My grandmother didn’t like me much, and she had ways of letting me know it. But she also gave me a secret to cooking and to life: salt brings out the sweetness.
I bought a package of black raspberries today; organic, from Washington State, and sweeter than any I’ve had in years. In a state of bliss, I ate nearly the whole box before I caught myself and snuck it back into the fridge, so Jim could have some, too.
Berries are the taste of long summer vacation visits to my grandparent’s house in Chittenden, Vermont, where brambles thronged the mountain slope, their mass of thorns a year-round navigational challenge if you wanted to visit the valley floor and the creek that pinged and tumbled through it.
In winter, the brambles were covered with drifts of snow, with an occasional branch poking through to catch my brothers and me as we sailed by on our sleds. In spring, my grandfather thrashed and beat them back from the path with long-handled hedging shears. By summer, they were focused on bearing fruit and growing more gently.
Seasonal Labor (Unpaid)
When the heavy fruit had ripened, my grandmother sent us into the brambles to harvest, and I suspect this is the main reason she asked for us to visit in late July and early August.
Some berries were the size of quarters — goggling clusters clinging to the brambles in alternating lines. Others were smaller, their flavor a little tarter, their color just as brilliant.
I liked the black raspberries best — they were sweeter than the red, and I loved the color they turned my skin. They weren’t black; they were a deep purple that reminded me of the blood of kings in fairy tales, rich, lovely, sure to heal any wound, even as their thorns cut my palms.
The red ones were good, too, but tarter and smaller. When I needed a break from sweet, I would slip a red raspberry into my mouth and let it dissolve, the seeds sticking in my braces.
Each berry was hollow inside, so I could wear them like finger thimbles. My brother David made up a game called “berry man” — berries on each finger, waving them in each other’s face. The challenge was to eat the berries off the other person’s fingers first.
But my grandmother wasn’t playing games. She was, as she always was, very serious. We were her laborers, and she wanted us to work.
We picked quarts and quarts, and if we didn’t bring in at least a gallon each within a couple of hours, she would stand on her wraparound porch high above our slope, shade her eyes, and call out “You’re not eating them all, are you?”
“No, Nanny!” we would call back, and pick up the pace.
Same Parents, Different People
Paul was the youngest and cutest and least serious about this work. He would crawl through the cane until he reached the trunk of a bush, and then sit in the hollow, back to wood, plucking berries found at eye level, enjoying the sunshine falling through the canopy. The very best were placed on his tongue to be savored, and the others tossed in his pail. He wouldn’t leave a bush until it was thoroughly de-berried … or he started to feel sick to his stomach.
David was by far the most athletic. He would crawl deep into the canes, belly to the ground, pail plunking in front, to get the sweetest, darkest berries, the ones that grow close and clustered in the shade. While Paul’s stillness made his location difficult to spot from above, David’s was obvious — it was where the cane was pitching back and forth as he snaked an arm through the thorns to reach the very best choices. When he returned to the trail, pail full and face smeared with bright purple blotches, I would scold him — Nanny would know he had eaten a lot. He shrugged.
“Who cares? There’s plenty more to pick later. I left the mediocre ones on the cane.”
I tended to stay on the trail, reaching for the highest fruit, and working my way in to gather those my younger brothers couldn’t reach. My pleasure, however, lay only in how quickly I worked and how many pails I filled. Unlike my brothers, who treated this task as a good idea for a game, and stopped as soon as they felt like it, I felt the weight of my grandmother’s expectations heavily. I kept at it, long after I was sick of the taste of berries, long after it stopped being fun.
I Please My Grandmother (!!)
I was probably twelve on the day I remember one day in particular, when I continued picking after my brothers had given up to slip down the hill and splash in the stream. The sun was unbearably hot, making the berries more fragile and likely to break apart.
When I had three pails full, I lugged them up to the house, removing my shoes at the entrance before bringing my haul into the sunny kitchen with its view of the valley. My grandmother seemed genuinely pleased as she sorted the berries and crowed at their size and sweetness. I was relieved.
She turned her appraising expression to me.
“You really did well,” she said, “and I just made some granola.”
