45: The Secret of the Gravy

45: The Secret of the Gravy

From Chicken Soup for the Soul: My Amazing Mom

The Secret of the Gravy

Eating is a necessity, but cooking is an art.

~Gesine Lemcke

“Decrease the expensive ingredients and increase the cheaper ones.” That was my grandma’s philosophy when it came to cooking. She created all sorts of vile concoctions. There was her mock veal (breadcrumbs and tomato paste) and her macaroni and cheese (noodles floating on top of cheddar-flavored water).

Grandma prided herself on being frugal. She purchased dented cans of expired products and insisted that grocery stores with automatic doors sold overpriced merchandise. Grandma disapproved of her daughter-in-law’s “extravagant” spending, especially when it came to cooking.

My mom happened to be an excellent cook. She was proud of her family’s history of baking. Her great-grandfather had owned a bakery in St. Louis. The glass cake platter from this family-owned business had a place of honor in our china cabinet. There was also a family cookbook bursting with recipes, from my maternal grandmother’s German waffles to my great-aunt’s peanut-butter cookies.

Grandma’s horrible meals, on the other hand, were always a source of entertainment in the household. We often joked about how our dog refused to eat the scraps that we tossed under the table.

My family often tried to figure out some of the more unique flavors that we had to endure in Grandma’s cooking. One of the worst things she made was her gravy. It had a very bitter aftertaste, and we guessed that the tiny black specks in it were from Grandma burning the bottom of the saucepan.

But then one day, we learned the truth. My mom was preparing dinner—pot roast served with potatoes, plus a delicious cherry cheesecake for dessert. My aunts and uncle, cousins and, yes, my grandma, were all invited. Instead of socializing, Grandma chose to sit in the kitchen. She felt it was her duty to monitor her daughter-inlaw’s wastefulness. Occasionally, Grandma would let out a tsk tsk of disapproval. She clearly did not agree with Mom’s purchase of pot roast.

“What’s the point of buying beef?” Grandma demanded. “All you can do is eat it. You should do what I do. I find a nice, fatty piece of ham. That way I can render the fat and save it to cook with later.” She frowned and crossed her arms. “And why must you use all those expensive ingredients?” Grandma nodded toward the skillet that sat on the stove. “Why don’t you just use what I use to darken the gravy?”

Mom suddenly stopped whisking. So the black specks weren’t tiny, charred flakes?

“What do you use?” Mom asked casually. She was doing her best to sound nonchalant. “What do you use to darken your gravy?”

Mom tried to anticipate the answer. Pepper? Yes, that must be it, nothing more than lots and lots of pepper. She took a sip of water, still trying to act casual.

Grandma tilted her chin up as if anticipating a battle.

“Coffee grounds,” she answered defiantly. And my mom, who was normally so good about dealing with her mother-in-law’s over-the-top frugalness, spit out her drink.

~Crissy Martin

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