Just after the war, the ports were full of returned soldiers, they were scarred and lost, but the great enemy was gone, and we were victorious. In my youth, I thought war a fine end, an end unto itself, but I was stupid. I hadn’t seen death properly then. It is easy to be brash, when you look around and realize that there might be a chance you’ve escaped all that withering business. Until it really begins to make that dire and skeletal impression upon you…that no one else will.
If every person around you is an open space, an adventure, as Rebecca says, a path to walk with a companion—well, death is the fallen bridge, the twisted trees and brambles across the trail. Death is a door that slams shut, and all that lies beyond it is forever lost. The death of one man, however vile, is the death of an entire world.
I say this, knowing full well what I am, and what I do several dozen times a year. I am lethal, but never is the undertaking given one smidgen less concern or contemplation than it deserves, provided I am fed. Which is, of course, one of the myriad of reasons why I keep myself so well fed. Death, in all the irony of my condition, is my loathed enemy, for all that it has taken from me.
It was summer when we first met. Uncommonly warm as I recall it. I had finally dropped the lovely-lady-with-arms-built-for-the-shipyards act. I had taken up a watch cap and waders—fishing. It is a noble profession. A biblical profession even. And so I found it somewhat amusing when I was cordially invited by a woman with a pamphlet to the potluck celebrating the opening of their new church. I had seen them standing there long before I received said missive. I was avoiding them, with my head turned to my feet, carrying my gear and a lunch pail. But I remember her laugh, and how friendly she was. When she handed me the paper, she seemed far too delighted to meet me.
I turned up at the church. Churches and I are old comrades in this confrontation with death. I on the side of defeating the tyrant, and The Church on the side of good grooming and organization. Well…that and door prizes and merit badges. Monsters never turn down free food. Not even terrible potlucks.
Those days, I spent several days at a go doing stints of heavy labor, sometimes a few days at a time away from shore. I carried a stockpile of meat, but I was always hungry, and though I had some money, I was not in the position to spend it. I lived in a very small apartment in the area near the docks, and I made do by butchering my kills in my bathtub. The trick is to let them sit a bit. Then they don’t spurt everywhere. Arterial spatter is the dickens, but one can…
Ah, pardon me.
I arrived at the door, and there she was, all light and sunshine. Late twenties, I think. Prime age for a young lady in those days. I can see her dress clearly in my mind, a pale lavender A-line, with a collar. It complemented her skin nicely. She appeared to recognize me at once, and swung herself over to me.
“I am so glad you could come! I think I’m the one who gave you the brochure!”
“My name is Grace.”
I tapped my throat, as was my general custom. This is the age of science. Though I could never expect to obtain a high-paying position due to the usual fears, I could at least be assured not to be met with horror or revulsion. There were many veterans, after all. Some with grievous injuries.
She dipped her chin in appropriate recognition and to my surprise, hooked her hand over my elbow and gave me a tug. “You just have to come this way. Come see the spread! Isn’t it swell?”
And indeed it is, a long set of tables lain with all manner of thing, most of which looked frankly odd. Casseroles, fried foods, colorful salads, pasta, and nearing the end of the table, a faintly orange baking dish of some sort of mildly disconcerting stuff. Heedless of my dubious glance or the hunger behind it, Grace took up a plate.
“Now you must have some of this,” she said, heaping it with little mountains. A range fit for any hungry monster to climb. Finally, in the center of the plate, she plopped down a generous heap of the cheese-laden potatoes and stared at me.
I blinked out my gratitude, possibly seeming a bit stunned or overwhelmed.
She handed me a fork wrapped in a napkin. “The one in the middle is mine. Let me know what you think, won’t ya?”
And off she went, to hijack some other defenseless soul with her pretty face and boundless charms. I walked to the corner of the great room, and backed a chair to it. I sat huddled over my food like some sort of rodent, shoveling it in in sequential order, bound and determined to escape before any sort of church service could be put into effect with a ritual designed to tell me what an abomination I am.
