Hommage à Grand-mère Elise et Sa Salade Verte
Born in 1901, Grammie Couture lived over 101 years. She was the family matriarch, the friend we all turned to when our lives tipped over.
Although deeply religious, Grammie bore no judgments. We could count on her unqualified love and understanding. She forbore any comment about my departure from the Catholic Church at 18, my three marriages, and she was always there for my children and former wives.
For much of her life, our own mother, Cynthia, battled her addictive demons and would often retire to her bedroom for weeks at a time.
Grammie would “drop by” with a casserole and spend a bit of time tidying up in Mom’s absence. Her signature dish and our childhood favorite we called “Cheez-Whiz Broccoli.” It could be prepared in a flash by stirring together a box of Minute Rice, a jar of Cheez-Whiz, and a bag of frozen broccoli florets. (Combine all ingredients in a casserole dish, stir gently, and bake for 20 minutes at 350.)
The ‘50s and ‘60s began the market decline of fresh food and the birth of the industrial food age. TV advertising convinced us that frozen and canned vegetables were superior to the fresh produce available locally. Spam, Velveeta, Junket, Cap’n Crunch cereal, and Tang became staples as did “Bunny Bread” and oleomargarine, the white bars of which came with a small bladder of reddish dye to be blended in to make it look like butter, even though it never tasted like butter.
I remember going into Patch’s Market with a grocery list from Dad. “Half a pound of cheese, sir,” I intoned to Mr. Patch. “White or yellow?” he answered, even as a large wheel of Vermont cheddar sat atop the meat case under a glass cloche.
On the first Sunday of each month after ten o’clock Mass at Holy Family Church in Morrisville, we’d gather around Grammie’s dining room table for Sunday dinner. It was an enduring ritual until one Sunday, sporting a blue-black bruise around her left eye, Grammie announced she could no longer live alone and charged Claire with finding her a retirement home.
For a decade leading up to her moving out of her apartment, we’d parade into her house dressed in our church finery and encounter the smell of her signature pork roast sizzling in her new electric oven. Her large farm table displayed her best porcelain China and starched linen. The protocols of serving and consuming Sunday dinner matched those that my brother and I, both altar boys, were familiar with serving mass, all very formal.
Dad would process in bearing the large ironstone platter of charred pork and mint jelly. Grammie had grown up with a fear of trichinosis, so pork was routinely charred to ensure the elimination of any parasites. Grammie would bring in a smaller platter of roast potatoes and one of us kids would bring the bowl of canned green beans and another the saucer of bread and the butter dish.
Dad would slice the pork and Grammie would serve the potatoes and beans, passing to each of us a full plate. If Mom was sentient, she would be at the dinner table with us.
Still a toddler, Claire would sneak a small slab of butter and slip it in her mouth like fudge.
This Sunday dinner tradition continued for almost two decades.
One year, when Mike and I were in our teens, Mike asked Grammie if she ever made green salad.
“No,” she answered abruptly. “I ’ave a ’iatal ’ernia and dem leaves gets caught in my t’roat.” That ended the salad conversation we thought.
The following month, the family trouped in for Sunday dinner expecting the regular menu. But then to our surprise, Grammie returned to the kitchen and came out bearing a dinner plate featuring a quivering dome of green Jell-O in which were suspended canned mandarin orange sections, miniature marshmallows, walnuts, and multi-colored M and M’s.
“You like da green salad, so I made one. Eat it up!”
We all just stared at the green quivering mass.