The Grandmother Effect
Reflections on love, loss, culinary legacy, and lacy unmentionables.
Her house was magic, and as a child, I used to wear her negligées, but now Deedee was dead.
When I was young, she was my best friend. She had a closet full of sparkly costumes, all fringe and sequins, from her days as a tap-dancer, along with a collection of nightwear—silk sheaths, high-necked lace, and kitten heels with pom-poms—that fascinated my young soul. The adornments of her former life became my dress-up clothes and I ran around her mystical abode, draped in pearls and black satin unmentionables, from the costume closet to the lush garden that sprung like an oasis out of the rolling, verdant lawn, beanpoles climbing with green shoots and cages of bright cherry tomatoes, surrounded by the soft, sweet fragrance of her prized rose bushes.
She was a Sagittarius, just like me, and the embers of boundless freedom burned in both of our hearts. Her nickname, “Deedee,” originated from the inability of my tiny mouth to form the syllables of her preferred honorific, “Grammy,” and it stuck—after all, Deedee sounded more like the name of a genteel socialite than my grandmother, which was what she preferred, so our whole family used the moniker until the day she died.
That day came on November 9, 2020, at 4:30 a.m. She slipped from this phase of life to the next in her sleep: just how she hoped it would go. And this was a blessing, for Deedee’s time on the material plane began tragically. After a love-starved childhood, she lost all the important men in her life in swift succession: first, her father; then the grandfather who was like a parent (and was financing her education, forcing her to drop out of college when he died). This was followed by her fiancée, FBI Agent Bergeron, who accidentally asphyxiated himself in what was to be their marital home on the eve of her bridal shower; the Bureau came knocking in the middle of the party to bring the news.
But if there was one thing Deedee was good at, it was starting over.
After dropping out of school, she took a job with Pan-American Airlines, leaving the industrial malpais of the Midwest for Seattle in 1950 and flying the friendly skies of the Alaska/Hawaii route on the famous Pan-Am Clipper Ships. She began as a flight attendant and was promoted to a purser, a supervisory role. This was during the Golden Age of Air Travel, back when flying was a formal affair and no one would dream of asking you to remove your shoes, and she loved it: she and her crew dressed in sharp jackets, pencil skirts, and spike heels, serving martinis and gourmet meals in smoke-filled vestibules a mile above the modern suburban landscape. When I wrote her obituary, we used this picture of her: young and free, a pineapple in each hand and the world at her fingertips.
But the Golden Age was also an era when women were second-class citizens, both fetishized and marginalized—and when Deedee married my grandfather in 1955, he grounded her, insisting she hang up her stewardess cap to birth babies and tend to the home. So she buried the cap—gray, pinstriped, and crisp-cornered, fitted with a broach of the iconic blue globe—deep in the caverns of her closet, and once again, she started anew.
This life largely revolved around crafting the “perfect” physical presentation: a familiar facade to all who have crashed against the bulkhead of the patriarchy. She spent hours layering makeup, setting her curls, and painting varnish on her nails, all so she could be the life of the party; the star of the golf or bridge tournament; the consummate first lady of the country club. Over time, as happens to many of us, she came to believe that this image was who she really was, and she slowly disappeared into the role.
But sometimes, her soul still found creative expression—and the most powerful way was through the act of celebration. Deedee was a hostess of the highest caliber. Every holiday, she would single-handedly prepare a multi-course meal for our family from scratch: masterfully slicing, chopping, basting, roasting, rolling, and baking, juggling four burners and two ovens like some kind of Hindu goddess, arms everywhere at once, refusing all assistance. And she did it all without so much as a hair out of place in her perfectly coiffed auburn bob, wearing pearls and a crisp apron knotted tightly around her smart pantsuit.
This showed me the divine art that is preparing a feast for your chosen family, for ours included a rotating cast of accompanying fathers, friends, and lovers. Today, I credit my passion for food and drink to these times. Nobody did it like Deedee, and what she may have lacked as a parent she made up for as an elder, providing not only nourishment, but consistency and safe space. At one point, my mom—now herself a devoted grandmother to my little nephew—wanted to start a nonprofit called “the grandmother effect,” named for the documented phenomenon that when a grandparent helps care for their grandchildren, they live longer, better lives, and for a quote she loved: “If grandmothers ran the world, there would be no more war.” She imagined an organization that would bring grandmothers together from around the world, expanding the circle of care to include other peoples’ grandchildren.
