| Arts & Culture
Food The Taste of Grief: On Family Meals, Marriage, and Mourning
I want to be the bridge between his memory and her love for cooking.
Where my grandmother comes from, stews and soups are spiced heavily and packed with aromatic meats and silky tomatoes, served in large bowls fit for royalty. They are seasoned with onions and bell peppers and simmered with herbs until reaching saucy, deep red perfection. When the soup is done, it is eaten with a starchy, bland component that leaves you feeling grounded and whole: boiled green plantains, steamed white rice, pounded fufu, or orbs of banku—fermented corn cooked and rolled into large, edible snowballs.
My grandmother can whip up a bowl of peanut butter soup far superior to any PB&J sandwich: Sweet and nutty yet spicy and earthy, it will make your lips smack. Her waachey—herb-kissed rice and beans topped with her homemade shitto, a spicy condiment made of fried peppers—is a family favorite.
A visit to Grandma’s house always meant diving into an authentic Ghanaian dining experience. But this changed when my grandfather, the love of her life, passed away not too long ago. My grandfather was her number one reason to cook. He ate everything she made, from fried fish to meaty soups and complex, chunky stews. Now that he is not here, she no longer has a muse. Now her meals, once vibrant, fresh, and flavorful, are often soggy, limp, and lifeless. Her soups swim with meats that lived in the freezer for weeks, wilted vegetables on the brink of mushing into inedibility. Now, a trip to my grandmother’s house means inspecting everything I eat and wondering where her magic has gone.
It is Sunday morning. I’m young, maybe eight or nine, and I am sitting in my grandparents’ home enjoying a plate of scrambled eggs made by my grandma. She has made three different kinds of eggs: one yellow, scrambled and plain for me, my brother, and our little cousin; one with sauteed peppers and onions for the adults; and one batch of egg whites, for my grandpa.
Grandma brings Grandpa his plate of egg whites with a side of peppers and onions. When she walks away, he grimaces at the bland flavor, then leans down and scrapes the egg whites onto my plate, transferring my scrambled eggs to his. I try a bite and make a face: Gross.
Grandpa was always extremely health-conscious. He hoarded vitamins and pills that promised to improve his heart or mind or vitality; owned a noisy juicer that he used to crush crunchy carrots into liquid; read books on meditation, nutrition, and mindfulness. Mom says that when she was growing up, he boiled beets on the stove: a messy meal that always led to pink-stained walls in the kitchen. Grandpa was all about that best-self life, even if it shrunk his pockets or repainted his home.
The only indulgence he ever allowed himself was the dinner my grandmother prepared every night, her spicy, succulent dishes made with love and care. Those were the only times I’d see him truly savor a meal, belch unapologetically, lick his fingers and smack his lips.
Grandma is haunted in her slumber. It started after Grandpa passed away. She says it is conniving spirits we cannot see. Wicked wenches that try to suck her soul as she sleeps. I watch her curse and fight in her dreams, legs and arms flying in the air. My mother is superstitious, as is most of my family. She blames my grandmother’s nightly fights on the workings of jealous family members, their magic sinister and unexplainable. I can’t bring myself to believe in this as much as she does, but I respect her beliefs, and I know that in this world, good doesn’t exist without evil.
Grandma is also haunted by her own body. Many nights she stays awake, contemplating the parts of her body that rumble in pain. The gout often visits her, gnawing at her left foot until it transforms into a bulbous stump that stings while she walks. The doctor says her gout is caused by a poor diet. He gave her a strict regimen to follow (no red meat, fewer starchy and sweet foods), and urged her to eat more veggies and grains.
“I know it will be hard to follow this diet,” he said with a warm smile. “We Caribbean, Latino, and African people love rice and meats.”
“When your grandfather was alive, and I experienced the gout, I’d place my foot next to his while we slept,” my grandma says to me later. “His feet were so warm, so comforting. It was like medicine.” I imagine two pairs of feet cuddled together at night: one pair a smooth, swollen dark chocolate; the other, much larger, the shade of a crisp toasted almond dipped in caramel, rough and sweet around the edges.
