My great grandmother, Myra Salmon, raised up my beloved grandmother Kitty in St. Louis, Missouri. My great grandmother was friends with another St. Louis native, Irma Rombauer, the woman who wrote The Joy of Cooking. Despite their friendship, Myra was not a good cook. Much as she tried to make something tasty for Irma at one tea party after another, things always went disastrously wrong.
Eventually, it was clear that the best thing Myra got from her friendship with Irma was some good lines. This was because Irma larded her cookbook with a lot of funny remarks. The early editions of The Joy have wonderful quips in them. Later, one of Irma’s children edited out most of this humorous stuff. Sadly, this child seemed to think cooking had to be SERIOUS BUSINESS.
I am grateful that I have my grandmother Kitty’s copy of The Joy. It’s full of Irma’s quips and also my grandmother’s own funny remarks penciled in. Because The Joy was my extended family’s most depended upon cookbook, many of Irma remarks about food became family shorthand for how to live, as well as how to cook.
One dessert from The Joy in our family’s repertoire is Fudge Pie. As Irma said in the 1936 edition of The Joy, “(Fudge Pie) is deliciously and devastatingly rich. Do not let that deter you.” Apparently my mother listened to her advice because throughout my childhood we had Fudge Pie about once a week. Us kids thought of it and dessert in general as something to be embraced, not ignored. Yes, we had plenty of healthy desserts too, mostly something we called, “Fruit Compost,” a dry fruit salad that tasted as good as our name for it, but room was made for deliciously rich desserts as well.
Another much quoted Joy quip was what Irma said about ham, “Eternity is a ham and two people.”
Sometimes when I find myself writing this blog about silly stuff like Fudge Pie or ham, I worry that perhaps it is wrong to write about my small life when such big sad things are happening in places like Haiti.
As I wrestle with this, I remember another part of my family’s history with ham. When I was fourteen, Kitty, my marvelous grandmother, died unexpectedly. It was my first time through that territory of all life stopping while all life continued on. My grandmother was all about seeing the silliness, the joy, the fun, and the pizzazz in life, yet here we were stopped in our tracks by the grief of her loss.
In the first of her many beyond the grave activities, my grandmother lightened the mood of her funeral week in her signature humorous manner.
She addressed the issue of her immortality and the whole big picture topic of eternity by using hams as her metaphor. In the days after she died at least a dozen people left off a ham at my childhood home and then when we got to Grandma’s house for the funeral, there were more hams. On every flat surface there was another ham, lovingly cooked by one of Grandma’s friends. My grandmother was not noticeably big on hams so people weren’t bringing hams because Grandma loved them. As more and more foil covered hams arrived, it became clear that Grandma was orchestrating this humorous ham assault for another reason.
By somehow prompting each of her friends to bring a ham to her funeral, Grandma spoke to us in The Joy language we all shared. She was showing us that eternity was as close as the hams under our noses and that she was still there, laughing with us.
This memory is such a reminder to me that we don’t know what our small kindnesses actually accomplish or their significance to others. When we follow our heart promptings we have no idea how we’ve helped. The loving gesture of each friend’s gift of a ham ended up deeply comforting everyone in Grandma’s family on more than the most obvious level. No one individual knew what a consoling message their ham would bring when combined with all the other hams, only that it felt like the right thing to offer up.
Tragedies like Haiti can make us feel dis-empowered, overwhelmed, and hopeless about making a difference. But the truth is, the small kindnesses within our power to accomplish like a smile to a stranger or ham at a funeral do make a difference- often much more of a difference than we will ever know. Remembering the profound gifts of the ham assault, I know every tiny heartfelt kindness MATTERS and in a big way. When I feel upset that I can’t do all that George Clooney can do to help in Haiti, I remember that we are all one pond so if I try to clean up my part of the pond with small acts of kindness in my daily life then the whole pond gets cleaner and everyone is impacted. Plus I have no idea how many other people are joining me in the pond clean up. I really have no idea of the significance of anything. All I can do is go through each day doing what I can, doing what I feel nudged to do, doing what my heart calls me to do and then let go, knowing that God (and Grandma) will take it from there.
My grandmother’s copy of The Joy of Cooking opened to Baked Alaska. This was William’s choice for his fifteenth birthday dessert on Monday.
Here we successfully flame the Baked Alaska making Irma, Myra, and Kitty proud.