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Sunday, April 3, 2011

Top Chef: The Grandma Edition

This week, we saw the end of another season of Bravo's Top Chef, with a new Celebrity Chef wannabe crowned as winner. The romance of the chef lives on, and on and on. It's a world of foul-mouthed, tatted-up boys unleashing their vast mental stores of culinary whoop-ass on each other. There's trash-talk, moments of self-doubt, and triumphant, tasty brilliance. I've seen the chef-testants (Bravo's word, not mine) make a dish from the contents of the lowly vending machine. I've seen them fashion potatoes into pasta, and magic fois gras hamburgers. But for all of their creativity and ingenuity, the best Top Chef I've ever known was my Grandmother.

Grandma was a visionary. Long before we started praising those daring French chefs and their use of organ meats, Grandma was serving up her own Southern-fried charcuterie - basically, whatever was on sale at the grocery store that week. The dish made its debut at the Sunday family dinner. If there was a sale on whole chickens, then chicken it was for Sunday and chicken it would be for the rest of the week!

Sunday - chicken, mashed potatoes, and vegetables
Monday - chicken and potato pancakes (made from Sunday's mashed potatoes)
Tuesday - chicken and dumplings served with Sunday's vegetables
Wednesday - chicken soup with biscuits
Thursday - chicken casserole
Friday - No chicken (Grandma was a pre-Vatican II RC, so no meat on Fridays, ever!!!)

My sweet little grandmother managed to do all of this in her floral, zippered house dress and scuffs, instead of chef's whites and expensive clogs. Instead of bravado, she served up daily brilliance with a smile and we were all well fed and happy. She didn't "stage" with the likes of Eric Ripert, but she learned her killer culinary techniques from some of the best cooks she knew: from her sister, Alice, she learned the art of the bundt cake. From her sister, Hilda, she learned how to make the best sheet cake I've ever tasted. From her sister, Lucille, she learned to make the fluffiest and most buttery dinner roll on this earth. And from her mom, she learned everything else. In her younger days, she had been a line cook, actually the cook, for my Uncle Joe and Aunt Helen's small luncheonette. She'd occasionally work there when I was a little girl, and during my summers, I'd accompany her there and watch her in action.

Having never attended The Culinary Institute of America, my grandmother learned by holding her feet to the fire, or should it be the meat to the fire (I know, bad pun! Bad pun!!). She may not have been able to tell you what a brunoise (food cut into a very fine chop) is, but she had the technique to execute it.  Her only kitchen knife, which she used for cutting vegetables and butchering meat, wasn't anything you'll see in a Williams-Sonoma catalogue.

As for food and wine pairings, well just forget that. My grandmother only liked one wine and it was Manischewitz (with one ice cube added). Even now, when I have a bit of port after dinner, I think of Grandma with her juice glass of Manischewitz, and the sound of the lone ice cube clattering to the bottom of the glass as she finished. And so here's a toast to you, Grandma, for every breakfast, lunch, and dinner that you cooked with your own hands just for me. Yelp and Zagat's may have overlooked you, but you have 3 Michelin stars in my heart - I'm just saying:)

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