Channeling Grammy

The metal has darkened with the baking. Although I can’t be certain of its exact age, the cookie sheet was a staple of my grandmother’s kitchen long before I was born. Perhaps a hundred years of bread and buns and holiday kolachi have burnished the metal, colored the bright aluminum with a patina of brown and gold, impressed it with the goodness of homemade food. Although I have scrubbed it well since it came to me, the stains remain, ciphers of past kitchens and shared recipes.

I tug it free from its dark hiding place in the cabinet and spread my granola across the surface, inhaling the oat and pecan and coconut smells of the present. Other aromas intrude: yeast and butter, eggs and cinnamon. Closing my eyes, I’m carried back to early Lenten mornings when, fresh from her baking chores, Grammy would deliver the hot cross buns to our door. At Christmastime she would carry in the nut and poppyseed kolachi, each crust bronze from the oven, each roll  lush with orange-spiced filling. For more than forty years I have tried to match the splendor of her pastry. My attempts are adequate, but they don’t match the memory. I’m good, but I’m not Grammy.

When I spent nights at her house, she would counsel me on the proper way to knead the dough, the correct way to fold the pastry, the proper temperature to wash your hands before and after baking. Scalding. To kill the germs. Tender child hands rebelled but she kept them under the running stream, insistent on a cleanliness essential to the process and to the era when she learned the craft.

Grammy grew up in a restaurant family. Her parents ran an establishment that served the workers from the steel mill. Breakfasts for the working man, lunches to fuel their return to an environment that demanded constant toil and caution. One slip and the molten steel would claim you for its dinner. One of my high school classmates died that way, losing his footing as he walked above the open hearth, disappearing into the mix as the liquid boiled up. When I read about his death, I remembered my grandfather returning from the mill at night, climbing the hill with a blackened face and clothes saturated with the smell of oil and fire. Grammy, standing in the doorway, her own hands flour-dusted with the goodness of the evening meal, offered him the only gift she had to counter the danger. Fried chicken. Pot roast. Pork chops. Not food for the tray I use now, but meals to fill the emptiness in the belly and soothe the turmoil in the soul.

I take her recipes from the box in the cupboard, the ones I pried from her memory before she died. The amounts are not definitive. A cake of yeast. Do they sell yeast like that these days? A handful of this and a pinch of that. A secret ingredient forgotten or deliberately omitted. She was proud of her handiwork, my grandmother. Widowed young and left with few resources to cover her expenses, she turned to the only skill she had, supplying baked goods for the small groceries and family restaurants in our industrial town, baking for individual households that  no longer wanted to bake for themselves. Then the small mom and pop stores fell out of favor, victims of the new grocery stores and their ability to buy in quantity and sell cheaper. The restaurants too became fewer. Chains arose and the hearty meals served family style also fell from grace. The demand for her baked goods dropped off. She went to work in a ladies’ clothing store. But she didn’t stop baking.

Once a week she brought her loaves to our chaotic household, a small bungalow bursting with the energies of my six siblings, a father who worked three jobs to make the ends meet and a mother who was not a cook too busy with other chores to bake daily bread. If I close my eyes, I can see the crusts gleaming, still warm from the oven. If I concentrate, I smell the warm yeast aroma of the freshly baked dough, the creamy butterscotch pies and meringue tarts. My mouth waters as my memory replays a moment when the world seemed all about the goodness of bread, the warm taste of family.

I run my hand over the baking sheet, cool now, scraped free of the stubborn granola bits, and wipe it dry. Each pass of the cloth is a caress for a grandmother, long-gone but still remembered. Each time I bake my own goodness, I bring her back to me, stringing my own recipes along the thread that binds us together.

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