She didn’t actually offer it to me, but just turned away to get a the bowls. I wasn’t sure I wanted any. In the 1980’s, my grandmother often acted like her extremely health-conscious food tasted great when really it didn’t: case in point, the “super fudge” she always made for dessert. Carob “fudge” with chopped walnuts and shredded (unsweetened) coconut was not, in my opinion, dessert. Neither was carob a chocolate substitute, as she insisted.
Food Neuroses — Nature, or Nurture?
It was dangerous, however, to turn down macrobiotic food or make a complaint at Nanny’s house. 1She took her efforts very personally, and was absolutely convinced that we three, her only grandchildren, were being raised on an unhealthy, disgusting diet. Even though my mother bought whole wheat bread, grew her own vegetables, and made most of our food from scratch, Nanny thought her daughter was downright negligent.
We kids thought our mother was plenty diligent about healthy food. She wasn’t into processed food in any form, and refused to let us eat “like normal people.” We desperately wanted fruit rollups — a favorite snack for our friends — but she insisted apples were better. I ate fluffernutter sandwiches whenever a friend’s mother offered them, because mom would never, ever, allow marshmallow fluff in the house. Mom made her own yogurt, spaghetti sauce, and practiced vegetarianism — but her mother would never agree that she fed us a healthy diet.
My grandmother knew back then what is becoming increasingly clear today — sugar is bad for you. So mom’s very occasional dessert was cause for calamitous nagging. Nanny took every opportunity to quiz my mother and then criticize her for her food choices — white pasta! birthday cakes made with regular flour! — and Mom sometimes spent the four hour drive back to Connecticut in tears.
So when my grandmother handed me two bowls of granola, topped with yogurt and a few berries winking up at me with their happy, bright, juicy faces, I smiled a little and braced for the worst. She told me to set the table (we always ate with silver and napkins), and we sat down, just the two of us.
This in itself was unusual. Meals were a big occasion at Nanny’s house, and usually involved a revolving door of other family members, guests and neighbors. I had never before sat down with only my grandmother for company, and I never would again.
I was uneasy as I looked at my bowl. I was just beginning to carefully nurture a soon-to-be-raging case of food neurosis myself, namely, anorexia nervosa — and I just didn’t want to eat that much, especially since I was pretty sure I’d hate it. To put it off, I held up my hands to show Nanny they were stained with both blood and berry juice, and excused myself to wash up.
Returning to the table with newly opened scratches stinging, I hefted my spoon and faced my fate. There was only one way out of this, and that was to eat enough of what was in this bowl to convince my grandmother that I was at least dutiful, if not grateful.
Summer’s Day in a Bowl
Nanny’s bowl was already empty, so she sat and watched me, blue-grey eyes narrowed. Her judging thoughts lifted the hair on the back of my neck. I filled a spoon with a little yogurt, a berry, and a few grains of the granola and slowly raised it to my mouth.
The yogurt was much sourer than I was used to, and it nearly made me gag. I stifled it, because gagging was guaranteed to bring on a rain of criticism from Nanny, and even a few hours of punishing shunning. So I pressed my mouth down, sliding the whole mess from the spoon and bravely holding it on my tongue.
And what a revelation it was, my first taste of Nanny’s granola. It was nutty, sweet, crunchy, and almost meaty from the nuts. The berry burst, and as it crushed against the granola, it melted the super-sour yogurt into a luxurious tang. It was the taste of the summer’s day outside, the one I’d been living as a burden. How had I not noticed until now how unbearably good the day had been?
I took another bite, careful to get plenty of granola and berries with the yogurt. The fresh, warm berries had just been sweet before — now they were a creamy, full, savory force in my mouth.
I would never mind eating homemade yogurt, I thought, if I could always have it like this.
The Salt Brings Out the Sweetness
My grandmother watched me, tapping her spoon against the table. “Would you like some more?” she asked. I smiled at her.
She took my bowl, which still had some yogurt in it, and topped it off with granola and berries. And this time, she added a drizzle of honey over the top, and a dash of salt.
“Try this,” she said, and placed the bowl in front of me.
“The salt brings out the sweetness.”
