July 1, 2011 at 12:00 PM
"I turned and faced the podium, my grandmother’s casket a few feet away..."
By José Smith
The Beans & Chile
José Smith is a writer, stay-at-home dad and fiend of excellent essays.
Despite its title, The Beans and Chile is no food blog. Yet, I figured, why not kick-off the cyber-ranting by talking about the culinary roots that inspired the creation of this blog. The best place to start? Why, in the end, of course.
I turned and faced the podium, my grandmother’s casket a few feet away at the bottom of the alter. I could hear my mother weeping and in my peripheral view I could tell she was holding her cell phone out in front of her, attempting to take a picture of me as I was about to eulogize my grandmother. Moments earlier I’d contemplated bolting out of the church, shoving the eulogy I’d written in the hands of my uncle, telling him, “You do it!”
I shouldn’t have been so nervous. I’d spent days writing what I thought was a good eulogy, celebrating my grandmother’s eighty-eight years of an amazing life. Yet, as much as there was to celebrate, the wound of her passing was still fresh. And as relieved as many of us were that she was now at rest, how her life ended had been a hard pill to swallow, nothing I dared to bring up in her eulogy.
My grandmother essentially starved herself in the end, which, is horribly ironic considering that it was her beans and chile, served with fresh tortillas, that is such a hallmark of who she was. The kitchen, probably to many women of her age, was her domain. She took very little interest in stuff like politics and sports. If you came to visit her she’d communicate to you via her kitchen. Beans and chile were served just about every week. And if you came at other times she’d serve whatever she had, be it fresh baked bread or a plate full of ‘Nilla Wafers. Either way you’d find yourself sitting at her table, gossiping.
In the last months of her life though she simply just checked out. She’d pick at her food like a bird and try to trick people into thinking that she’d eaten. She was mean and hard to deal with too. She was probably depressed, confused, and she took her moods out on those closest to her, the people who were trying to comfort and care for her.
My last few hours with her, about three weeks before she died, were spent watching her sleep on the couch. She’d lift her eyelids from time to time, blankly gazing in front of her, seemingly at nothing at all, a emptiness in her eyes that I tried to deny. Before I left that day, my aunt showed-up with lunch, a few small boxes of food from Churches Chicken. Unexpectedly, when my aunt woke my grandmother and handed her a greasy drumstick, she gobbled it down. As encouraging as it was to see her eat, it also saddened me to see the lady I once knew--my grandma, my “Nanny”, who nourished my upbringing with such memorable, comforting foods--eating an impersonal piece of fast-food.
I can’t recall the last time I ate her beans and chile; it must’ve been years before she passed. Time and age had simply stripped her of the ability to do the simple, yet extraordinary things, like cooking, that she loved to do. A stationary life just wasn’t her thing and she was stubborn, stubborn to the point of probably saying to herself, “Screw it! If I can’t live life on my terms I just won’t live.” I actually respect her in some ways for how she went out.
The saddest part of all this isn’t that my grandmother passed away, or that she flipped the bird to the world on her way out, it’s that no one, and I mean no one, can make beans and chile and tortillas like she did. My aunts can’t do it. My mom can’t. None of us grandchildren know how. I think that’s why, during the eulogy, the only part I choked-up on, was when I said: “My grandmother transcended what it means to just make a tortilla; she was truly an artist of this culinary craft.”