My grandfather loved to eat. He and my grandmother went to restaurants about three times a week as far back as I can remember. For them it was never about trying the newest place or getting a coveted table at a popular joint; it was about old haunts. They had their usual spots — hell, they had their usual tables at those spots — and after years of frequenting the same Chicago institutions, they earned recognition as regulars. The maitre d’ always came over to say hi and schmooze. Grandpa was a classy guy, and he always chatted up our server. My brother and I both remember feeling proud at Grandpa’s easy way. Grandpa and Grandma loved restaurants; they loved the company, the nostalgia of it all, for certain. But they came for the food.
I vividly remember the first time I realized that food was a love we shared. We were sitting at Kiki’s Bistro, which has been around for almost 20 years. Grandma was eating a caramelized onion torte, and Grandpa and I were digging beneath the Gruyere-cloaked croutons in a bowl of piping hot onion soup. I asked Grandpa what he thought. He said, “there’s no such thing as bad soup. There’s only good soup and very good soup. This is very good soup.” He then went on to explain that Kiki’s has one of the best baguettes in the city, with the crispiest crust — he broke off a piece to show me how the crust shattered just so — and the best flavor. Grandpa was a food lover, through and through.
Sometime midday on Tuesday of this week, my grandfather passed away. As my brother so eloquently said, it’s hard to call his death at the age of 96 a tragedy. His life was not cut short. But without him, nothing can ever be the same again.
I’ve mentioned many times on this site that I owe my love of cooking to my mother. But it was Grandpa who opened my eyes to the pleasures of eating. By the time we started dining out together, Grandpa’s appetite was, well, petite. He usually made a meal of two appetizers. At Hugo’s, he ordered a small plate of frog’s legs, which I’d never seen before. After a few visits, I worked up the guts to try one. As I bit in, Grandpa looked up, eagerly awaiting my response. I ventured that they tasted a lot like chicken; Grandpa cracked up.
At Coco Pazzo, an Italian joint, I remember Grandpa swooning over a squid-ink spaghetti and insisting that I try some. Well, not insisting, exactly: every few bites, Grandpa would push his plate a couple inches in my direction, catch some strands of spaghetti on his fork, and nudge them toward me. I looked up, and he’d start looking at me, then at his plate, signaling for me to take a bite. Finally, I consented. He looked up at me with inquisitive eyes: did I like it? I nodded, equally focused on the smooth noodles and their delightfully garlicky sauce as I was on letting Grandpa know I approved.
By the time I was in my early twenties, I could tell that Grandpa knew I shared his love of eating out. I could tell this because he decided to make reservations at Topolobampo, Rick Bayless’ excellent (and expensive) Mexican restaurant downtown. I don’t quite remember what Grandpa said before he made the call — he always called for reservations, finding the number on the back of the restaurant’s matchbox, which he collected in a big bowl under the coffee table; and he did so the day of, as 5:30 isn’t exactly prime time and he could always get a table — but it was something to the effect of “I know where we’ll go. This one’s a real good one. You’ll like this one.” It was as though he’d been silently evaluating me, that only now did he know I was ready to appreciate when a restaurant pulled out all the stops. And boy was I ready. Topolobampo was one of the most fantastic meals I’ve ever had, and I took immeasurable pleasure from eating there with Grandpa.
It’s been only three days since he died, and already, I miss so much. I miss his silly aphorisms — his “owww! That was a hard five! [sticks out his hand tentatively] Give me an eaaasy five” and his “speak slowly, I have slow ears.” I miss the way he’d always sing, “I’m forever blowing bubbles, pretty bubbles in the air…” and I had no idea what the song was or where it came from, but I loved every minute of it. I miss the way he called my Grandma “Babe” and always pulled her coat from the closet, helping her slip it on the old-fashioned way. But perhaps most of all, I miss sitting across from him as he dipped his spoon into that bowl of onion soup — his favorite — for the first time. Eating out with Grandpa was one of life’s rare pleasures, and I’ll carry those memories with me for many years to come.