05/23/2014 09:33 am ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Heirloom Habits

Nicholas Alan Cope via Getty Images

I found myself contemplating a piece of tin foil this weekend. I used it to catch drips from the loaf pans of banana bread I was baking. It was perfectly clean though used. Toss or save? Folding it in half to save for another use opened a floodgate of memories of time spent in my grandmothers' kitchens.


I was lucky to have both my grandmothers as mentors, friends and loving grannies for over 3 decades of my life. We were very close. They met my husband and one of them held 2 of my babies. They were as different as the circumstances that shaped them. They were also dear friends with one another, a dynamic I grew up thinking everyone shared.

Grandma Nelly was Russian-born and came to the U.S. between the World Wars. She was short, stout, and a perennial blonde with hair that when not in her signature bun went all the way down her back. She had an operatic voice. She was kind but also tough -- a reflection of her resiliency, the result of a life with hard earned comforts. It seemed like I was always taller than her.

Grandma Kramer, as she was affectionately called though her first name was Sylvia, was tall and slender. She had an elegant quality to her and was thoroughly American, second generation in fact, which was unusual in our Jewish community where many of my friend's parents or grandparents were Holocaust survivors or WWII refugees. Grandma reveled in spoiling us. I can't remember being taller than her except perhaps at the end of her long and good life.

Their kitchens were equally distinctive. Grandma Nelly, in her compact kitchen, had a core handful of recipes -- comfort food, always delicious. She made little meatballs that we craved: tender, light and the perfect mix of sweet and savory. She made rugelach. One day, determined to learn her recipe, I watched. Her instructions were precise -- a pinch, a touch. I wanted to slip a measuring spoon below her fingers as she sprinkled the ingredients, but I was never fast enough.

Grandma Kramer had a spacious home and a cook, Emmy, who prepared most meals (at least to my recollection). There was a heavenly chopped liver served mounded on a perfect white bread circle - the ubiquitous pre-dinner hors d'oeuvre. Her gefilte fish lives in my memory as an airy, tasty fish cannel. I am determined to recreate her blend of fish and technique. It is a dish much maligned and this is the recipe to redeem gefilte fish for the next generation.

Going to the supermarket with Grandma K was an experience. She started at the front door with a box of cookies, surrendering it empty at the register upon check out. Grandma Nelly looked forward to our visits and made her preference for a box of chocolate over a bunch of flowers very clear -- "I can't eat flowers!"

Nothing was wasted in either household. Nelly had cabinet drawers brimming with string, folded brown or gift paper and rubber bands. A chipped dish still had a long and purposeful life. Pots, though scoured, were blackened from years of use. Sylvia, with her large kitchen, had ample closet space. An entire half of a pantry closet was filled with empty glass jars. In a pre-disposable era, her vintage heavy glass containers filled her refrigerator shelves.

My folded sheet of tin foil reflects a genetic reluctance to be wasteful. Thriftiness is an old-fashioned value in this disposable/replaceable society. The contemporary words we use are recycling or repurposing. I call it saving. My grannies were wise women who balanced bounty with restraint. Their tables and pantries were always full but not excessive. Their love for nurturing their families and guests at the dinner table was expressed meal after meal, decade after decade.

I will always think of Sylvia when I eat my first peach of the season. She taught me how to recognize when a melon was perfectly ripe. She left gifts on the trashcans for her garbage men (6-packs of beer!). From Nelly, I learned to trust my instincts in the kitchen with a pinch or a touch -- a lesson I try to impart to others. I, too, hate throwing things out and have learned to use pickling brine for marinating; making breadcrumbs from stale bread; using chicken bones for stock and vegetable scrapes for veggie stock; repurposing excess sauces; a love for the utility of the frittata as a leftover vehicle; sharing my leftovers for the doormen or local food pantry -- and so much more. It is a mindset that leads to a skill set.

I think of them as I look at myself in the mirror. As I grow older I watch my shape change. Some days I feel like Grandma Nelly's genes are dominating. I long for the bony physique Grandma Kramer kept her entire life. I smile and laugh at myself -- thinking about their influences in my life and that regardless of who I end up looking like -- Nelly or Sylvia -- they shaped me in a much deeper and meaningful way. I save empty jars, and my cupboard nestles a stack of folded foil.