I keep finding this post difficult to write. I’ve gone about it ten different ways and it always comes back to this: I miss my grandfather and writing about him makes me terribly sad that he is gone.
But writing this also makes me happy, because I got to sort through pictures and memories of him. And because it’s a small but heartfelt tribute to one of the best men in my life. What better way to celebrate Father’s Day and our let’s lunch group than to take some time to remember such a man, to make the simple food he made, to eat it with family, and then share it with friends?
My grandfather, Harry, was a mild-mannered man. On the surface. In my memory, he was quiet and unremarkable, unless you took the time to get to know him and his sly sense of humor; his quick wink meant just for you, his co-conspirator; his little half-grin; his blue eyes that crinkled at the corners when he was laughing inside.
His children—my mother and her brothers—remember him somewhat differently. He was gruffer and tougher as a dad.
As a grandfather, though, he was a complete softie. The only times I ever remember him raising his voice around us was when he bellowed for my grandmother: “Marrr-THA!”
Sometimes—many times—when my sister and I would be giggling and talking late at night when we should have been sleeping, he’d stand in the dark doorway to our room and mock-threaten us with a spanking. We hushed. We knew he’d never do it (he never, ever did), but he sounded almost serious, and we couldn’t see his wink, so who knows?
According to my great-uncle (my grandmother’s youngest brother), who was sort of raised as another son in my grandparent’s family, my grandfather was always a bit of a trickster. He related this story to me recently, which so perfectly illustrates my grandfather’s sense of humor and the relationship between the three of them:
After my mother had passed away I ate several of my meals with your grandma and grandpa. Harry was a bit of a comic……..I know that is hard to believe…….My sister loved a soup she made that was a burnt flour soup. It was YUCKY but she loved it. One night having supper that was what she served. Harry sat opposite me in the kitchen and Martha, who served, sat beside Harry. Harry took his finger when Martha was not looking to his lips to tell me not to say anything. He then asked Martha to get some salt for the table and when she got up and had her back to the table he poured part of his soup into her bowl. Martha brought the salt to the table sat down and continued eating her soup. Again Harry brought his finger to his lips and again asked Martha for a glass of water. Being a loving wife, Martha again got up and Harry took my bowl of soup and poured most of it into Martha’s bowl. My sister sat down and continued eating and finally said ” I’m eating and eating and my bowl of soup never goes down”. I could not keep a straight face after that. It was really very funny……
My grandfather worked all his adult working life at Plan Electric, as a project manager for huge lighting projects in Toronto. When we went into town, he’d point out buildings that his company had worked on. When I was little, I always pictured him actually screwing the light bulbs into the fixtures that sent their glow through the windows of the tall office buildings and hotels. I felt proud of him. He was lighting up the city.
On his time off, when he wasn’t with his family, he loved sports. A true Canadian, he was a great hockey fan. He loved baseball, too. There was always something sports-related on the television when grandpa was home. He bowled with a league. I’ve seen photos, but I regret now that I never saw him bowl in person. After work, he often went to his local gym (to do what, in particular, I never asked). The gym was called Vic Tanny’s. Over and over again, he’d tell us when he got home that he’d been visiting girlfriend, Vickie. Then the wink. And the gentle, chin-led nod in my grandmother’s direction (she was probably in the kitchen, making dinner), then the impish grin.
Oh. How I can picture that smile. And oh how I miss him now.
His real love (aside from his family), was golfing, which led to one of my sweetest childhood memories and my love of swimming. Because of the golfing, grandma and grandpa belonged to a country club, where grandpa could golf all weekend and often after work during the brief-but-intense Ontario summers. My sister and I spent most of our childhood summers with my grandparents and we spent many a lazy summer day at “the club”, swimming all morning, “signing” for a snack of french fries with vinegar at the club snack bar, picnicking on the impeccably groomed lawns, swimming all afternoon. On golfing days, we’d meet up with grandpa at the end of the day. But I never went golfing with him there, and never saw him in action. It was just the guys. No children.
Grandpa was a sweetie and softie, but he was pretty traditional as the head of the household. He wasn’t much of a cook. He left all that to my grandmother, which is sort of a shame because my grandmother wasn’t the best of a cooks — see references to “burnt flour” soup above, and have I already told you the story of how she cooked spaghetti in the pressure cooker? Some evenings, he’d come home and light the bbq, pulled just to the edge of the open garage so that the smoke could escape but he could be in the shade, and he’d stand there in rolled up shirt-sleeves, cooking steaks for dinner.
