From the mossy carpet and minty appliances to the sparkling emerald parfait glasses, my grandmother's kitchen was an oasis of green. Her kitchen table was, inexplicably, the sort of Formica booth you'd find in a mid-century diner, with a curving vinyl banquette hugging the corner walls. It had tall, skinny cushions the shape and color of oversize green beans.
And, like any great diner, her kitchen was hoppin' on Saturday morning, or at least the Saturday mornings when my family made the two-hour trek to visit for birthdays and long weekends. Her kitchen came alive with the sizzle of bacon on the stove, the hiss of waffle batter hitting the iron, and the sturdy ca-chunk of a toaster shooting Eggos into the air. That was my grandmother's way—serving fresh and frozen waffles at the same meal. She didn't care what we ate, only that we all had what we liked,* whether that was microwaveable glazed doughnuts for my little brother, "green salad" (not what you think) for my mom, or classic banana pudding for my dad.
* What she liked? A bowl of Rice Krispies with skim milk and a few spoonfuls of "mash," her own special concoction of brewer's yeast, toasted wheat germ, soy lecithin, and vitamin E—sweet mercy, that woman believed in the power of vitamin E.
Which was exactly why she'd whip up a batch of plain vanilla pudding for me, a three-year-old horrified at the idea of defiling it with slimy chunks of fruit and smushy cookies. She'd plunk me up on the counter, and I'd tear open the box of Jell-O to get at the paper packet of pudding mix tucked inside. I can still hear the milk sloshing into that big Pyrex cup, and the scrape of a wire whisk against the pan. The kind of help I had to offer was nominal at best, but it made me feel like I was involved. I didn't care that the pudding came from a factory or that the vanilla was artificial; only that we were making something together. We did a lot of that.
I can remember the crinkle and squish of marshmallows still in the bag, waiting for me to pour them in the saucepan of hot butter. While she stirred up the goo, I'd empty a box of cereal into an enormous "crystal" punch bowl—the sort you'd find at a late-'80s baby shower down South, filled with rainbow sherbet and Sprite. When it all came together, she'd butter my hands and let me press the sticky candy into the pan, never fussing that I'd steal my bites by the handful because she always did the same (my grandmother was a Stella, too).
Food was central to her philosophy of love, but so far as I know, my grandmother didn't own a single cookbook. She was one of 10 children growing up on a family farm in Appalachia, so by the time I came along, I imagine my grandmother was damned tired of making things from scratch. She’d had enough of the old-fashioned way, and proved to be exactly the sort of woman Betty Crocker set out to liberate with cake mix and frozen pie crust. So it was entirely without shame that she drew on recipes from the supermarket instead, printed on the backs of boxes and bags. In her kitchen, Key lime pie came from a sleeve of graham crackers and a can of condensed milk; brownies from a mix doctored with eggs and oil; biscuits and cinnamon rolls from explosive canisters of refrigerated dough; cornbread from the Jiffy box.
In that way, she introduced me to baking not as an art or even a science, but as a sort of alchemical process whereby lowly ingredients were simply transformed. And so I grew up less concerned with dessert as a finished product than as a ritual, a way to pass the time. To that end, there was no upper limit to the amount of time I wanted to spend with her in the kitchen.
Eventually, my interest in dessert exceeded even the hours we could spend together, which put me on a more solitary path. Left to my own devices, I became obsessed with the minutiae of each ingredient, eager to break the molecule of a graham cracker into its individual atoms of sugar, flour, and fat. These days, I deal more in the science of baking, but I've remained convinced of its magic.
When I bite into a Rice Krispie Treat, I'm awash in the soft greens of her kitchen. I can't hear the sputter of a waffle iron without smelling her perfume, and the taste of warm vanilla pudding somehow conjures her to my side. In that way, those rituals bound us together, granting my grandmother a sort of immortality.
That’s the kind of magic I’m chasing after in the kitchen—the right combination of ingredients to cast a certain spell.