent the evening eating, playing Scrabble, and breathing garlic on one another; the guests went home at the dissipated hour of ten-thirty. The evening was a success.

My grandparents, who had been eating the cooked mushrooms for ten days, felt a little ill. The phone calls started early the next morning, around five. One after another, the party guests called my grandmother and said, "I'm sick—I've been sick all night—is anybody else sick?"

To each of them, my grandmother said, "No, nobody's said anything at all. You must have caught a bug somewhere." And they never found out; nobody ever knew. The next month, they came to the party just the same as ever. Mushrooms were not on the menu.

My grandmother bequeathed me a platinum ring, a gold cross, and a tendency to gain weight around the hips. I make cornbread in a cast-iron skillet and serve it to my children hot, dripping with butter. In the back of my refrigerator, I keep ten yogurt tubs filled with bacon fat. Someday, maybe, I'll find out what to do with them.

—Sonja Condit

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