After all, ancestral connections are easily severed in America, where individualism is espoused as the mutually exclusive ideal to the collective good. Aging is feared and the elderly are reviled, locked away in homes to shield our psyches from the inevitable end. As we relentlessly pursue eternal youth and infinite abundance, legacies are tossed aside, and too often, it is only too late that we realize their value. Since Deedee never let anyone help her cook, and what she did write down was lost, all those decadent dishes she used to make, well, none of us ever learned them—and now she’s gone, with so many secrets locked inside her.
When she passed, I was writing a forthcoming article for Whetstone Magazine about Spice Bridge: a Seattle food hall where every business owner is an immigrant or refugee woman. The piece focuses on Afella Jollof Catering, whose owners hail from Senegal and The Gambia; Moyo Kitchen, representing Somalia, Kenya, and Tanzania; and Taste of Congo, from the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). Most of these women left challenging circumstances to start a new life in a place they’d never been, and while the working-class ennui of Trenton may have been a far cry from armed conflict in the DRC, I nonetheless saw a common thread: in the words of Oumie Sallah, who co-owns Afella Jollof with her sister, Adama Jammeh, “Just try, and keep looking forward, forward, not backward.”
Jammeh and Sallah left behind abusive marriages when they moved to Seattle. Caroline Musitu of Taste of Congo fled the aforementioned DRC conflict. Mwana Moyo and Batulo Nuh, co-owners of Moyo Kitchen, came with their families and started from scratch; Moyo and Jammeh did so as single moms. Yet all of them found freedom and connection in a familiar place: the celebration. In Seattle, they formed communities with others from their home countries and quickly became the de facto caterers. After all, these groups came together in times of joy and sorrow, marking all of life’s major events with a grand feast, and somebody had to cook all that food.
Each entrepreneur recounts how they would prepare meals for dozens, even hundreds, of community members entirely on their own—catering weddings and wakes, christenings and funerals, all while never measuring or writing anything down. This was the way each of them had learned to cook from their own mothers and grandmothers: “Nobody does the measurements. You just have to see with your eyes,” Musitu told me, and she teaches her own daughter the same way, defying the child’s implorations for the number of cups with a hearty laugh and a twinkle in her eye.
These catering gigs turned into professional ventures, paving the way to full-fledged entrepreneurship through the food business incubator program that birthed Spice Bridge. Today, these businesses are a path to self-empowerment and economic independence. But they are also an expression of each woman’s heart: hopes and dreams spilled forth across a serving platter, the pain of upheaval alchemized in an act of nourishment that goes beyond satiation to salve the very soul.
This is why the celebration is so meaningful: The things we eat and drink remind us who we are. Their consumption conjures a collective memory of what it tasted like to be there; how your grandmother’s kitchen smelled; what the streets sounded like where the vendors served this up in brown-paper wrapping on your way home from work. The cuisine of your ancestral lineage, whether traditional or adopted, affirms that you exist; you have a past; those things did happen, and you are real. It is the collective consciousness of a home, a family, a people, a place.
Feast from Moyo Kitchen
In these cooks’ home countries, while no two households make a dish exactly the same way, there are popular variations across regional food cultures—for example, distinct preparations of Jollof rice, the beloved dish of hotly contested origins, are found in each of Senegal and The Gambia, Ghana, and Nigeria. Eating this food, the entrepreneurs say, helps customers ease their homesickness. They are also exploring ways to impart ancestral knowledge to the next generation who may not have the time, patience, or resources to learn traditional preparations firsthand. Lilian Ryland of Naija Buka, for example, is a graduate of the incubator program who sells premade Jollof sauce and other products while teaching Nigerian cooking classes at Seattle’s natural grocery chain, PCC.
