A whiff of chicken soup takes me back to that moment, five-years-old, wiggling in a pew, waiting for evening mass to end. My mouth watered as I imagined the pot of soup steaming on the stove.
I envisioned the savory splash as the ladle plopped egg noodles and carrot rounds into a dancing pool. We’d worked all day, Pop-pop and me, preparing Sunday dinner.
My grandfather was not an easygoing guy, but in the kitchen with his oldest granddaughter, he had patience. Pop-pop made cooking fun, never a chore, and always an adventure. He often didn’t work from recipes, but tossed stuff together in a witch’s potion method that turned out delicious.
I was the only one who knew the “secret ingredients” he slipped into his chicken soup. We pulverized them in the blender before serving. He swore me to secrecy; “They won’t eat it if they know,” he cautioned.
Pop-pop had a jovial nature, often teasing, blasting polka, or piping out, “The Bear Goes Over the Mountain” on the harmonica. But his stringent values colored every decision he made. He grew up during the Great Depression and it showed. He was couponing, composting, and cultivating before they were trendy. He taught me to scrimp, save, and be savvy in the kitchen. He imparted the art of creating something incredible from nothing.
As I aged, my love for cooking took a backseat to makeup and boys. My grandparents moved away to Florida and culinary adventures were less appealing without Pop-pop as my guide. Occasionally I’d experiment but I had little patience. It wasn’t until my first pregnancy that my love of cooking returned full-force. That Thanksgiving I made 12 pies for a dozen dinner guests.
In my mind, I could envision our future – my daughter by my side, preparing Sunday dinners. I imagined confiding the secret ingredients that my grandfather had entrusted. And as a toddler, she loved helping in the kitchen, but by the time she was five, she was more interested in ants than he was in soups. In kindergarten I’d bribe her, and she’d suffer through a batch of cookies. But she only grew more reluctant so I resigned myself to a lonely kitchen.
My daughter was ten when my son was born and the newborn was given my grandfather’s name, Joseph. Deteriorating health brought my grandparents back to New Jersey and we only had Pop-pop for another year, but it was a wonderful year.
My grandfather passed away in 2008 and my grandmother followed in 2013.
It was then that my family tackled the task of sifting through a fortress of memories at my grandparents’ house in Florida, untouched for half a decade. They discovered Pop-pop’s beloved hat, “Chef Joesph,” name spelled incorrectly. I don’t recall noticing that spelling error earlier, but being a product of the Great Depression, Pop-pop wouldn't have let a spelling error be reason enough to waste a good hat. The chef’s hat passed to my son.
At five years old, I expected the new hat would appeal to my son’s imagination, but as he grew, his fondness for the hat grew. Quite unexpectedly, the hat inspired something more magical than imagination; it inspired a love of cooking.
Now three years later, my son dons the hat daily and helps cook. He’s eight and can prepare a meal with minimal help. I haven’t taught him the special soup ingredients yet – he wouldn’t eat it if he knew – but my kitchen isn’t lonely anymore.
Joseph doesn’t remember Pop-pop Joey. The only tangible connection he has to his great-grandfather is the hat. Yet, Joseph cooks just like Pop-pop; he’s adventurous and naturally drawn to the witch’s potion method.
Pop-pop gave me a great gift when I was a girl. He inspired a passion for creating something from nothing. But the gift he gave me after he died was even better. From heaven, he sparked that same enthusiasm in my son and set me up as Chef Joesph’s guide.