Gramma: The Original Sneaky Chef

Following is the text of a speech I gave today at Toastmasters. I have been thinking about this for a while, and had even started drafting a blog post about it. I was surprised that I choked up at the end. That’s not like me to get all emotional. Probably because I DID get choked up, I got “best speech” today!

For the last five months, I’ve been on a mission to improve my eating habits. I’m working with a nutritionist who is transforming me from a junk food junkie to a wanna-be vegetarian. Since September, I’ve made some significant changes. First, I’ve probably eaten more vegetables in five months than I did my first 43-years of living.  Secondly, fast food is no longer a part of my life. Heck, for me, fast food is now a natural peanut butter sandwich. Finally, I have developed a new kinship with my grandmother, who actually passed away in June.

Like the Sesame Street song says, one of these things is not like the other. You probably get the veggie part, as well as the fast food ban, but a closer relationship with my grandmother, who passed away in June? It surprised me, too. My grandmother was a very traditional Southern cook, and while her food was delicious, I can’t say that it would be considered particularly healthy. Grandma was known for her holiday spreads, and she didn’t spare fat, calories or salt when making them. Grandma also loved to cook, and for me, well, it’s really just a means to an end and certainly no particular joy.  But despite those differences, much of what I’m incorporating into this new healthy lifestyle, I actually learned from Gramma years ago. Today, I want to share a few of those lessons with you.

Lesson Number One: Hide healthy foods or “If it offends, then blend!”
When I started working with a nutritionist, I told her point blank that I didn’t eat vegetables and didn’t think that I would be able to start. She told me about a great cookbook by the “Sneaky Chef” that involved pureeing vegetables and adding them to otherwise normal food like meatloaf, meatballs, even spaghetti sauce. The first time I added “green puree” to meatloaf, I was amazed. It tasted like meatloaf, and I couldn’t even taste the broccoli and spinach.

I shared my success story with my mother, who reminded me that my grandmother lovingly did this with the celery in her Thanksgiving stuffing. It seems that even as a child I didn’t like vegetables, and I wouldn’t eat stuffing with chunky celery pieces. So Grandma, a woman well before the Sneaky Chef, started pureeing the celery and adding it in to the stuffing. Every year, I would get my own little pan of seemingly celery free stuffing, and I was none the wiser.

Lesson Number Two: Eat at the table.
Every holiday at Gramma’s house involved a large spread, and every year from the time I was old enough to feed myself until my last dinner at Gramma’s house, I sat at “the kid’s table.” You know the one, the card table in the living room. The only requirements seemed to be that 1) you were once a kid, and 2) you were unmarried. The kid’s table was usually hastily thrown together with mismatched chairs, paper plates or unbreakable china, and paper napkins, but it was important to Gramma that we sat at a table.

Fast forward to just this month, when I read Food Rules by Michael Pollan:

58. Do all of your eating at a table. No, a desk is not a table. If we eat while we’re working or watching TV or driving, we eat mindlessly–and as a result eat a lot more than we would if we were eating at a table, paying attention to what we’re doing.

So it turns out that once again, Gramma knew what was important.

Lesson Number Three: Waste Not, Want Not
Once Grandma sent Sister and me to the store for carrots. Thinking of Gramma and all that she had to cook, we purchased fresh carrots that were already washed, peeled and sliced. Instead of being excited that much of the work had been done for her, she scolded us for being so wasteful.  A child of the Great Depression, she was very frugal; she couldn’t believe anyone would pay more for someone to prepare carrots, a job she found simple and even enjoyable. She could also find a use for every part of that carrot.

When I started eating healthier, I purchased those great prepared vegetables in plastic bags, and from time to time, I still do. But now that I have started cooking them more, thus spending more, I realize that Gramma’s way is not only the best, but the least expensive. And like Gramma, I now have a use for every part of a vegetable: a compost bin. Six months from now, today’s vegetable waste will be wonderful compost that I can use to supplement the soil where – who knows – I may even grow my own vegetables.

In closing, author Charles W. Shedd once said, “Some of the world’s best educators are grandparents.” It took me a while to realize it, but truer works have never been spoken. Gramma didn’t live long enough to see me eat a piece of celery or eat every meal at the table, but I know that she was beaming in heaven when she saw me peeling those carrots.
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