Asked why they choose to cook, today’s renowned chefs almost invariably credit their grandmother. My nonna or nana, mémé, mi abuela was a magician who brought to life enticing aromas and tantalizing tastes that made the kitchen so exciting. She presided over its mysteries with crucial and often delicious wisdom, all of it selflessly devoted to their well-being. Grandma’s cooking was the revelation of love.
I did not have a grandma like that. Mine had a shrewish temper and a full-time cook. But I had a hunger to get out of her way, into the world to make it my home. So in college I studied international politics and languages, graduated with prizes and took off. In the ’60s, the world was the mess it is today. Politics divided people, opinions bred hatred, people protested or moved too fast and broke things. But in all the upheavals, I saw something else. The world was one big kitchen. Everywhere people ate. Food markets, restaurants, kitchens were ubiquitous. In the south of Thailand, on the coast of Turkey or under the intimidating gaze of the Stasi in divided Berlin, everybody was bringing something to the table. “Yum,” a young Frenchman said, “international language.”
Food as politics meant I was part of an enormous worldwide web. There was no one to whom I could not relate. I could carry a country or culture home in a recipe and share it with others. Wherever I was, I put together informal dinners that were so comforting, my table became a vibrant salon. The popular dinners led to a catering business, a cookie business, calls to cook for Buddhist groups hosting gurus and for providing treats after long retreats. The sight of safe, abundant food suppresses humans’ most primal, pressing fear—death—which is probably why my heartfelt food made everybody insanely happy.
After farmers’ markets became my haunts, I participated. Out there week after week, I heard befuddled customers ask: “What is this? How long will it be here? What do I do with it?” Every month newspapers brought contradictory reports about what was or wasn’t good to eat: eggs, salt, red meat, butter—coated with agribiz flimflam people not inoculated by experience fell for. I heard alarm bells about obesity, diabetes and cancers galore. Widely broadcast praise for the Mediterranean diet led a young mother I knew to serve turkey burgers instead of beef, completely missing the point. Even so-called smart professionals who could master statistics, program computers and brain surgery were clueless about their most vital survival need: food.
I was trying to figure out how to combat this socially transmitted dis-ease when I read about anthropologists solving the mystery of why women live longer and age better than men. Grandmothers are evolution’s secret sauce. As any new parent knows, they are literally the wisdom bodies whose hands-on help guarantees the survival of the species. Their instinct and critical experience at such crucial moments is why in every language on this planet the word wisdom is feminine.
I say: If you got it, flaunt it. Since I was now old enough, I decided to be America’s long-lost grandmother, the trusty confidence-feeding kitchen aid kids no longer have. I could fork over survival skill and spoon out love. As a test, I volunteered for a cooking program at a low-income elementary school. The kids had many backgrounds. My co-workers introduced themselves as Chloe and Margaret. I introduced myself as Nana. The reaction was fast and clear. Every kid in that class wanted to be in Nana’s group.
In that class and others that followed, the kids put many colors on one plate like there were many colors on the faces in one kitchen. We made our own raspberry jam, our own peanut butter and biscuits to go with them. I explained why they would want to do this at home. “If people don’t
eat, they will die. And if they don’t eat healthy food they will get sick. So if you do not want the people you love to get sick or die, the best thing you can do is feed them. Show them your love.” A long-legged 10-year-old boy ended the final class sobbing. His baffled father couldn’t get him out the door. “I don’t want to leave Nana Chef,” he cried. I kept the name.
Watch for Nana Chef to pop up in Portland sometime spring and summer 2020.