The Grandmas

I was so fortunate to grow up with more grandparents than the average kid. One reason was both of my parents coming from split families. The other was that my great grandma had my grandma when she was a teen, and my grandma had my mom when she was a teen as well. I was 26 when my great grandma passed, and I can’t say what a gift that was to have her around all the way into my adulthood. She even got to meet my firstborn son, which made her his great-great grandmother.

On my dad’s side, I had his mom and stepmom in my life. Even though they both lived in Southern California, they always made a point to be really involved with my brother and me. It’s my dad’s mom who actually is responsible for getting me into cooking—indirectly through always preparing fine feasts during the holidays, and directly through giving me the cooking magazines that led to a transcendent moment of culinary inspiration.

I was just reflecting on what an amazing gift it was to have these 4 lovely ladies raising me when I was young. I am certain I wouldn’t be where I am now if it weren’t for them. Each one of them gave me a different perspective on life and lent a unique gift in their food. I feel like I really got the full spectrum of experiences when it came to eating.

The grandmas on my mom’s side grew up in Nebraska, so they knew how to provide for themselves and live frugally. In my younger years, I remember my great grandma cooking for my brother and me. For some reason, my strongest memory is of her waffles with squeezable Rainbow brand butter (so gross to think about now) and her sugar-free syrup (she was diabetic; also pretty gross). I can still taste that flavor combination when I think about it, and I feel the warmth emanating from the waffles and filling my heart. I can hear the crunch of the crispy exterior of those squares full of little squares. The love she transmitted through that act far surpasses the actual ingredients used.

My great grandma and my grandma were inseparable, and it was so wonderful to spend time with both of them. I remember eating at a lot of diners in Sonoma County. Some of my fondest memories are of eating lemon supreme pie together at Baker’s Square. I also remember eating at Arby’s many times, which is strange because I haven’t been to one since those early years. Yet my memory of the taste is as clear as anything.

Both of those ladies taught me so much about being content with you have. My grandma was so generous with me, especially when I was in college. She regularly cooked a big batch of something like stew, and I would use it to stretch my money so that I was spending less than $20 per week on food. She would also give me a giant flat of eggs from Costco, and I would ration those for weeks. She was always practicing living below her means and made sure to share with me and others.

On my dad’s side, his mom was an excellent cook. She worked as a waitress in the 60’s and 70’s, and her husband was a cook in restaurants. When we would go to her house for Christmas, she would prepare endless courses of fancy food. The memory that sticks out is her amazing twice-baked potatoes. I had never had those before, and I thought I had gone to heaven. There’s basically no better way to prepare potatoes—between the sour cream and cream cheese in the filling to the broiled cheddar on top. And like I’ve mentioned, she is the one who passed along the written recipes that sparked something in my soul almost 10 years ago. It began a journey that has brought me to where I am today, and I am eternally grateful.

My dad’s step-parents really built a life for themselves, so they had the means to introduce us to some of the finer experiences. We got to eat at many of the nice seafood restaurants in Long Beach, and those times were equally formative and informative. I remember playing around with a raspberry sauce at the end of a dessert (probably using my fingers or licking it off the plate), and my grandpa reprimanded me by saying, “It’s just not done.” I wasn’t even acquainted with that saying at the time, but I now appreciate his calling me to a higher standard and teaching me how to behave, especially in a more elevated setting. To this day, when I find myself in a nicer environment, I hold myself with dignity and strive for elegance.

Our early experiences with food are so critical in our development, and they shape who we become. I am very thankful for the full spectrum that I was exposed to through my ample number of grandparents. I am aware that I wouldn’t be who I am were it not for them. I hope to pass along all of the best things I learned to my kids and their kids. It’s such a joy to share with even a larger audience through the nature of my work now. I hope you’re able to benefit from what I can share from those who have gone before me.

Mark BjerkeComment