A few days later we made split pea soup. When I asked for her recipe, my grandmother started reciting ingredients and then paused and said, “I think it’s on the back of the bag of beans.” Of course, there’s a secret ingredient: a hock of ham, stuffed with cloves.
I asked my grandmother when she learned how to cook. She said, “I never did!” When she moved to New York City in 1952, her first apartment didn’t even have an oven. She lived with two other women, and the three of them managed by eating out or making simple things like hamburgers on the stove. It was only when my grandmother moved out to the suburbs a few years later with a husband and a baby in tow that she began to cook by necessity. Mostly easy recipes that she could make her own with small additions.
The trick to make split pea soup look fancy, she told me, is to slice up a few carrots because they add a nice color. “You know it is done when you stick in a spoon and it stands up.”
I am nearly 30 years old myself. It’s hard to picture my parents at my age, let alone my grandparents. But standing at the stove over my yellow pot, actually over my grandmother’s pot, a classic Dansk design from the 1950s that she gave me from her own kitchen when I moved to New York City, I imagine what her life was like when she made these recipes for her family.
She had three kids under 7 and a fledgling company that she and my grandfather were staking their life savings on, and yet every night she still managed to make meals, with love, for her family. If I was hoping to learn heirloom recipes from my grandmother, full of complicated steps and fancy ingredients, I would have been disappointed. Her recipes are simple, basic, and sometimes found on the back of a bag of beans.
But I learned something better. My grandmother made it work through all the challenges that her life brought. She didn’t cook because it was a hobby. She cooked because she had to and these were the things that she had time to make. Her recipes are all the more precious to me because of that.
When I ask her over FaceTime whether it was difficult to balance her children, her husband, her career, especially at a time when mothers weren’t common in the work force, and the everyday task of keeping her family happily fed, she shrugs and says: “Sure, but life goes on.”
Ali Jaffe is a segment producer at “The Late Show With Stephen Colbert.”