I worked in a spiral, through the macaroni, the jello, the whipped cream, the chicken, the vegetables, and finally found the Sinai at the center — the cream cheese potatoes, though I had no idea that was their name.
I took a bite and largely forgot what I was doing. Suddenly, all things sang in a harmony of soulful depth and glory. Compared to most meals I had had of late, this was a symphony. Sea catch and tack, spare parts and sour beer, this was a glorious, perfectly seasoned, the potatoes that texture that defies logic — at once both soft and firm. The cheese sauce seemed a mixture of things, some bouillon, herbs. What herbs? Flavors all muddled. I picked them out, but could not name them all. not mixed like this. The crumble over top was crunchy, but nothing so simple as the ones to which I was accustomed—they too being seasoned. Tiny chunks of ham and bacon were littered throughout in generous portions. Neither too moist nor too sticky. Simply delicious in every way.
I rolled it around my mouth, eyes closed, completely oblivious to the world. And then there she was again, right in front of me. With an eye like a falcon hunting down approval for what she must have known was quite the achievement.
Hands on her knees, she bent low and caught my eye. “What ya think? Good, Isn’t it?”
I nodded, very happily, I might add. She stood up and clapped her hands. “I just knew I’d gotten it right. Knew it. Everyone is so pleased. There won’t be enough to take home, at this rate! Be sure to try the cheesecake. That one was my mother’s.”
And there she went. I left the party then, with a long and lingering look at the potatoes. I tried to impress the food on my memory, as I often do with foods I rather like. I wanted to be able to manifest it in my mouth on command.
Years separate this moment from the next, as is so often the case in my life, which I string together for you in a way I never lived it. To you it looks decorative and balanced in aesthetic. To me it is a jumbled mess of a thing, but ah me, it is what it is.
This time, I was a woman. A solitary soul, living on the outskirts of town, I kept my neighbors well, so that they found me pleasant, if a trifle shy. The times were changing. Women were living alone. Feminism and Civil Rights were a subject on every radio broadcast or television program. I had a modest house and I liked it well. Its kitchen was quite good. Even now, with my industrial gas range, I miss that rounded, pastel monstrosity on which I attempted and failed to recreated Cream Cheese Potatoes. I plied my goods on the poor neighbors, one in particular — let us call him Mr. Haskel — whose wife had passed away. Sometimes I would lie awake and listen to him shuffle about his house. His leg had been somewhat mangled in the war. He walked with a cane. He talked a big talk, but his heart was weak from war with the Germans and war with Death. That is how it always is.
On the third attempt at the potato concoction dropped unceremoniously on his welcome mat, he answered the door and caught me placing my offering. I did a little curtsy in awkward silence as he looked me over. A cuss, he was, but a kindly cuss, if such a thing is possible.
“It’s okay,” he said. “But you know, I’ve got a friend you ought to meet. She makes this potato thing that would knock your socks off. Brings it to every church dinner. Told her that if I die, she better serve it at my funeral or else no one will come.”
He laughed, but there was a harshness to it. I helped him inside. I plated my creation and waited to see. I knew at once that it was another failure, and so had a bite myself. No, not nearly half so good.
With a hand across my mouth, I thanked him, reminded him to take his medicines, and then scurried back home.
Less than a year later, he was dead.
I was sewing. Counting the rhythm of my machine, listening to the cadenced zip of the electricity and the thump-thump of something else. Until the something else fell silent and I noticed it was gone. I laid my pattern by and got to my feet. I peeked through his window. He was lying on the floor. Walking to the nearest home with a telephone, as I did not have one, I summoned aid. They didn’t hurry; he wasn’t going anywhere.
His executor invited me to the wake and gave me a box of all the old man’s cookware. Something about it being my gift. When I turned the largest pot upside down, my name and address were scrawled on a piece of paper that had been gummed to the bottom.
