BY JENNIFER WAGLEY
My grandmother wasn’t big on refrigeration. She believed you should wait and let food cool before putting it back in the icebox. Preferably until the next day. And the refrigerate-after-opening warnings on labels? They were part of a conspiracy cooked up by power companies — who were in cahoots with the food manufacturers — to get people to spend more money on electricity. Grandma knew that chilling lukewarm casseroles and cracking the Kenmore door ate up precious kilowatts, and she wouldn’t have any of it.
When my sister and I stayed with Grandma, we weren’t allowed to open the avocado door unless we could tell her what we wanted and where it was located. “Bread, right-hand side of the second shelf. Strawberry preserves, top rack on the inside of the door.” It was like a game show. And if we got the answer wrong, we went to bed without a snack.
Sometimes, when Grandma was talking on the phone to one of her church friends, my sister and I would take off our shoes and tip-toe to the kitchen. Jocelyn would stand guard in the hall, holding Grandpa’s old harmonica to her lips. I’d nod my head right before I tugged on the refrigerator door and she’d start blowing notes to cover up the sloppy sound of the rubber seal giving way.
But opening Grandma’s refrigerator was a lot like opening her gifts. Disappointing. A flannel nightgown with itchy lace when all we really wanted was a new outfit for our Barbies. There was a Currier & Ives tin with Christmas cookies, even in the heat of summer. And year after year, there were the same three sweet treats to choose from — Rice Krispy squares, sugar cookies and butterscotch bars, nestled under damp wax paper.
Grandma grew up on a dairy farm and so there was butter. There was always butter. She smeared it on everything, even peanut butter and jelly sandwiches were lined with it. No matter what we ate, our lips felt greasy and heavy afterwards. And because our fatty fingers left prints on whatever we touched, Grandma knew when we had opened the forbidden china cabinet and held her precious Hummel.
The real reason we dared to open the door was so we could see the open box of baking soda. We never touched it, but we knew that was where Grandma kept her emergency money, under the white powder of the golden Arm & Hammer.
Usually there was an open package of Carl Buddig paper-clipped shut. The stack of sliver-thin slices was invariably ringed with a ruffled edge, a rind of dried-out meat. At least once a week, Grandma made S.O.S., and Jocelyn and I always pretended we couldn’t remember what the three letters stood for. We would pester Grandma until she finally said “shit on a shingle,” and we’d try not to giggle.
I don’t know where it came from, but sometimes, there was an anemic brick of, not cheddar, not Colby, not American, but government cheese. It tasted like the wax candy bottles we bought sealed in cellophane at the drug store. The ones with the tops we bit off and spit out so we could empty the syrupy sugar water into our mouths. But Grandma said we couldn’t spit out the cheese, that it wasn’t patriotic, that it was our duty to eat it. And so Jocelyn and I would break the crumbly chunks into small bits and swallow them whole.
Grandma always seemed to have leftovers she was “trying to get rid of.” She didn’t throw out food unless it went bad, and at Grandma’s house, it never went bad. She’d pull something out of the refrigerator — usually a piece of meat wrapped inside a Roman Meal bag — stick it under her nose and take a noisy sniff. “Smells okay to me,” she’d say. And we knew that, whatever it was, it would later appear on our plate, spotted with moldy bread crumbs.
Once in a while, we got lucky and Grandma “got a taste for some Kentucky Fried.” She’d let us order our own box of chicken, which came with a biscuit and coleslaw and a handi-wipe. So even after you were done eating, there was something to look forward to. Because when you ripped open the little white packet, it smelled just like the indoor pool at the YMCA. Still, we had to sit quietly while Grandma picked up our discarded bones, scolded us for “leaving the best part,” and snapped each one in two, sticking the jagged ends in her mouth and sucking out the marrow.
On Saturday mornings, Grandma took us to Dots, the supermarket down the street. The dairy aisle was last, and we dreaded it the most. Nothing made Grandma madder than the price of milk. She’d pick up a gallon carton, look at the tag and say, “That’s highway robbery. We never got that kind of money when Daddy had the farm.” Then she’d grab a half-gallon jug, peel off the sticker, slap it on the gallon she’d put in her cart and say, “That’s more like it.”
She’d steer her way to the check-out line, while Jocelyn and I stared at the wire rack filled with gum, candy and cough drops. “I’m not buying any of that junk,” Grandma would say as she placed her groceries on the black conveyor belt held together with shiny metal teeth. “I’m tired of you girls picking at your food. I’m making a nice hot lunch for us when we get home and I don’t want anything to ruin your appetite.”