Ruby, my maternal grandmother, was a picky eater and had high expectations when visiting restaurants. Bacon had to be a level of crispy achieved only by some dark magic that enabled the cook to remove it from the pan by divining the precise moment right before it turned black and started to smoke. Coffee was to be served hot as blazes, so that when the cup neared your face it threatened to singe your eyebrows. It was never served hot enough. Each time, Granny would politely request a cup from a fresh pot and then warn the server, “I can tell when you microwave it.” Granny spent decades in the restaurant industry as a server and was never rude or condescending to those who in turn served her. Her delivery was teasing and wry. In places where she was a regular, Granny was beloved. This was all on my mind the first time my husband Mark and I hosted Thanksgiving dinner.
The menu that year included bacon grease-seasoned green beans, garlic whipped mashed potatoes, roasted asparagus and a homemade pineapple glazed ham. Guests brought the desserts and I focused on the rest.
Granny, as you might imagine, had strong opinions about ham and didn’t hesitate during the planning stages to tell tales about countless failed holiday hams she had endured over the years. There were dry hams, tough hams and — the worst one of all — an unpardonable canned ham. Grandpa was a fond lover of ham, but he got excited about any slice you put in front of him. He would be easy, but Granny, who never met a holiday ham that fit her specifications, was another story.
Not only was this the first time we hosted Thanksgiving, but also the first time we hosted any large family gathering and the first time I attempted to bake a ham. This was no time for complicated experiments, so I consulted the spiral-bound Betty Crocker cookbook gifted to me by Aunt Rita. Between the instructions on the ham and the glazing recipe, I was good to go.
By the time my family arrived, the ham was out of the oven and resting. We visited for a bit and then got down to the main event. While everyone else dug into their food, I moved mine around and picked at it, waiting to see the look on Granny’s face when she ate her first bite of ham. The first and all subsequent bites were consumed with nary a word from her end of the table. I couldn’t get a read on her. After the meal however, Granny ended my suspense and declared my holiday ham one of the best she has ever eaten. I silently declared victory.
In hindsight, Granny’s pronouncement might have been one of those carefully worded Southern lady compliments designed to spare hurt feelings. Remember: she hated every past holiday ham and simply said mine was the best she had ever eaten. To this day, I don’t know if she really liked the ham or not, but at the time, her affirmation gave me the confidence I needed to tackle cooking for any holiday gathering. It seems Granny’s restaurant expectations were much different than those held out to her granddaughter. Except when it came to the coffee I served with dessert. She sent it back.