Grace made good on her promise, and there was a triple-sized avalanche of potatoes on the long table. I knew her at once, though she was older, and a married woman. She wore a long black dress, and a lovely hat. As we ate and stood around in general mourning, I tucked in to the potatoes. By heaven, I was going to use this opportunity to mine them for detail. But such is the nature of the thing— that when caught in the passions of enjoying it, one fails to perceive anything with the rational mind.
She approached me, still glowing but far more tactful in her maturity, introducing herself. With my head bowed, I gave my name.
“His nephew says you found him. I’m very sorry you had to see that.”
I shook my head, chewing overtly.
“I think…” she stared at his mounted photograph and floral decorations, “I think we all expected him to go a lot sooner. After his wife passed…well, I cannot imagine what it must have felt like. I don’t think I could do without George. He’s my everything.”
Mouth still full of the cheesy stuff, I sighed. Humans always say this, but they underestimate themselves. Thousands of times over, I have watched the old curse fall upon someone else’s head. Always I feel it like a kind of shared pain. Always we two — the survivor and me. It is a glance or a raised cup. A fond story or a nod. Always the same, and then life goes on.
“Are you married?”
Shielding my mouth with my napkin, I feigned a chuckle. “I’m not the sort. One of these new-fangled women.”
With a suddenly sly grin, she tipped her cocktail at me. “Good for you. Be independent, but don’t ever overlook a good thing just because it changes your plans.”
“Say, you wouldn’t be the neighbor who’s always bringing over the baked stuff, would you?”
With a tiny dip, I took my acclaim. She shook her head in wonder.
“Now, you see, that’s something special. I had one of your apple fritter things the other week. You have to share that recipe with me!”
Sensing the opportunity, I spoke into my glass. “Would you trade it for the potatoes?”
Like the bird of prey she was, Grace wheeled in mid-breath and made a low hooting sound. “Oooooh no, young lady. That is mine and mine only. Hell, if I gave that to everyone, no one would ever talk to me again! But how about this,” she added, noticing my crestfallen face. “How about I invite you to our women’s social group. We meet once a week, and we trade off bringing the goods. We have coffee and tea,” she leaned in, “and brandy and gin.”
Chuckling, I accepted and shy though I was, found myself something of a hobby. Bazaars and socials, congratulatory feasts and general get-togethers — I was Grace’s go-to gal. I counted the days until the next stab at that pile of white-orange cubes. For several decades I worked at that woman for her recipe, but she was the Fort Knox of Feel-Good Food.
I bided my time and I met some wonderful women in the process. They were my first conversation partners when I got my first set of teeth, which were so bad, mind you, that upon seeing them, they never again questioned why I tended to cover my mouth when I spoke. They were all lovely people, each with a unique life, and I grew very fond of them. So much so that I endured the tuber torture again and again.
I knew it was over when we sat in one of their parlors. I was the “youngest” in the room, my given age at that time being 40, I think. The eldest of us waved her hand around her head as she completed her long diatribe against “blue-haired old biddies”.
“But here I am, with all this ugly mess.”
Grace laughed, her own hair streaked with a lovely thin stripe of shimmering silver. “That’s kids for you. They’re off playing keyboards and wearing traffic reflectors as clothes and here I am with another inch of gray.”
The others all nodded or mumbled. Suddenly all eyes were on me.
“How do you do it?”
I blinked in surprise and gave a shrug.
“You haven’t a single hair out of place. Not one single twisty.” She peered at me in what was probably well-meaning accusation, but stung with that familiar heat.
Dutifully, I covered my mouth and swallowed. “I think it’s called ebony number five.”
And the room went up in a roar of laughter. Breathing a sigh of relief, I realized that I had yet again become comfortable, and that it might be time to consider another change. I “moved” only a few years later. That was when I became me. This me. Simon.
I put them out of my mind, though I would see one of them time and again. Grace rushed by me one day near the Ugly Monument with a brood of small creatures I can only assume were her grandchildren. One day, I was trotting from my parked car, hurrying to make a shop before it closed, when I caught a smell on the breeze and forgot about it. The church was a bit built up these days, crowded, a little shabby, but the side door was open as it once was, and the smell was distinctly that same heavenly, blessed chorus of potatoes, cheese, and pork.