And it did. That bite of yogurt-berry-granola was so much more intense than the previous ones had been … I’ve never forgotten it. And since, I’ve never been afraid of salt, especially in sweets. When used correctly, salt brings out the flavors of everything else, and makes food much, much more alive.
Salt, when added to food, brings out the true flavor.
We’ve Never Liked Each Other Much
Nanny was a hard woman to love, for me. Far from being a sweet grandmother, she was mostly bitter. She was critical of most of my mother’s choices, and of mine, and I saw, at an early age, that she did not respect anyone else’s different opinions or experiences as valid.
I deeply respected her, however, and saw how much help and comfort she brought many people. I never fully confronted her with my complicated feelings, until, briefly, when she was in her nineties, I spoke to her for the last time before she died. I had just moved to Maui and met Jim, and it felt like my whole life finally made sense to me — I was finally home. I called her and told her about all of it, and she listened carefully.
She had suffered a stroke, and she didn’t have an easy time speaking, so she tended to keep her sentences short. Her response was economical:
“You are very different than me, and we’ve never liked each other much. Your choices seem to have made you happy, although I don’t agree with them.”
I was mute for a moment, digesting what she had just done — offered the unvarnished, bitter truth of how we felt about each other. I’d never realized that she didn’t like me. That she was conscious of her dislike gave me a momentary shock. She also hadn’t expressed happiness for my happiness — merely noted the fact of it, and that she disapproved of what made me happy.
She was speaking her truth, and so I spoke mine, in as simple and direct a manner as she had.
“Nanny, you’re right — we haven’t always liked each other, and you would make different choices for me. And I love you, even if we haven’t been able to be close.”
She was silent in her turn, and then said “Well, we all have the life we choose.”
Choosing, My Life
Usually, I would take this as the criticism it surely was — the implication being that I had made the wrong choices, which led to our not being close — her pointed refusal to say “I love you, too, Molly.”
Usually, my throat would close up during a conversation like this. Usually, I would be struck dumb, unable to think, and unable to keep move my lips to form any words, let alone constructive ones.
But I had just moved to Maui, and walked through a spiritual hell to get there. I was no longer able to lie in any way. And keeping my mouth shut would have been a lie. So instead, I took a breath, and checked in with myself to see if there was any truth in what she’d said. And I realized that yes, there was absolute truth in it. Nanny had the life she had chosen, and I had the life I had chosen.
“Yes, we do, Nanny. We all have the life we’ve chosen.”
There was nothing much more to say after that, so I made some small noises about coming back to the East Coast in a few months before saying goodbye. But I didn’t, and she died just a short time later.
I was a difficult girl to love, for my Nanny, just as my mother clearly had been before me. I only ever heard or saw Nanny express true affection for those who saw her the way she wanted to be seen — as something close to a guru. 2 Many, many people in her life did see her that way, as an unending font of enlightenment and wisdom.
But I didn’t, not ever. Even though I spent most of my time with her trying hard to please her, I think she knew that I didn’t see her the way she wanted to be seen. And she found that bitter, and she gave me bitterness back. As she said, she never liked me much, and I think she felt compelled to make sure I knew that before she died.
But what my grandmother may not have realized was this: for me, truthful words are a lot like salt. They bring out the sweetness, because truth connects me directly to another person’s soul. So, whether Nanny intended to do it or not, her truthfulness in our last conversation was just like that dash of salt on her honeyed granola: it brought out the sweetness, and sated my one, neverending craving.
Her Real Last Words
A couple of weeks after my grandmother died, I was startled awake in the early morning by someone shaking my shoulder. When I opened my eyes, I saw Nanny standing by the side of my bed, shimmery and practically shivering with excitement. She looked no older than 25, and she was staring over my head, with a kind of wide-eyed, gape-mouthed, dreamy expression, as if she were Courteney Cox, and Bruce Springsteen had just reached out a hand to pull her up on stage.
“Hi Nanny,” I said, and she gave me a quick glance with an impatient jerk of her chin.
“Hi,” she said, and lifted her face back up to whatever it was that held her attention. Then she sort of blinked, and I lost the sight of her. But I still heard her.
“It’s so much better than I ever imagined!”
Read more about how salt brings out the sweetness.