My paternal grandparents were Louis Mayor and Lucille Saretta Moss Friedman. They both grew up in the city of Chicago, and between them, they lived 182 years in that very city. I visited them many times at their Astor Street apartment, which sat high above the neighborhood, overlooking the lake.
When we weren’t visiting the Art Institute or walking through the park, Grandma and I camped out on the couch, playing game after game of casino and gin rummy. Every so often, Grandpa would extend his hand for high-fives, feigning aches and pains if I came down too hard. Grandma would roll her eyes and laugh. As I got older, she would take me into her closet and ask if I wanted a sweater or blouse that she didn’t wear much anymore. Grandma’s throwaways were my little treasures; she had an understated but impeccable sense of fashion, never leaving the house without perfectly tailored pants, a nice leather purse, and a swipe of classic red lipstick. She always told me to skip the trash and invest in good pieces that would last.
All of Grandma’s and Grandpa’s doormen knew my name. Every evening, when it was time for dinner, we’d call down and have them bring up the car, license plate LMF, after their shared initials. (LMF 2 and 3 came after that.) While we waited, Grandpa would shout, “Babe!” and then he’d shuffle over to the closet, singing a jingle to himself. He’d take out Grandma’s coat, help her slip it on, and pocket a couple of hard candies for the road. When we got down to the lobby, the doormen would open the car doors not only for my grandparents, but also for me.
Restaurants were Grandma and Grandpa’s thing. They dined out several nights each week, mostly at old haunts where they were known regulars. We ate many wonderful meals at Kiki’s, Hugo’s, Gibson’s, and even Maggiano’s, before it exploded into a national chain. And we had an unforgettable meal at Topolobampo, which was the night my Grandpa decided that I finally understood what all the fuss was about. Grandpa taught me how to appreciate great restaurants. In some sense, he taught me how to eat.
Grandpa passed away in 2009, just a few months shy of his 97th birthday. On one of my last trips to Chicago, after he died, I took Grandma to Spiaggia for dinner. This time, I had picked the restaurant. I had wanted to try Spiaggia for a while, but more importantly, I knew that Grandma would enjoy it. Dinner was a feisty bucatini all’Amatriciana, full of chiles and quite hard to stop eating. We ended the night with what we agreed was the best espresso either of us had ever had. As we sipped, I told Grandma about this blog. I told her that I’d written about Grandpa in a recent post, about how he’d taught me to appreciate good food. She asked to read it. I pulled out my iphone, navigated to the page, and scrolled as she read. It was clear that she didn’t quite know what she was reading – she used the word “channel” a couple times, seeming to think it was a small TV — but she was clearly moved. It meant a lot to me to share that bit of writing with her.
Shortly after my Grandpa passed away, we moved my Grandma to Washington. Needless to say, for a woman who had spent her entire life in Chicago, Washington required some time to adjust. In the first months after the move, we spoke a bit about how she missed Chicago. Partially, she just missed Grandpa. But I think she also missed the life they lived there. She missed their apartment, their friends, their weekly bridge games, and all the other comforts that come with living in a city for your whole life. They both could have driven every street blindfolded. Grandpa was basically a free tour guide, pointing to buildings as we drove and telling me what they used to be. And Grandma knew their regular spots inside and out. She knew that Kiki’s bread was best, that Grandpa always liked their soup, that the onion tart was just the right size for dinner.
Grandma didn’t know DC’s scene, and it didn’t know her. I wanted to change that, at least a little. So a couple years ago, I took Grandma to Palena. If you’ve been to Palena, you know why I took her there. It’s a neighborhood restaurant in timeless Cleveland Park, and it’s been putting out untrendy, unfussy, expertly-prepared food for 13 years. I knew Grandma would love it, and love it she did. She loved the freshly-made pasta with shrimp and tomato. She loved my tagliatelle with calabrian chiles and crab. She really, really liked the bread. And she even enjoyed the dessert, which she nearly insisted I not order, and which I, in turn, practically forced her to try. She appreciated that for once, when she requested her coffee strong, black, and unsweetened, the waiter didn’t blink. Palena made my Grandma full and happy. I like to think that over our years of going there together, they also made her feel at least a little bit like a regular.
Grandpa was always the schmoozer, and Grandma mostly watched his socializing, being less gregarious and more reserved than he. It took me a while to get Grandma talking about all the things I wanted to know. But by our last dinner at Palena, she’d acclimated enough to the setting and to my questions that she finally opened up. She spoke about her early married life, and about what it was like to leave her job as a buyer at Saks and head to suburbia to raise children. Grandma was curious, ambitious, and fiercely independent — much more so than many of her friends, I suspect — and had she been born at a different time, I believe she would have been a career woman. She was whip-smart, hungry for travel and adventure, and able to hold her own with her husband’s friends and colleagues. My brother told me that when he went to meet up with Grandpa’s buddies after his death, they spoke of Grandma with a reverence that surprised and touched him.
Grandma wasn’t a particularly warm person, and she certainly wasn’t effusive. She was a headstrong, opinionated woman who didn’t mince words. If she didn’t like your outfit or — in my case — your nail polish, you’d hear about it, post haste. Toward the end of her life, we saw it as a good sign when she made sardonic jokes. But some of her most animated, enthusiastic moments came in response to food. Animated, as in, “That restaurant is very good. Very good.” That kind of animated. So you can imagine my joy at having the opportunity, after all these years, to cook for her. I hosted her with the rest of my family for Thanksgiving a couple years back, watching with delight as she took a second helping. She occasionally came for dinner and brunch at our home. And sometimes, when I drove to her apartment to pick her up for dinner, I came with small goodies in tow. It was the least I could do for a woman who, along with Grandpa, taught me to maintain a discerning palate, to never stop exploring all this world has to offer, and to save up for special meals. Grandma made many of those meals special just by being there. She passed away this past Saturday, and already, I miss her so much.Email Print