My father’s mother, Granny Mehaffy, was not known for her skills in the kitchen. She was a grandmother who smelled more of scotch and tasteful perfume than vanilla. She was tiny, bright, and brisk, and before we accepted an invitation to her house for dinner, we always settled on where we’d be going to eat afterwards. One time, my father asked if he could bring a guest. She loved company, so she said sure, and just split the Lean Cuisine four ways instead of three. Truly.
She loved gathering people together; she just didn’t believe in eating much more than the bare minimum needed for survival. There was one specialty for which she was renowned, however. Perhaps because it could be made ahead, and was fashioned into a festive ring, tomato aspic graced the table at any more formal gathering. Basically tomato jello, she often dressed it up a bit with cucumber chunks or avocado slices. It always sat there, neglected and forlorn. Maybe that explained why she thought people were never hungry.
My father always said that being grown up meant having more than one piece of bacon. Clearly, she was not my inspiration for food. But, nevertheless she lives on in the life I live every day.
Of course she was not a woman who “worked,” unless you count the garden club, symphony club, daily tennis, and junior league work, which I might. But she had an office at home, and was very busy there, too busy to be mired down in the kitchen cooking. Every day, she furiously typed letter to senators and congressmen, local officials and influential citizens. Bangle bracelets jangling, she typed letters of protest against bad environmental policy, discrimination, poverty, racism, offenses against the English language. She spearheaded Beaumont’s first recycling efforts and campaigned for the legalization of marijuana. In the summer in West Texas, we walked along the Frio river, erecting No Littering signs (catchy rhymes constructed in perfect iambic pentameter that were perhaps lost on the locals tossing Big Red bottles and Frito bags into the river). She voted, she wrote letters, she campaigned, and most of all she cared. Her active citizenship was important. Watching from the doorway of her office, I could see that passivity was not an option. We can choose to make the world better, or we can choose to let the bad guys win, the ones making stupid choices, the greedy ones, the polluters, the ones who would hold back progress and education and the pursuit of happiness, by doing nothing. That was our choice. Not just on election day, but every day. Now I find that this same purpose must inform everything I do as well. So many things about her I treasure–a cheerful stubbornness, an optimistic sense that one day the world will all make sense, a full and total commitment to the proper use of the apostrophe for its and it’s, and most of all a sense of joy in active civic engagement.
After she died, I waited at her house with my father for the Salvation Army to come pick up the last bits and pieces, and there on top of one of the boxes was her aspic ring. I took it home, and it’s moved with me to every house ever since. I’ve never used it, but that doesn’t mean it’s not important. It’s a reminder that there’s a larger purpose to my life, that the small things do make a difference, that none of us should ever quit caring, or for one minute imagine that we’re off the hook for the way the world unfolds.
2 cameo, fuji, or gala apples
1 pomegranate, seeds removed
1/4 cup pecan halves, toasted and coarsely chopped
1/4 cup sweetened coconut, toasted
1/2 cup vanilla yogurt
Follow these instructions for cutting grapefruit, tangerine, and citrus supremes. Cut apple into chunks. Combine fruit, citrus juice, and yogurt in a large bowl. Stir in about half the coconut and pecans. Place in serving dishes, and top with remaining coconut, pecans, and pomegranate seeds.