Her kitchen is always cold and damp, cave like, with only the top section of the lakefront window to let the light in. The rest is underground. The house has a lake in the back, an uneven dirt road in the front. There are no rugs to cover the puckered laminate on the first floor because it floods every spring. Sometimes ankle high. Bottles of lemon Pine Sol can’t cover the must of grey mold that grows up the inside walls. We drag piles of blankets from the living room to pitch makeshift tents on the lawn to sleep when it’s warm, and dry. The legs of old leather furniture are covered in sticky plastic.
- Cut of shank beef (or whatever is on sale)
- Onion, celery, carrots, potatoes, and any other vegetables you have around the house - (anything slightly soft or wilted just makes more stew)
- Canned tomatoes (homemade only)
- Whole garlic cloves
- Herbs (whatever’s growing in the garden or dried in the pantry)
- Salt & pepper
She leaves the stove on from morning until night; partly to bring out the flavor in her mostly water meal, partly to warm a small section of the house without turning on the heat. The convenience of an open flame as an unlosable cigarette lighter is not lost on her either. She sits breathing in the swirls of her own cigarette smoke, and it sticks to her hair and clothes. Bits of ash fall to the table, making a small pile. She wipes it to the floor with one swipe of her hand, leaving grey streaks on the table, grey stuck to her skin. Lifting her glasses to wipe her eyes, she leaves a dark shadow. My grandmother’s looked tired a long time now.
She dips her potato chips in vinegar. The salty brine of them reminds her of the pickled bologna and eggs she was brought up on. Her mother bought it in bulk because it kept well and fed five children. She hated it because it was cold. She hated it because no one else could stomach it. A small hiss from the metal pot on the stove calls her to it. Looking down at the brown liquid, she grows angry with the life she has been given, the life that has given her only beef stew in a hot summer. She lights another cigarette on the stove before returning to her seat at the table. Sitting. Smoking. Stirring. Stewing.
“Stews can be good enough for haute cuisine, or the opposite, a meal fit for the lowest echelon of society, the imprisoned.” -M.F.K Fisher
My grandmother’s fridge holds little more than a bottle of mustard, a jar of dill pickles, and Kraft cheese slices. On summer visits as a child, my mother sent small packages of crackers, granola bars, and apple slices in the bottom of our backpacks. I ate them on the side of the house, out of view, so as not to be punished for spoiling my appetite. My grandmother eventually discovered a small hole in her porch with years’ worth of snack wrappers stuffed inside.
My sisters and I made up a song one day by the lake. Standing at the edge of the wooden dock, we put the ends of our swimming noodles into the water and began stirring. Back and forth, we watched the water move in small circles, the tops of tall seaweed moving with it. Never quite agreeing on a melody, our shouts echoed off the other side of the lake - I’m stirring my great big stew, I’m stirring my great big stew, the kids and the fish and the seaweed too, are gonna be my lunch today.
Evidence of stew making has been found in ancient and modern cultures across the globe. Amazonians boiled turtle innards in their shells. Native Americans in the United States made stew in hollowed out trees. In 1933, Hitler passed a law in Germany that dictated that one Sunday a month, from October to March, was to be “One-pot Sunday” or Eintopf Sonntag. The money saved from not eating lavishly was to be donated to the poor.
My grandmother is the poor. She has been for most of her life. Beef stew isn’t home or comfort, it is poverty and frugality. Depression and envy. It’s the only way to swallow tough cuts of meat on sale at the butcher and slightly browned vegetables from her neighbors. They think they’re simply putting them to good use by giving them to the lady that likes to make stew. She grows bitter towards those who think of her as living compost.
I feel guilty that I live in a house like her neighbors. My parents regularly give to charity, buy extra gloves in the winter to hand out to those in need. Do they want the help of strangers handing down gloves from atop their pedestals? I don’t ever stop to ask the story of someone I see in dirty clothes, just assume that they have been waiting for someone like me to help. I know only that it makes me feel better to give, somehow erases my own wrongdoings. Hitler’s policy doesn’t change how we all remember him, why would simply giving change the rest of us? I give pity and new gloves to unnamed faces. I don’t give much more to my grandmother.
My grandmother grew up the oldest of five children, and her father worked at a hardware store. By nineteen she was married to a motorcycle-riding bad boy, by twenty-four a divorced single mother of three. Some months she read to her children by candlelight. Most weekends she went on dates and brought home leftovers for dinner. Otherwise there was peanut butter and saltines. It is my mother I give sympathy to in these years.
- Put all of the above ingredients in a large pot
- Cover with water
- Let simmer on medium-low heat until meat and vegetables are fully cooked
- Serve with Wonder bread or canned corn
The final product takes up about half the space as the original ingredients, the bulk of wilted vegetables mixing with fresh herbs, giving us disappointingly little in our bowls. With enough heat and time, the water evaporates, making the cold and damp kitchen even more cold and damp. Water droplets collect on the windowpane and remind me of the tears I once saw my grandmother cry at the kitchen table. She had sat there, head in hands, lit cigarette between fingers, jolting up and down with heaving sobs and choked breath. The stew from the metal pot on the stove had fallen onto the floor. Watery brown gravy covered chunks of meat and vegetables. It looked like someone had been sick. Maybe someone had. That night we each had a baked potato filled with creamed corn. Only then were we grateful for stew.