My grandmother worked at a bread bakery after college. I too worked in food service after I graduated. But flipping grilled cheese and making milkshakes can’t compare to smelling the sweet aroma of rising yeast, or listening to the soft sounds of a baker kneading dough.
She met a man there—not my grandfather. There’s always someone you meet before you find your soulmate. What was his name? I ask. “I don’t know! That was so long ago,” she says, bouncing with laughter. But maybe his name doesn’t matter—she wasn’t interested, and anyway, she found out he was married. “I would never mess around with a married man. They would have surely left their wife, because I was so damn cute back then!”
She didn’t stay at the bakery long; she soon began helping her mother sell provisions in the market place. What kind? I ask. “Cosmetics! For all parts of your body,” she beams. I imagine her in the bustling markets of Accra, Ghana, sitting behind a table filled with lipstick, face powder, and lotion, while other vendors sell bananas, snacks, and cloths.
One day, she tells me, the married man came by with a friend. The three of them chatted for about thirty minutes. The married man’s friend was visiting from America, but he was Ghanaian-born. They were on their way to the post office. They left shortly after, and Grandma thought nothing of it.
The next day, the friend from America came back to the marketplace, alone. This time, he asked her out to the movies. My grandmother looked around, pointed to her cousin, and said, “If you want to go to the movies, you better take my cousin.” Why did you say that? I ask. “Because I always heard stories of men from America sleeping with women while they’re on vacation, and then they go back,” she explains. (Is that what we call “fuck boys,” nowadays?)
But the friend from America was persistent. “No, I’m interested in taking you out,” he said. I imagine he chuckled: a musical, high-pitched chuckle reminiscent of a fairytale character. A chuckle that still vibrates through my mind today.
They agreed to a date. He was to pick her up at her home the next day at six. But the following afternoon, she stepped onto her porch to see the man sitting there, waiting for her, at five p.m. His name was Joseph, and he became my grandfather. He came back to America with my grandmother, Felicia, and they built a life and a family together.
On weekends when I’m home, after sleeping in until eleven and awaking to sunlight tugging at my eyelids, I like to make crustless veggie quiche. The ingredients: sweet potato, mushrooms, cauliflower or broccoli, kale or spinach, havarti or sharp cheddar cheese, eggs, milk, spices, and herbs. It’s a festive introduction to the weekend, a hearty brunch my parents appreciate after a long week.
One weekend, my grandma is there to eat some, too. She hovers over the kitchen counter. Her eyes widen as she watches my hands move. She asks questions—“What is that?”—and sniffs the ingredients while awaiting my answer.
My grandmother and I have gotten closer since my grandfather passed away, and I owe it all to food—and daytime television. I try to be her personal chef when I visit. I know that her health depends on better eating habits. I’ve put her onto parsnips, Asian sweet potatoes, veggie lasagna, fruity scones; convinced her to eat more fish and chicken instead of red meat. I’m still working on the starchy aspects of her life, but that’ll be a little harder. Fufu and gari run through Ghanaians ’ blood.
We stroll through Saturday farmers’ markets in Brooklyn, picking out produce. We see where they can fit into Ghanaian recipes: kale incorporated in spinach stews, zucchini blended into eggplant stews, baby bella mushrooms in palm nut soup. A new menu will help heal her heart.
She started taking swimming classes in the morning, a routine she’s found calming and challenging, in the best of ways. Sometimes she goes up to the gym after class is over and walks on the treadmill. Once, she told me a fellow student tickled her in the pool. “He was flirting with you!” I exclaimed, though I thought he should have asked first. Still, I was excited that Grandma knew she still had it. “I don’t like him!” she said, rolling her eyes. We laughed it off.
I try not to push the subject, but I know that she is lonely now. And while I know that no amount of time will ever make Grandpa’s absence less painful, I still hope she finds companionship one day. Someone to laugh with, to eat meals with, to cook for and with her.
For now, when we are together, we focus on food. I want to be the bridge between my grandfather’s memory and habits and my grandmother’s presence and love for cooking; use food to find the balance between his healthy outlook and her flavor-driven aesthetic. If I can meet them in between, if I can cook up the perfect hybrid of wellness and wonder . . . maybe I can capture their love and his life in one perfect bite.