He almost expected it the day it started. As soon as he saw her, he saw the rest of his life stretched before him. “We are ready,” they had said to him in his dreams, “we are here.” In his sleep he smiled and kissed his fingertips. He whispered, “If it looks good, eat it.”
It started with one. Andrew Zimmern looked out his window and saw her on his lawn, a tuft of grey hair emerging from her black hood. It was the Croatian grandmother who had made him that herby bread. He remembered the history in her hands. Why was she here? How could she have done anything but knead and stir with those perfect hands?
His wife didn’t want to take her in.
“But she has nowhere else to go,” he argued.
“Of course she does. She has Croatia!”
“Darling, she’s in her 90s. How could she even get back? Besides, you didn’t try the bread. What do we say in this household?”
She sighed. “The best food is grandma food.”
“That’s right!” He threw open the door. “Baka!” he cried.
More of them came, and they had to make room. They sent their son to live with his aunt. Andrew and his wife set up a cot in the garage. “It’ll be an adventure!” he told her. The Yayas and Abuelas and Nai Nais filled every corner of the house with their shawls. By night they moaned, and by day they stuffed sweet cakes and fried fish into Andrew’s mouth.
“I just don’t understand why they’re here,” his wife confessed to him. “Don’t they have family of their own? I mean, that’s the whole point of grandmas, right?”
“They’re here because their families don’t appreciate them. These traditions are literally dying, and I’m the only one who appreciates it!” A Dadi teetered by and he threw his arm around her and kissed the top of her head. She smiled and produced a stuffed paratha. “Mmm!”
The neighbors talked. It used to be about Andrew’s many adventures and how they could try tripe maybe but definitely never a bug. Now it was just about the grandmas. Everywhere he went they followed. He sat in the park and Abuela handed him a horchata that made him hum as he drank it. He met with a Travel Channel executive and was offered no less than six pastries from his army. The executive thought it was great. “It’s so authentic!” he cried.
His wife was becoming distant though. She stayed longer at work. She came home with takeout. “But darling, look at our bounty!” he said as he gestured toward the kitchen, where the Omas were folding dumplings. One came up to her and offered a slice of kuchen. She rolled her eyes. “I’m going out,” she said, and slammed the door. The Oma spat on the ground.
Andrew feasted with his grandmas that night. They toasted him with shaking glasses of wine and ouzo, and shedded crumpled kleenex as they brought out more and more desserts. Andrew shook his head. “It’s just not right that she’s gone.” A Babica rubbed his temples and he thought of his life, the hard times in New York, what he built for himself in Minnesota. It was all for this. He took another bite of Lola’s noodles and clapped his hands together. “Salty and sweet and perfect,” he said to himself. “Why doesn’t she understand? You just can’t get this anywhere else.”
Andrew awoke the next morning and called for six blood sausages and a raw tamarind. “Mmm, tastes the way blood sausage oughta taste,” he said, and the grandmas nodded in agreement. He kissed them all and said “it’s time.” They began to walk.
It’s a long way from Edina, Minnesota to the sea. They lost a few grandmothers on the way. When that happened, Andrew would bend down and kiss their eyes. Then he would unhinge his jaw and put their hands in his mouth and swallow them whole.
As they walked other grandmas joined them, with casseroles and pots of sauce and trays of linzer cookies. Their families cried out for them but they could not hear it. They just wanted him to eat. They wanted him to know.
After a month they arrived at the coast. Andrew took a step into the water and exhaled. The grandmas followed him. He reached down and plucked a cluster of mussels from the water, pried them from their shells and ate them whole and raw. “People just don’t understand!” He kissed the grandma to his left as they all joined hands. They walked. Andrew took in a breath of salt water, and found he could still breathe. So could they.
They walked on, as the light began to fade. For a moment he felt weary, but they always seemed to sense it and produced meatballs and bits of chicken. He looked at them and smiled. And then they reached it, the deepest part, and finally they could rest. They were there, where he always knew he was meant to be, feasting for eternity with his Nonnas on the ocean floor.