But he did have one recipe that I know of. It was his special treat for the family at Passover (and sometimes, rarely, on other lazy weekend mornings): matzo brei.
Matzo brei is classic peasant food. Take the simplest, least expensive ingredients you have on hand (plain matzos, some oil, a few eggs, a dash of salt), mix, cook, serve. There’s nothing at all complicated about this dish, but, for me, it’s a little mouthful of memory.
Grandpa made this for us, maybe for the last time, when we were all down in Florida for Passover several years back. Like many of their friends, my grandparents had become “snowbirds”, escaping the snowy Toronto winters by way of a little condo near my parents’ home in Florida. Passover was always the dividing line between winter and spring, Florida and Toronto. After Passover, it was time to go home.
For some wonderful reason, M decided to watch grandpa make the matzo brei on our last morning there, and, as grandpa cooked, M jotted down the brief instructions.
I was his first grandchild. Then followed my sister. Then followed eight more over the years. He was loving and playful with all of us, right down to the last two, who came very late into his life.
In many ways, he was a mystery to me. We never had long, heart-to-heart talks. I don’t know what he thought of his life, or what his hopes and dreams were. I do know that he adored his family, and loved to be surrounded by the gang on the rare occasions when we were all in town at once.
My grandmother, Martha, died, after a long illness. Barely three weeks later, my grandfather died, too, unable and unwilling to face a life without her. The last time I saw him, at the end of the shiva for my grandmother, I hugged him and told him I loved him. He told me he loved me, too. We both knew it would be the last time we’d see each other.
I give this recipe to you as a gift in grandpa’s memory. May you eat it with pleasure, and share it with love.
Here’s a roundup of the rest of the Let’s Lunch group’s Father’s Day dishes. If you’d like to join us for July (the theme is bbq/grilling), post a message on Twitter with the #letslunch hashtag, or post a comment below.
Aleana‘s Homemade Scottish Oatcakes at Eat My Blog
Charissa‘s Grilled Rib-Eye Steaks & Uncle Andy’s Chimichurri Sauce at Zest Bakery
Cheryl‘s Mee Pok Ta at A Tiger in the Kitchen
Eleanor‘s Salmon Bok Choy Soup at Wok Star
Emma‘s Ham and Rice at Dreaming of Pots & Pans
Jill‘s Root Beer-Glazed Onion Dip at Eating My Words
Grace‘s Taste of Diversity at HapaMama
Linda‘s Sesame-Ginger Chicken Wings at Spice Box Travels
Lisa‘s Hot Sugary Lip-Smacking Jam Donuts at Monday Morning Cooking Club
Patricia‘s Egg Candy at The Asian Grandmother’s Cookbook
Rashda‘s Beth Howard’s Apple Pie at Hot Curries & Cold Beer
Sonja‘s Spicy Smoked Paprika Lamb Shank Goulash at Foodnutzz
Harry Cohen’s Matzo Brei
Yield: Serves four to six
- 7 unsalted matzos
- 2 or 3 large eggs (depending on how eggy you’d like the matzo brei to be)
- 1/2 cup vegetable oil
- Break the matzo into bite-sized pieces and place in a large bowl.
- Cover the crumbled matzo with cold water and then drain the matzo immediately. You want to get the matzo damp, but not soggy.
- In a small bowl, gently beat the eggs, then add 2 to 3 tablespoons of water to the egg (add 2 tablespoons if you are using 2 eggs; 3 if you are using 3 eggs).
- In a large, heavy-bottomed pan, heat the oil over high heat.
- Pour the egg mixture into the bowl of matzo and mix well (be gentle – don’t crush the matzo!).
- Put the matzo mixtures in the pan with hot oil, the immmediately reduce the heat to medium.
- Gently stir from time to time, breaking up clumps.
- Cook from five to seven minutes, stirring as needed to cook all the matzo pieces evenly without letting them burn. After about three or four minutes of cooking, you may need to add another “bloop” of oil.
- When the matzo pieces are all brown and the texture is the way you like it (I like mine crispy), remove the matzo from the heat.
- Sprinkle with salt and serve.
If you have any leftover matzo brei, it’ll keep well in a tightly closed container or ziplock bag in the fridge for several days. Reheat it by stir-frying it on medium-low just until it’s warm and crispy again.