What Kind of Food Has Meaning?

My grandma was a really terrible cook, but she could bake. She made angel food cake with chocolate glaze that tasted the way playground bark smells, only sweet. And she made lemon cookies that were tangy and had white icing that dripped a little off the edges and while it was thick it also looked gauzy. I asked her for the recipe and she wrote it out for me on the white pad she kept near the phone.

I didn’t see her write it but I recognized the paper, with the red gummy edge on top where it attached. Her writing went uphill. It was in blue BIC and had the squashed loops of the hand I knew from birthday cards and Christmas tags. "Iced Lemon Cookies," underlined a couple of times in blue, on the upslope.

I took the recipe and never thought of it, never made it, just wanted to have it because it was what you’d call a legacy, I guess, an heirloom, a piece of my grandmother’s spirit I could keep. I figured I’d make the cookies someday, but it almost didn’t matter if I ever did or not.

Then I’m not sure why but one day I looked on a can of sweetened condensed milk and the recipe on the back of the paper label clicked in my mind. I got out my grandma’s cookie recipe, and sure enough it was that same recipe, word for blue, squashed-loop word: Iced Lemon Cookies.

I wasn’t pissed or disappointed; I felt educated. I saw a small piece of how the world really works, how the meaning of things isn’t always simple, and things that mean something really only mean that thing once, or only for a little while. Meaning is a fractured thing, little pieces of things with fragile connections to all kinds of other things. You take these things and you stuff them in the velvet Seagram’s bag in your drawer, along with all the other things that had meaning for you once—the pesos your uncle gave you after their trip to Mexico, a tooth you saved, the rock that happened to look like a tiny loaf of French bread when you saw it on the beach.

People always write about food as if it’s this one big thing in their lives, the remembered taste or the meal that happened or the recipe handed down over a couple of generations that always had meaning and that will always have meaning, but it’s all sort of a fiction, a food writer’s exaggeration.

Food has meaning in glances, flashes of things that seemed important at the time, but now you can’t remember why you cared. I suppose my grandma’s food legacy is that she didn’t have one, not in the way grandmas were supposed to in my mind. She tried things, and if they turned out good she tried them again and maybe wrote the recipe down. In a way I felt grateful that those lemon cookies were from a recipe on a can—how many other kids in how many other families ate them and liked them too. We were all together, all the people who ever liked those cookies, even if we never knew or thought about each other.

Food’s meaning is dense but invisible, like radio waves pulsing through air. One strand becomes perceptible, touches you, strikes you as something to stop and think about, or laugh about, or maybe it makes you cry, and maybe you write it down and stuff it into your Seagram’s bag. And then you move on.

I received my grandmother’s real legacy years later when I visited her for what turned out to be the last time, at her apartment in an assisted living place. Her mind was pretty bad. She struggled to place some of the things I said and I’m not sure she knew exactly who I was, but she was happy I’d come. She seemed to know she loved me, which was sort of the only important thing that day, or maybe ever. When I got up to go she grabbed my wrist with a hand as soft and warm and spotted as it ever was, though the arm it lived on was scrawny in a way I hadn’t seen.

“Got something for you.” She pushed herself out of the chair and went to the corner and came back with a plastic bag with maybe eight oranges. “I took these from the dining room,” and she held up a long finger to her lips in the way that meant Ssshhhhh, don’t tell anyone. “Go on, take it.” And she jerked the bag toward me, waiting for my hand to grab it, which my hand did. When I leaned down to kiss her goodbye she was beaming, like she was so happy to give me something I could eat, peeling the oranges one by one and tasting how sweet and how tangy they all were.

I don’t know where that lemon cookie recipe is—I could find it if I tried, mixed in with the other stuff I’ve kept. The memory of oranges stolen, though, one or two at a time from the bowl in the dining facility of an old people’s home, and given to me so I could taste them: I think about those pretty often.

Photos by Chris Rochelle