I remember every detail of my Grandma Weiner’s kitchen on the first floor of the two family house in Elizabeth, New Jersey.
The flooring, a solid piece of colorful marbled linoleum, curled up at the edges where the glue thinned out. The sink faced the neighbor’s house so Grandma could watch them through the window, going in and out of their side door.
The Frigidaire sat in a small alcove next to the cellar door, distant from the other appliances. The cellar steps led to the old gas range and oven where the heavy duty cooking was done — beef brisket for ten, the enormous pot of chicken soup, baked potatoes.
My cousin, Donna, and her mom, my Aunt Jean, lived with my grandparents. I slept over practically every weekend.
For breakfast and lunch, we sat at the grey formica table with the ribbed chrome trim wrapped around the sides. I can’t recall what Grandma made for breakfast, most likely fried eggs, until we insisted on Kellogg’s corn flakes and sliced bananas instead, and Bosco in our glass of milk.
We wanted to eat all the new foods advertised in the magazines or on television.
Grandpa Weiner slurped steaming hot coffee from his round-bottomed ivory mug, just like my other grandfather. As a child, I thought that all old men drank from this special kind of cup.
I have no idea if Grandma ever ate breakfast. I can’t picture her seated at the table at any meal. But I remember her at the sink, facing the window, her prematurely silver hair in a net and her apron tied in a bow behind her thick waist.
When I slept over, Grandpa shared a taste of his morning coffee with me. After a while I expected it. This was our private ritual, never to vary. I learned to ignore the bitter part that adults seemed to enjoy and took a liking to the sweetened, creamy flavor.
Grandma never said anything like “Coffee will stunt your growth” although that was a widely held belief of the times. To the contrary, I felt like I grew an inch taller when I drank the big people’s drink.
The percolator sat over a high flame on the Roper stove and bubbled up with its syncopated heartbeat. It resembled a strange little robot, its spout and black Bakelite handle unbalanced on opposite sides of its brushed aluminum body. When Grandma removed it from the stove, it calmed down right away, then released its contents into the Grandpa Mug.
Best of all, it filled the room with its all-encompassing aroma, the scent so inviting that it transformed the entire apartment into a rich family’s house.
Everything about coffee was beautiful.
To my grandmother, the main purpose of the upstairs stove was to fry hamburgers for lunch in her cast iron pan or broil lamb chops for dinner.
Her hamburgers tasted like none I have ever had since, a natural sweetness that defies explanation. My cousins and I speculate that the seasoning of the pan over our childhood years must be the source of the uniquely pleasing taste.
Then there was the pot, a thick grade of aluminum, in which she made french fries. I think Grandma re-used the oil for the entire week, no surprise as she had lived through the Great Depression.
She lifted out the fried potatoes with a slotted spoon and poured them directly into a brown paper lunch bag, adding salt. She handed the bag to my cousin or me to shake madly until the grease magically turned the sides translucent.
This transformation never failed to amaze us.
Grandpa, a union brick mason, sat down at the kitchen table for his daily lunch break. The tasty hamburger and shaken french fry meal made such a strong impression on me that I can’t remember anything else that Grandma served — maybe chicken soup in the winter, or leftover brisket and sweet potatoes from the night before.
No matter the season, Grandma set down a frosty bottle of beer. Grandpa pried off the metal cap and offered me one precious sip. I didn’t much like the taste, but I loved the coldness. Most of all, I loved being in on our secret.
The Anheuser-Busch brewery on Route One was the size of an oil refinery, with strangely shaped exterior tanks and convoluted piping. It was most likely this famous local brand that found its way to our table.
Sometimes I stared at Grandpa’s hands, dried and roughened from his work setting bricks in cement. I was told that he emigrated from Eastern Europe, but something about his dark and narrow eyes set above high cheekbones seemed more Asian to me, maybe from a part of Russia with Mongolian ancestry.
But now he was an American, and loved this country with every fiber of his being.
The dining room, crowded with massive ornate furniture, adjoined the kitchen through a curved archway.
Grandma went all out to produce a family dinner, special occasion not required. She’d haul the roasted chicken up the stairs in its speckled metal roasting pan, then make another trip for the soup pot waiting on the basement range.
I have no recollection of desserts. Grandma was a “no frills” kind of lady, seeking to nurture us with protein enhanced by gravies and seasonings. The occasional visiting friend of the family might bring a tell-tale white box tied with a thin string, the sign of a treat from the kosher bakery.
When I close my eyes, I imagine myself sitting at the family table with my parents, my little brother Stuart, my cousin Donna. The looming pieces of dark furniture surrounded us, the heavy floral draperies kept out the light of day, the kitchen smells flowed through every square inch of air space.
Throughout the meal, Aunt Jean tapped her cigarette ashes into the heavy crystal ashtray, the decorative receptacle for her smoking habit. Afterwards, Uncle Harry showed us the mysterious mustard seed encased in a glass ball on his key chain, retelling the parable about the significance of the seed, followed by stories about his naval service in the Pacific.
I thrilled at the armchair journeys to historic times, then to places on the other side of the world.
The eight year old me knew with total certainty that my life here was as good and as rich as the food on the table, entertained by interesting tales of times past, and as promising as a journey on a ship to foreign shores.