Jessica Valenti’s “Eat Me” column appears every other Friday at 3pm. Previous installments can be found here.
My grandmother was not the cookie-baking kind. Don’t get me wrong, she was supremely loving: my mother was her youngest, the baby, and my sister and I held special places in the grandchild hierarchy. She brought over gifts and cared for us while my parents worked. But Nanny Ann took no shit.
When my sister and I misbehaved, she would point out the window to a random man on our Queens block and say, “See, the man is coming for you! You better be good before the man comes!” We had no idea what the man would do should he come, but were not willing to find out. She talked a lot about the devil, babysitting backlash to my parents’ decision not to raise us Catholic. She made up for it by letting us watch All My Children.
She talked freely about her life, relaying tragedies matter-of-factly. Her mother died of pneumonia when she was an infant. They were poor, and her father often brought her to the neighborhood pub, propped her on the bar, and had her sing while he passed around a hat. He died of alcohol related illnesses when she was 10. She went to live with an aunt and uncle but only stayed a year. The uncle sexually assaulted her, and the morning after she told her aunt about the abuse they sent her to St Joseph’s Orphanage in Brooklyn. She was 11.
She had no tolerance for abusive men. Once while she was cooking, my pregnant aunt was being berated in the next room by her husband. Nanny Ann told everyone in earshot she was going to “stick a fucking knife right in his heart,” and the family took her seriously enough to clear out. “She was crazy like that,” my mom says.
My memories of her are filled with seeming contradictions – a woman who kept light-up picture of a bleeding Jesus above her bed, but who talked about how she still liked getting a little “woo woo woo.” (This was always said with a little lascivious hip waggle.)
But yes…to the cooking. There was a lot of it, even if there wasn’t much food. She made the most of everything, and her most loved dish was pot roast with ginger snaps. She was Irish-German, a people for whom apparently this is a thing. She used water when there wasn’t beef stock, and let it cook for hours. It’s a fantastic dish because there’s actually very little prep work involved (a must if, like her, you have a house full of kids); it’s mostly about the cooking in its own juices for hours. Tastes complex, simple to make.
This is one of my favorite things to cook. And thanks to the lady who put rags on my head when I had a fever and called people ‘stupid cunts’ till the day she died, pot roast makes me feel both bawdy and homey. Just like Nanny.
Nanny’s Pot Roast:
You can use a bottom round or chuck roast for this. Put a few tablespoons of olive oil in a dutch oven over medium high heat. Throw in two chopped onions and let brown. Once they’re super browned, take them out and put the meat in. Brown the roast on all sides, then take it out. Put the onions back in, add 2 or 3 bay leaves, salt and pepper. Put in water or beef stock, so the meat is almost halfway covered. (This is where I differ from her recipe – I like a cup of stock and a cup of wine.) Bring the liquid to a boil, then lower the heat to a simmer. Let it cook for 3 hours.
Separately, crack up 8-10 ginger snap cookies and cook them with water over high heat until it’s mushy. Add that to your roast while it’s still cooking. If the sauce still needs thickening, you can add a little flour/water mixture to it.
Jessica Valenti has written four books on feminism, politics and culture and is a founder of Feministing.com. She just moved back to her native New York after a two-year stint in Boston, which she is very pleased about. If she had to live solely off of one food group, it would be dairy.