Iron Chef

Nana and Eliza, who clearly shares Nana's love of good food, at Nana's kitchen table. November, 2009 Nana is still very weak, but holding her own. When I talked to her home-health nurse this morning, she admitted she was having a hard time getting Nana to eat.

This did not come as a surprise to me. Nana won't eat just anything, especially when she's sick.

I am actually a pretty good cook. I cook more (and better) than about 90% of my friends. But if Nana and I ever ended up in a head-to-head cook-off, it wouldn't even be close. She is our own little Iron Chef.

Her visits have forced me to hone my cooking skills quite a bit. She has made me realize that I cheat in the kitchen. A lot.

When we were newly married Nana came to Montgomery for Thanksgiving. I thought that she would be so proud of my Saturday morning tradition, homemade waffles. Her first Saturday with us, I took her waffle off the iron, buttered it, poured on the syrup, and set it in front of her.

She took one bite, and almost spit it out.

"It's cold," she said.

"Cold? I just took it off the griddle."

"Well, when did you make the syrup? Is it still hot?" she questioned.

"I didn't make the syrup, Nana. I bought it at the store," I confessed.

There was a long pause.

"There is no point in making homemade waffles if you don't make homemade syrup."

So you can add homemade syrup to the list of things I learned from Nana that trip. (1 cup brown sugar, 1/2 c water, a pat of butter. Bring to a boil. It's the easiest thing I make, for anyone who is interested.)

On Nana's most recent trip to Birmingham (which lasted five months. Yup, chalk up one more jewel in Findley's crown) she got pneumonia. It was a gift to her from one of my snot-nosed children, and she was really sick. She needed help with everything when she first got out of the hospital, so we hired a nurse to take care of her during the night. (I know that sounds heartless, but it was just too much otherwise.)

One night about midnight, I felt a firm hand on my shoulder. I sat bolt upright in bed. It was LaShawn, Nana's nurse.

"I'm so sorry to wake you up, Abby, but Nana says she really needs you."

"Is she ok?" I asked, taking the stairs two at a time.

"I think so, but she is insisting on having you." LaShawn was in hot pursuit behind me.

I rounded the corner into Nana's room to find her sitting up in bed with all the lights on.

"What's going on? Are you ok?" I asked. I wasn't completely sure she knew what time it was.

"I'm fine, but this woman (and she pointed right at LaShawn) won't get me any ice chips. I've been asking for over thirty minutes now and she refuses."

I was a little relieved. This was the first I had seen of her feisty side in ten days.

"Nana, we don't have any ice chips. Can I get you some water? With ice cubes in it?"

"Well, don't you have blenders in Alabama? You could make me some ice chips."

"Yes, we do have a blender, but there is no way I am going to wake up Virginia in the middle of the night. She would definitely wake up to the blender."

"Hmmm....." Nana was thinking.

"Well, does Findley have a hammer? He could wrap the ice cubes in a towel, and crush them with a hammer in the backyard."

"Nana, I would do anything for you. But it is the middle of the night in December. It's freezing. Earlier today, I sent Findley to the drugstore to get Tampax, Depends, and Babylax all in one trip. (another jewel for his crown) There is no way I am waking him up to chip ice cubes in the backyard. Is there anything else I can get you in place of ice chips?"


I could tell she was really thinking now. Maybe I shouldn't have made such an open-ended offer.

"I bet I could eat almost an entire lemon meringue pie. Homemade, of course."

I knew she was totally serious. I also knew that she was down to 101 lbs, and if she wanted to eat it, I had better make it. So I went to the store, bought the two ingredients I was missing, lemons and eggs, and returned home to make the only 2 a.m lemon meringue pie I will hopefully ever make. And Nana ate every single bite.

Findley and I laughed a lot during those five months Nana was with us. He told me he couldn't come home for lunch because it would take too long to tell everyone goodbye when he left. There was me, Virginia, Wills, Nana, Megean (Virginia's helper at the time), Mary (our housekeeper), and LaShawn (the nurse). I guess it was as good an excuse as any!

I have learned a lot from Nana over the years, and how to cook is honestly the least significant gift she has passed on to me. But I like it because it is tangible. When I make her recipes, I can smell her kitchen. I can hear her telling me what I am doing wrong. I can picture Poppy sitting on the other side of the table, with his trademark twinkle in his eyes.

What makes Nana an excellent cook is her work ethic. Her desire to do everything to the best of her ability. If a homemade crust tastes better than a Pillsbury crust (which clearly it does), then she's going to make it. It doesn't matter how long it takes or how tired she is.

Nana's attitude in the kitchen is apparent in the rest of her life as well. She once told me that you can only expect to get as much out as you put in.

"Baby doll," she said, "It doesn't matter if you are polishing silver or building a happy marriage. You've got to use a little elbow grease."

Let's just hope my kitchen short-cuts don't translate to the rest of my life!