For some folks, the more expensive a meal or beverage, the better it tastes. How else to explain caviar named after diamonds or a $1,000 mint julep? I frequently thank my lucky stars that I haven’t been saddled with such a proclivity, but perhaps I should be thanking my forebears instead.
During a recent trip to Ohio to visit the maternal, Slovene-Hungarian side of my family, I had an opportunity to visit more with my grandmother than I had on any previous occasion. At a dignified 4’8″, she is usually to be found ambling around the kitchen with her irratable Sun Conure, Sunny, perched on her shoulder or huddled inside her cardigan.
She makes magical things in that kitchen.
There’s a semi-conscious competition between my brother and me where the only way to get the upper hand is to have had Grandma’s salmon chowder more recently. Each Cheez-It dropped into the bowl is instantly transformed into a biscuit both subtly compelling and radiating with flavor. Toasted pumpkin seeds in her granola-based cookies dance salty-sweet on the taste buds. Knobs of chocolate make rare appearances, and even then are model team members contributing to the harmonious collective rather than prima donnas trying to steal the show. Said cookies are just as visually palatable, always square so as to be accommodated, tightly-packed, in her straight-edged tupperware. This visit, I discovered another string to her bow.
Sitting in her kitchen, admiring the WWII-era bomb that now forms the base of a table lamp, my father and I wondered what to eat. My grandmother asked if we wanted a grilled cheese. We said yes.
Dish water occupied one front burner, heated on the stove to save fuel costs. She placed a griddle on the other front burner and made two sandwiches for my dad and two for me. My mother suspects that the griddle is some three generations old. I like to think that it can recognize the flavors it touches every day, happily toasting the butter onto a side of bread or gazing wistfully at a pancake as it’s whisked over to the table and drenched in blueberry syrup.
Setting the sandwiches on the table, I raised just one eyebrow at the unusual inclusion of bologna. Beside my plate, she set a jar of dill pickles, the marker-scrawled label more antique and inviting than any Olde Brand for sale on store shelves. Like so much in that kitchen, she had clearly made those pickles with her own hands, which are as beautifully gnarled and knotted as roots of The Giving Tree.
I took a bite of sandwich, and it was good. Still chewing, I bit into a pickle.
It was the best thing I’d ever eaten.
My grandmother’s husband, my grandfather, is remarkable in many ways. He got a football scholarship to Ohio State when he was young, served in the Navy, became a cop and was hit by a truck blowing through an intersection while on a police motorcycle. He was bedridden for two years, and the local funeral home would transport him from home to high school in a hearse, where he would watch my father’s his alma mater‘s football games out the back door. He has had well over 80 surgeries and worn through a series of knees, hips and shoulders. He is a bionic man.
He is also the most positive person I have ever met and am likely to meet. He speaks often of his enormous luck at being treated so kindly by life. When he laughs, everyone laughs.
He is also fond of declaring his latest meal, “the best I’ve ever had” or the most recent flower “the most beautiful I’ve ever seen.” My mother told me that this used to bother her, as she thought him not discerning enough. In time, she came to realize that he genuinely believed these statements each time he made them. They were always true.
It’s an amazing way to live when each bite is better than the last and each flower more perfect than any that has come before, and I like to think that I have inherited this constant feeling of joy. Thus, I present to you the recipe for the Best Sandwich You’ve Ever Tasted.
Start with wheat bread. I chose this sodium-free version for no particular reason. Perhaps the blue color appealed to me. Quite probably other types of bread will work just fine. Experimenting is both fun and delicious.
The choice of cheese is rather more strict, since the sharpness of the cheddar must conjure images of samurai swords, black keys on a piano and that really smart kid in math class who had the answer before you finished reading the problem. Sharp.
I don’t think turkey bologna was in the sandwich grandma made, but again, it’s more than adequate. It’s also probably healthier and rules in any no-red-meat types who would otherwise be ruled out of enjoying this lovely sandwich.
Dill pickles are the real magic dust here, and the presence of you or your relatives in the process of their creation is fundamental. I give you the recipe as it was given to me: written on an index card. I suggest you do the same. It’s better that way.
Sitting on a plate next to a rattle of dill pickle spears, the majesty of the sandwich should have you near tears. If you’re like me, anyway.
Thanks, Grandma and Grandpa.