Taking up the Torch: Kitchen Edition

On learning to cook when Alzheimer’s stole my grandmother’s ability to do the same.

Human Parts
6 min readJul 30, 2013


photo courtesy of startribune.com

“Look at that!” Tickled, I tip my phone in my grandmother’s direction. I’m trying to figure out how firm a “stiff peak” need be, and in a video tutorial, the woman beating egg whites had just flipped the bowl upside-down where the whites remained unmoved. This, the video lady said, signaled suitable enough whipping. Seeing the phone’s screen, my grandmother gasps as if I’ve summoned the devil into her home, which she is sure contains some big brother-type surveillance. (If only she knew!) My grandparents were always smug in their decision to shun such objects of modern technology as cell phones, computers, and cameras (of the digital kind; she and her Polaroid were inseparable).

I’m beating the whites to make the chocolate meringues that my brother, at age five, called “Styrofoam cookies,” the word “meringue” forever lost from our lexicon from that day forward. My grandma had made Styrofoam cookies for us at least a thousand times. Same as the dish that required the yolks, pot pie — not at all a pie — was a pot roast served alongside thick, square egg noodles cooked in beef stock and all served over mashed potatoes. She made these dishes in equal measure my entire life; the pair of recipes forever intertwined in my memory for the economy of not wasting any part of an egg. And yet, shortly after having requested this meal on my first night back home to visit them, an email from my mother arrived:

“Talked to Grandma. She doesn’t seem to remember what pot pie is. She seemed to think she could serve it with pork chops. She’s struggling a little. She sent Aunt Debby two cards on the same day and spelled her name wrong on one of them. She couldn’t remember Ken’s middle name. Just wanted to give you a head’s up.”

Much later, as we packed their house and divvied up their belongings, I saw how much of my connection with my grandmother was built inside her kitchen. I wanted the curved grapefruit knives and teethed spoons because they were used every weekend morning on sugar-topped ruby reds. I asked for the immersion blender that she used to make us black & white milkshakes. I tucked into my suitcase the copper pots where the sugar for her cashew brittle had caramelized.

And so, as my grandmother’s memory declined, I decided I needed to up my game in her specialties. As pot pie has always tasted like home, it became my mission to serve that love back to the one who had given it, in potfuls, my entire life.

I picked up a roast and headed to my grandparents’ house. But while I’d eaten this meal nearly once a month for fifteen years of my life, I’d somehow never once made it for myself; I needed to ask my mother for instructions. In trying to get down all the noodle-making specifics, I’d forgot about those whites, and to ask for the Styrofoam cookie recipe. But meringues are ubiquitous, I figured I’d find something good online.

I flip my whites over with bowl-sticking success, but baking times and temperatures I find online are all over the place. It never occurred to me that my grandmother might one day forget movements that I knew she could make in her sleep. While I pore through dozens of websites for something foolproof, I curse the fact that I never asked her to write the recipe down, just in case. All I know is that we always started with the cookies first because they bake the longest, at low heat. I guess a temperature and toss the baking sheets into the oven.

As my grandmother watches me sear the roast’s outer edges, there is an awareness on her part that she should know something but doesn’t. She rarely says, “I don’t know,” or “I don’t remember.” Instead, she just furrows her brow, her vibrant green eyes looking more like they belong on the face of a lost, worried child, than a woman in her eighties. She wrings her hands nervously, hoping for some spark of recognition on her own part. And then there are the notes.

Her elegantly slanted handwriting in red fine-tipped sharpie had graced hundreds of letters and cards over the years. Though lately delivering nothing but the usual gripes about aging, bad hips and cataracts, they often arrived with Polaroids of the new battery powered tea lights she’d found, or a new beer mug she’d picked up from the local thrift store or garage sale (always with the price she paid and what it would have been worth at the store brand new — the woman lives for a bargain).

When I arrived at their house, it was the notes that broke my heart. Taped all over kitchen, in her unmistakable print, they remind her of not just doctor appointments and birthdays, but also what she likes to eat for lunch (frozen spicy chicken wings) and where to store her hearing aid (in the candy dish on the windowsill). Her desperate attempt to keep life running smoothly even though nothing would ever be the same again, these notes contained instructions for basic survival.

Under her uncertain supervision, chopping and peeling vegetables to be roasted with the meat, I try my best not to bring up things that she might feel guilty about forgetting, but realize that those landmines are innumerable. Everything from, “What did you to today?” to “How’s your sister?” triggers her panic-face. So instead, I roll out the noodles. The dough is so much tougher than I’d imagined. Every swipe of the rolling pin reveals dough that springs back nearly to the size that it was before I began. This becomes just as much actual labor as it is one of love. I talk her through my motions, hoping to bring to the surface some memory. I can’t yet accept that she will never cook this dish again. And when she speaks, the stories she tells are the ones she’s been telling the longest. Of how thin she was when she married my grandpa (“I was ninety-eight pounds!” she says triumphantly. I think how sickly she must have looked, even though this manages to be one of her proudest accomplishments). How her father gave their marriage one month, but here they were sixty years later, and as an aside, how it feels more like seventy (her fool-proof laugh line). She keeps a cheerful face, that is, until I terrify her with my phone, which gets promptly stored for the remainder of the evening. I slide the noodles into a rolling broth, and poke at my roast for tenderness. I’m relieved when it starts to fall apart, just as hers would have.

I mash boiled potatoes, going heavy-handed on the salt, the way I know they like, and top the mash with chunks of tender roast and soft, caramelized carrots. Noodles and broth are spooned alongside the plate’s outer edge as I serve our dishes around.

My grandfather signals his approval. “Very good, young lady. You did a very nice job.”

“Yes, Jasmine, this is excellent!” my grandmother coos, nodding and smiling, but without a hint of familiarity with a dish that is so inherently hers. The pretense of nurturing my grandparents is exactly that. Seeing that she has no memory to compare my version against, I realize the one I’m comforting is myself.

And this is where one finds a silver lining. Her scant recollection is blessing when it comes to the cookies, which come out dense and gooey and are less Styrofoam than saltwater taffy. Her memory loss affords her this luxury: she enjoys them all the same.