Forgetting myself, I poked my head in and took a lungful. God, how I had missed that smell. A woman appeared and made an apology.
“The soup kitchen doesn’t open for another hour, sir.”
And one final time, the opportunity pulled from the raw material of the universe itself became evident and shone with a holy light all its own.
“I can honestly say I am not here to eat! Do you need any help?”
Her face lit up, and at once, I recognized her. The Eldest, Mary Beth, all grown up. She shooed me in and tossed an apron at me. “Do you know how to cook?”
“My fine lady, I am an absolute expert at cooking.”
“Thank god!” I was dragged into the opening to the kitchen and placed in a corner. “My mom usually does all the cooking, but she’s not as spry as she used to be. She can’t stand for very long on her knee, and she has trouble with her hands.”
“But her ears are just fine!” Grace shouted.
Mary Beth gave a pained look. “Mom, I found you a helper!”
“Yes, I heard!”
I was presented, feeling as if I’d been mustered by some hellish general. She eyed me all over and for a moment, I worried. I truly did. Until she tapped me with a spoon and gave me a list of commands.
Chatting elbow to elbow, I peeled and cubed the potatoes for the second batch, while she went about the other foods. When I had finished, I turned to her to show off the pot.
“So, then, what do we put in next?”
Her face twisted on a shrewd leer. “Oh no…you won’t trick me! All you thieves! If I give you this, it’s all over for me. Might as well bury me out back next to that ugly shrub.”
Chuckling, I shook my head. “Family secret?”
“My secret!” Her face took on a wicked cunning as she jabbed a finger at the finished casserole on the counter top. “That recipe has been my ticket to every single hoity-toity shindig since 1950. The only reason I get to go to Serena’s Christmas party on that boat of hers is because of these taters. And they have the fancy drinks. There is no way in hell I am ever telling anyone!”
Admiring her stubbornness, this shield maiden of the cast iron clan, I resigned myself to my fate—to forever be at odds with her. We made the food and served it. I watched the people come back for more and more potatoes. The amount in the pan dwindled. When it was all over, she made me a cup of coffee and let me escort her to a table. Mary Beth scraped the dregs of the dish out and clapped a plate down beside me. Praising all that was sacred, I tucked in.
Just as good as ever.
“What ya think?” Her self-satisfied eyebrow nudge was worth every agonizing second. “Good, isn’t it?”
“It is splendid. Utterly splendid.”
She patted the table in triumph. “Where are you from, if you don’t mind me asking?”
“Oh, a little of everywhere.”
“You have an accent, is why I ask.”
“Yes, a bit.”
She swirled her coffee. “Where’d you come from tonight?”
I tipped back in my chair and tried for a direct assault. “To be honest, I was just walking by and I smelled the potatoes. Do you have to sacrifice Seraphim to make them, or is it just garden variety black magic?”
With that same, if a little coarser, laugh, Grace shook her head. “The Lord works in mysterious ways. I tell you what. I will give you the recipe.”
My ears pricked and I would be lying if I said my “hairs” didn’t give a little wriggle of anticipation. “Oh?”
“If you marry my younger daughter. She’s becoming a spinster.”
With a loud guffaw, I tipped back. A fine dowry indeed. What a matron, to pawn off her children in exchange for small potatoes. Small…delicious potatoes.
“I am not the marrying sort.”
“Is your husband here?” I looked around. George was a very smart man, and funny too. When I glanced back, her dismay was all the information I needed.
“My George passed away two years ago.”
With a sigh, I gave her my condolences. “He must have been a very happy man, if you made that for him regularly.”
At once, her grin was in full swing. “You’d think he’d get tired of it, but the man would eat it morning, noon, and night, if I made it. That’s how you know a good recipe — when people want to keep eating it. That’s the secret, you see, to being everyone’s friend.”
