Whenever I watch the investigative crime show CSI, I always stop and think, “This is nothing! If that team wants to solve a REAL mystery, they ought to try cooking with my Grandmother!” Hey Grissom, what’s the difference between a smidgen and a pinch? And you guys are pretty liberal with that Fingerprint Dust. You ever heard the term, “Waste not, want not”?
In his cooking books, Paul Prudomme lovingly describes how as a child he worked at his mother’s side, learning her methods and techniques, while proclaiming his gratitude and love for her guidance and patience. My grandmother on the other hand, graduated with honors from the chain smoking, martini drinking, ‘No Measuring’ school of cooking, where the term “A little bit of this and a little bit of that” was the universal code for “I don’t know how much I used, so stop asking!” My earliest cooking memories involved my grandmother’s instruction on how to work the wheel of her Zippo in order to light the next filter-less Chesterfield. These little, white fire sticks, I learned, are essential time-monitoring devices, and were relied heavily upon during the preparation of a dish. “Two more smokes and that bread will be done rising!” she’d tell me.
Watching her prepare one of her signature martinis was always a treat. She’d fill the stainless steel shaker with ice, pour in a good ‘four fingers’ worth of vodka, and then grab a bottle of unopened vermouth, which she would ceremoniously pass over the top of the shaker and return to the counter. She’d turn to me, wink and say, “I like ‘em dry!” Once, after seeing that some of the adults had added olives to their drinks, I brought an olive jar over and offered it to my grandmother. She just stared at me and said, “Olives are for idiots. Give them to your uncle.”
A pinch of salt to my grandmother is not the pinch of salt that we see today. I was watching Michael Chiarello prepare a dish on a cooking show and when he said, “Just a pinch of salt,” he shoved his hand deep into a salt bowl and dumped in enough kosher crystals to wipe out an entire village of European snails. When my grandmother administered a pinch of salt, she would rub the grains between her fingers as if she were counting exactly how many individual granules were making their way into her meal.
Under her watchful eye I honed my early measuring techniques. “I said a smidgen! Why don’t you use a goddamn shovel next time?” she would lovingly critique. Waste was not tolerated in my grandmother’s kitchen. “I lived through the Depression when I was your age” she would repeatedly tell me. “We had less than nothing. Try chewing on a forkful of that!”
But being complemented by my grandmother was the highlight of any cooking instruction, and although she didn’t dispense it often, it always more than made up for anything that might have occurred beforehand. I happily endured the occasional cigarette burn to the cheek that I’d receive when she’d lean over to congratulate me on a job well done. “Sorry darlin’,” she’d lovingly say. “Tell your father grandpa did that.”
So what did I learn from Grandma? Well, nothing about cooking that I can remember, but whenever I get the scent of second-hand smoke with a touch of alcohol it kinda makes my mouth water. Really. I’ve spent many a night in dive bars eating their chow while chasing the memory of my Grandmother’s cooking and I gotta tell ya, no one comes close. So let’s raise a glass and toast the memories of all our cooking patriarchs, be they man or women. I think that maybe some of my Grandma’s cooking techniques may have rubbed off on me. Maybe just a smidgen.