My grandmother used to sing to her African violets, pet their tender leaves, and encourage them to grow by calling them ‘pretty baby.’ She could pick up a pencil with her toes, and even after her fingers were gnarled with age and arthritis, she was a flawless knitter (though her taste in yarn was questionable).
By the time I was old enough to help in the kitchen, she did her best to avoid cooking, but I have fond memories of hamburgers cooked on the back yard grill, of sun-warmed tomatoes from my grandfather’s garden, of Jersey corn, and of being asked – as everyone was – what kind of potato they wanted (white or sweet). Whenever she ate those summer vegetables, she would pronounce them ‘luscious.’
Sometimes, she made baked ziti. Ziti is easier than lasagna because you don’t have to keep the pasta intact, but it uses similar ingredients. Sauce that simmered all day. Meatballs served with it. A blend of Parmesan, Romano, mozzarella, and provolone cheeses. Just the right combination of spices to make the flavors all pop in a complimentary fashion.
I never learned her recipe, but I remember the flavor, and over the years, my own version has come closer and closer. The cheese, I think, is what’s wrong, or maybe it’s that I usually just ‘doctor’ sauce from a jar. I remember her adding a dash of sugar to her sauce, but I think I also remember her squeezing lemon juice into it, and that memory confuses me because wouldn’t that just increase the acid?
I made Ziti tonight because the temperature was dropping and I wanted something that was comforting and would provide leftovers. As I served it, just for a moment, I thought I caught the scent of my grandmother’s perfume, just the way I sometimes wake in the night feeling certain that her cool hand was soothing my sweaty brow.
But it wasn’t really her perfume, of course.
It was just a sense memory triggered by making ziti.