“Well, then I shall have to pry it out of you if I ever mean to crawl my way out of my solitude.”
Cackling, she leaned on the table and asked after my profession. When I told her I dallied in antiques, a spark flew behind her eyes. Before long, I had a personal invitation back to her home and suddenly confronted a stunning reginaphone she had recently inherited from her aunt. The thing was broken, but lovely, and I knew at once that I could give it a good scrub up and a new home.
We were fast friends for the third time, it seemed. And I regularly got calls from her, inviting me to luncheons, parties, anything involving food, really. Then one day, we were cooking as per our usual back and forth of one part wit to two parts insult, when I smelled it. She steadied herself on the counter, breathing heavily suddenly.
My soul collapsed in on itself. I sat her on her stool and excused myself. Mary Beth was in the broom cupboard. I dropped my voice to a whisper.
“How long has she been having these dizzy spells?”
“What dizzy spells?” She stared at me in astonishment.
Uncertain if I should tell her, what to say, how…I took a deep breath, all potatoes and cheese. “You need to take her to the doctor.”
“She just went to the—”
Mary Beth’s face turned gray. “How do you…know that?”
Shaking my head, I left it to the mysticism of intuition. “Promise me you will.”
The diagnosis was not ideal. Grace fought it valiantly, and there were many highs and lows, to which I was only cursorily privy. I know only that i did not get my usual calls to join in the home-cooked fun. But being suddenly cut off from humans I knew is nothing special to me. My gentle readers will tell me it is not something to which I should become accustomed, but it is how I have lived, and attachments are not something to which I…well…become attached.
Several days ago, I received a call.
“Hi, is this um…Simon?” came a timid voice.
“Yes. Who is this?”
“I’m…um…I’m Mary Beth’s daughter?”
“Hello!. What can I do for you?”
“My mom said I should call you and ask you to come to the hospital to see Grandma.” She sniffled. “I guess she wants to see you.”
My phone promptly went dark. Leaving it, a brick plugged into a wall, I drive over, my thoughts untethered from time or place. I find her by paging Lisa, who accesses the computers. Mary Beth is outside the door, talking softly on her phone. Spotting me with bloodshot eyes, she clasps my hand and squeezes.
“What’s the prognosis?”
She shakes her head. From her pocket, she draws a small folded list and tucks it into my hand. “She has…um…this stuff she wants you to look at, after…”
While she catches her breath, I look through the window. Other family members are preparing to leave. Grace is very small against the bed, dim compared to the lantern she had once been. I can see the pain in her brittle expressions, feathered by that loss of cohesion that often comes with sheer exhaustion.
“I think they’re all antiques that she thinks you might be able to sell. She wants to put it into the college fund.”
I look it over with a distant nod. They are small items, not terribly valuable, but I can add the reginaphone to them. I have never sold it. With all its discs, it ought to be worth at least a year.
“is it…is it okay?”
“Yes. I’ll take care of it.”
She takes back her hand and chafed my arm. “She does really want to see you. Will you go in?”
My voice has left me. I stand in the doorway as the tiny human breezes blow past me. When I am alone, I slip quietly into a chair and wait for her to come to.
She drifts back in vague mutters and heavy sleepiness. Her medications are strong. I can smell the chemo even now, the way it stains the air around her, darker even than her natural aura. That a disease like cancer should exist fills me with rage. Slowly replacing the ones we care for, turning them into these frail shells while it carves out their innards. It is insidious. It is wrong. I am what I am, and I say this.
She turns her smile on me as always—a wattage so high it puts the sunlight to shame. But it is unfocused, in and out of lucidity.
“Well…here you are.”
With a swallow, I nod. “Here I am.”
“Did you see the list?”
“I did, yes. I will take care of it.”
She gives a happy breath. “Good. I feel better knowing there’s a little cushion.”
She slips away again. When she returns, I have not moved at all. “You’re still here.”
“I like you, Simon. You have an honest face.”
