My grandmother Fifi died 20 years ago, but she recently came to my rescue. When my husband, stepsons, daughter and I were quarantined in Seattle, it didn't take long for cabin fever to hit. We got squirrelly before the hand sanitizer even dried. The boys had become men of 17 and 22 who wanted to sleep until noon, but their now-lonely 7-year-old sister rose early to jump rope and play with the dog. Things got tense.
Desperate for anything to brighten the collective mood, I turned to a Ziploc baggie stashed in my desk: Fifi’s recipe collection. I’ve never been skilled as a cook and all I remember Fifi making was pie, but I find memorabilia comforting. Old photographs and library catalog cards and used books littered with markings—they help me see life through a rearview mirror, which always makes it look rosier.
Fifi’s handwritten, food-stained, 3-by-5 notes were almost like a diary. Among the couple hundred cards were Cabbage Casserole, Cabbage Rolls, and something called Red Cabbage Dish. She had Thyra’s Hot Dish, Erna’s Hot Dish, Suellen’s Hot Dish, my mother’s Hot Dish—all with virtually the same ingredients.
I was intrigued by the soup stew from her sister-in-law, Tootsie, mainly because of the name: “Soup Stew (Toots).” The first ingredient was two pounds of beef stew, the second a can of golden mushroom soup, and the third onion soup mix. I got gas just reading it, making me think twice about what she called it.
I flipped through the cards for anything entertaining and found one labeled “Horseradish Mold,” containing lemon jello, mayonnaise, horseradish, salt, paprika, sliced olives, and whipped cream. The mind reels.
I texted a photo of it to my mother, asking, “What do you suppose this is?” To me, jello and whipped cream said dessert. Horseradish, not so much.
She responded almost immediately: “Idk. Lks lk (looks like) salad.” This required a phone call.
“How is this a salad?” I asked.
“In my day,” she said, though it’s clearly still her day, “jello was served as a salad. You know, with strawberries or marshmallows or carrots in it.”
I looked at the recipe, mystified. Would my family really eat this? Only one way to find out.
You’d think I would know better. When my mom first gave me the collection two or so years ago, I concocted a new tradition of making one of Fifi’s recipes every Wednesday. We called it Wacky Wednesday—the midway point between Meatball Monday, Taco Tuesday, Theme-less Thursdays, and Pizza Fridays (I couldn't find an alliterative title for Fridays. Life's not perfect.) My husband, the foodie, cooked on weekends, much to everyone’s relief.
Flipping through the recipes for inaugural Wacky Wednesday candidates, I came across one called “African Chow Mein.” It read:
1 ½ pounds browned hamburger; 2 cups chopped celery; 1 cup chopped onions; 1 small bottle soy sauce; 1 can chicken rice soup; 1 can cream of mushroom soup; 2 cans water; 1 cup raw rice. Brown the meat. Add liquids and other ingredients. Bake 1 ½ hours at 350°. Stir once during baking.
"This is chow mein?" I thought. "Where are the noodles? What makes this dish African? And why on Earth does it call for an entire bottle of soy sauce?"
I showed it to my husband, who is Chinese-American, and he noted that nothing is fried—which means in addition to having no mein, it’s not even chow. “You have got to make that thing,” he said, so the following Wednesday I did. Unfortunately, I followed the recipe to a T.
If you’re wondering what the finished result looked like, it was grey and lumpy and sticky, and if you’re wondering what it tasted like, I haven’t the words. Actually, I do—grey and lumpy and sticky. That's how it tasted. And very salty. Everyone ate it, but only out of guilt, and none of them actually enjoyed it. Which meant for a time that Fifi’s Wacky Wednesdays got scrapped.
Then came the coronavirus, spreading wacky all over my household. I dipped my toe back into Fifi’s collection, starting with Horseradish Mold—which wasn’t a resounding success, gastronomically speaking. It looked like something the dog yakked up and didn’t taste much better. But it was an event. Everyone gathered in the kitchen and played a part, if only to gawk as it slid out of the mold.
So like drive-in movies and bell-bottom jeans, Wacky Wednesdays are back, baby! But with one tweak: tweaking. Fifi’s recipes are a launching pad that have turned into a sort of game. We go through the stack and find something interesting, then brainstorm how to improve it, lending a sense of ownership that makes everything tastier.
Her "Asparagus Casserole," for instance, called for asparagus from a can, but something told me that wouldn’t go over well. So I swapped in fresh spears and replaced the entire jar (again I ask: Why?) of Old English cheese with grated Parmesan and shredded Caciotta. All the kids gave it a thumbs up. And none of them like asparagus.
We even took another swing at the now-infamous "African Chow Mein." My younger stepson suggested Moroccan spices and actual noodles, so we stewed chicken thighs, raisins, lemon slices, and olives with a blend of spices I swiped from a recipe for tagine. My first attempt at frying noodles for it didn’t exactly work, so the effect was closer to lo mein than chow, but it tasted great no matter what you called it.
I finally feel like someone who can kind-of, maybe cook in that I’m getting comfortable winging it in the kitchen. Thank goodness, because it looks like this kitchen is going to be a homeschool cafeteria for a little longer. And during this strange time when our family is craving humor and stability, Grandma Fifi—whom none of my kids ever met—is somehow serving us both.