To preserve these generational learnings is no small feat in a culture that would have you forget who you are. When I spoke with Yorm Ackuaku—host of the African food podcast, Item 13, a board member of the organization behind Spice Bridge, and herself a Ghanaian immigrant—for the Spice Bridge story, she recalled an illustrative anecdote from one of her podcast interviews. It was with Mohammed and Rahim Diallo, owners of Ginjan Brothers, LLC: a beverage company that sells Ginjan, a 1,000-year-old West African ginger drink. The Diallos described an early pitch meeting for Ginjan with a venture capitalist who had worked with Coca-Cola. As Ackuaku relates, the VC said that they had a good product, but they needed to “‘tone down the Africa story.’ As in their story. I was blown away.”
This is a common tale among African food brands, Ackuaku continues, where the owners so obscure their identities that “you wouldn’t even know” they were from the continent. Told that who they are is unmarketable, they “tone it down,” and in doing so, they erase their very selves. When I heard this, I not only thought of Deedee, but of the queer experience. We in the LGBTQIA+ community are only too familiar with being told to “tone down” who we are, adorning ourselves in costumes that match the cisgendered hetero-norm.
I recalled the conversations I had with LGBTQIA+ craft beer workers and brewery owners for a recent article series in Good Beer Hunting, in which many recoiled at the thought of being labeled the “gay brewery,” quick to draw the distinction between their personal lives and professional ventures. They cited a desire to make their breweries truly inclusive spaces, which is honorable and understandable. But I have learned through interviews and lived experience that part of this reaction also stems from a sad reality: Bigoted narratives persist in the U.S. food and beverage industry, asserting that a best-in-class reputation and a queer or “ethnic” affiliation are mutually exclusive. While there are plenty of underrepresented brewers, bar owners, and restaurateurs who champion their identities as a value-add, too many others fall prey to the national patriarchal narrative and its artificially constructed categories of gender, sexual orientation, ethnicity, and race.
But things are changing. The white population in America has been declining in all 50 states since 2010, and will become a minority by 2045, with Latinx people constituting the second-largest group. And a 2018 Ipsos Mori study found that only two-thirds of Gen Z identifies as exclusively straight. Perhaps soon the underrepresented can begin to define ourselves in the affirmative, rather than in opposition to the dominant class; to claim a positive identity rather than existing in the negative space. Instead of lumping the “non-white” into one catch-all category and adding more letters onto “LGBTTQQIAAPP,” maybe one day, only the cis-het and white will have to self-identify.
It’s New Year’s Eve on a year that upended everything we knew, and perched on the precipice, I envision a better future: one where none of us will have to “present” in order to be seen. One where the underrepresented are abundantly resourced, and collective solutions are uplifted over corporatist ones. During the Great Depression, the fundamental nature of the capitalist model was questioned; the response was to enact socially Democratic solutions that provided for people according to their needs, and created a safety net for those whose contributions could not be supported by the previous system, but were nonetheless deemed culturally valuable. We find ourselves at such a turning point now; will we heed the call to permanently enshrine communal values and honor the divine feminine?
Underrepresented people in food and beverage are already doing this: just to name a few, there are queer and BIPOC brewers creating scholarships for others in their communties; immigrant and BIPOC chefs creating restaurants and gathering places, physical and virtual, that celebrate cuisine from outside Western Europe; there are classes and organizations that seek to preserve global culinary legacies in the U.S. But to enact these kinds of solutions on a national level requires a spiritual awakening in which we not merely tolerate, but celebrate those who live between worlds. And we’re not there yet.
Sometimes I still visit Deedee, only now, it’s on the astral plane. When I ask her advice, she always tells me to find the celebration: not to miss it by getting mired in competition or mistaking love and nourishment for zero-sum games. So let us all be healed by the grandmother effect, finding our own vitality in the care of others. Let us make breweries as gay as we are and food brands that proudly declare their founders’ heritage. Let our traditions remind us who we were before the patriarchal culture told us to tone it down—and instead, let’s crank it way, way up, until our celebrations drown them out.
I’d love to hear from you in the comments: what traditions, food or otherwise, do you honor within your family or communities? Can we collectively acknowledge traditions, as local, national, and/or global communities, that celebrate difference without being prescriptive or appropriative?