This cuts in ways she cannot know, as most of my face is a lie, stuck in place like a ghoulish Mr. Potato Head. “I like you too, Grace.”
“I didn’t want to go this way,” she murmurs.
“Oh shut it, old woman. You’re not going anywhere. Not that easily.”
A ghost of a smile passes over her chapped mouth. “No?”
I stand up and give her an ice chip from her cup. “No. You’re not stepping one toe in the afterlife until you give me the recipe for Cream Cheese Potatoes.”
I manage a smile to match her bemused one. There is a long pause, as her glassy eyes work over my words.
“I’m sorry, dear…I can’t…quite remember what that is right now.”
The world grows cold around me. Shadows creep up over the walls. She falls back into slumber, while my self, this soul, such as it is, plummets from heights it never knew it had attained. I have crashed to the ground and I am broken.
Hunger flashes for a moment, but self-control and the sickening smell of the place prevails. I grip the rail so hard I cannot feel them and the alarm suddenly triggers. I am quietly ushered from the room.
In the hallway, I am a stone. People move around me, but I am stuck there. I look up and Mary Beth is beside me and the curse echoes.
I have had a several days to think. I know now that this is best. This is the way it should always have gone. No one should ever wield such power as Grace held, for no one could do it half so well. My one regret is that my contribution to her funeral potluck will be such a poor imitation.
But then again…these guests will not be coming because of the Cream Cheese Potatoes. They will come because of Grace.
I just discovered you last night and am utterly fascinated by you –you *do* write well and are so interesting, I love this post about your relationship with Grace. She sounds like a lovely positive person that made every creature around her feel good.
I share your love of food and cooking. I’m from NC, and Southern women are notorious for hanging onto secret recipes–usually family recipes passed down through the generations,
I started baking as soon as I could pull out the bottom drawer in my mom’s kitchen and balance on it to reach the counter to watch my mom and help. I did get an easy bake oven when I was 4 or 5 but quickly outgrew it and started baking solo around 6-7 and even baked birthday cakes for family.
My grandmother, two great aunts, and my mom’s youngest sister were excellent bakers. Pound cakes were the family specialty–each woman had their own favorites: cream cheese and sour cream, different flavors and ratios of ingredients and different baking methods–cold oven, then slowly increasing temp or baking at a really low temp for longer. Butter flavored crisco was used for extra lightness and a very tall cake with moist crumb, and shorting was supposed to be healthier than butter (before trans-fat).
My great aunt’s recipe was well loved in her church and town, and she refused to share it. Until I started selling baked goods for friends and neighbors. I had to promise not to share it. Our family is having a reunion coming up, and my mom put together a cookbook. So I sent her the recipe because it should be enjoyed. I am going to experiment with using butter. My great aunt has been dead for 30 years, and her recipe shouldn’t die with her or me.
Another reason recipes aren’t shared are because the ingredients are weird, considered pot luck wonder bread non-gourmet, or even use short cut ingredients like flavored cream cheese or cake mix (those cake mix doctor recipes are still so good!)
I have a suggestion– Google recipes for ‘funeral potatoes’ –scalloped cheesy potatoes with ham extremely popular with Mormons who bring them to funeral dinners and other functions. I love collecting cookbooks, and church and Junior League cookbooks have so many tried and true recipes. You should check some out–I find a lot at thrift stores.I hope you find it–try velveta because it is so gooey. My favourite potatoes au gratin from Epicurious.com calls for the sliced potatoes to be boiled in seasoned milk before baking with layers of Gruyere. The potatoes are creamier and are seasoned all the way through,
Nothing else savory on Earth is as delicious as a perfectly creamy potato dish.
That’s very kind of you to say.
Thank you also for the story. I have been a fanatic of secret recipes for a long while now. I deal in antiques and so frequently go to estate sales and find all manner of cookbooks with notations. Treasure!
I’ve had many versions of Grace’s dish, but there is something unique about it I cannot quite put my finger on.
found this because of a recent ask you answered on tumblr, i’m not the asker but I cried just the same