This past January, my 97 year old grandmother passed away. On one hand, when very elderly people pass away, it is never a huge surprise, and we have time to prepare ourselves mentally. On the other hand, when someone who has been a presence on Planet Earth for nearly 100 years disappears, it is so very hard to imagine that world without them. It’s all the more so when your grandmother, like mine, was in some ways an almost larger than life figure.
Born in 1924 to a modern Jewish Atlanta family, her life, like all those of the Greatest Generation, followed the thread of the 20th century. Sifting through family photos, which I have done since I was a child, I have always had a particular picture of who she was in each decade, and it always seemed iconic. She seemed to absorb the esthetic of every era and radiate it in the pictures. In the early 1930s, she and her mother were pictured in the Atlanta Journal Constitution, she in a sailor suit and her mother in a white drop waist dress and cloche hat, showing off their gleaming new Nash automobile, one of the first of its kind in Atlanta; By the 1940s she was wearing red lipstick, perfectly tailored dress suits, bouncy soft blond curls, and penning letters to her man on the Pacific front; The 50s brought a picture perfect family of 5 and African American nannies; the 60s show her smoking poolside with socialite friends in New Jersey and the 70s were made of bold, swirl patterned dresses and family weddings. But she wasn’t all show. A very smart person, she burned through novels and biographies, and deeply understood how people worked. She was relentlessly positive but not in a naive way. It was a deadly serious choice to be optimistic, and one that would get her through the deaths of her husband and daughter.
When I think back on her relationship to cooking, I guess you would say it’s complicated. In her early married years, she had a live-in housekeeper and nanny named Hattie, who my mother remembers as a tremendous cook. My grandmother would do the “marketing” and then Hattie would do the rest. Roasts, fried chicken, biscuits, paper thin cornbread, and German chocolate cake were among the favorite dishes Hattie brought to their table. Betty and her husband also had a soft spot for Ashkenazi classics: borsht, tongue sandwiches, gefilte fish, chopped liver, mushroom barley soup (she called it ‘butter bean and barley soup’), and mandel broit, like a Jewish biscotti. Her own mother Fanny had stopped keeping kosher when her mother Sarah Elson died, but my grandma recalls in the years before that nibbling on gribnes when Sarah would render schmaltz, and eating tender swirls of cinnamon shnecken on Shabbat. (See my post on schnecken here.)
Once widowed and living alone, my grandmother was a decent but not terribly motivated cook. She was more of a nosher and rarely (I believe) made herself meals that went beyond omelets and sandwiches. She was very talented in the noshing department, however, and made a great cheese plate, and killer ranch oyster crackers that I asked her for every time I visited. Find that recipe here. Luckily, she had the good fortune of being invited almost daily for supper at my aunt and uncle’s house two blocks away. I do remember her making soups, kugels, spaghetti casseroles and stuffing (dressing) on holidays. And there were her crunchy, thin cinnamon cookies and mandel broit that would be kept in a tin on the refrigerator around the holidays. She adored chocolate, and kept little bowls of hershey’s kisses (which she called silver bells) around the house. When my kids came home from her house, I’d find them squirelled away in their pockets.
When I think back on the recipe that most reminds me of her, I just keep coming back to French toast. Whenever she had her various children or grandchildren visiting, she would prepare breakfast while everyone slept. At some point the smell of coffee and French toast would lure you downstairs to the kitchen where grandma stood with a long pink robe and soft slippers, the newspaper in hand. “Hello, my darling!!” she would exclaim as you entered. Her French toast was always made with challah, and always sprinkled heavily with cinnamon sugar, which she poured from an old glass Domino shaker that she had been refilling with cinnamon and sugar probably since the 1950s. She always served it with a generous portion of fresh berries.
Classic Challah French Toast
- 2 Eggs
- 4 slices of challah
- 3/4 cup of milk
- 3 tbsp butter
- 2 tsp cinnamon sugar
- Fresh berries for serving
Beat the eggs and milk in a shallow serving dish. Lay the challah into the mixture and turn after a minute. Meanwhile, heat the butter in a frying pan. Once the milk is absorbed, transfer the bread to the pan and fry until golden on each side. Sprinkle very generously with cinnamon sugar while it’s still in the pan and turn off the heat and allow to sit for a moment. Transfer to a plate and serve with berries and more cinnamon sugar or maple syrup.
One thought on “Gramma Betty”
I absolutely adored this post. Your pic of Grandma Betty is beautiful and your story touched my heart ❤