My grandmother, who I always called “Grandma” and who we referred to in my family as “Grandma Newton,” was born Maria de Los Angeles Gisbert Alonso, but everyone else affectionately and simply called her “Angelita.” And because of her Spanish heritage—growing up and learning to cook in Barcelona and Asturias—Angelita was opinionated and passionate about all things kitchen, to say the least.
Of all the many things she taught me and ways in which she shaped me, one was quite an oddly placed piece of advice. And throughout my different phases of life, I have come in and out of seeing it as sage.
As she toiled away in her Bermuda kitchen, she pointedly said “Lisa, my dear,” with a stern face, “a polite young lady should never eat while standing up.” I was around ten years old at the time. She had caught me red-handed with food stuffed into my mouth that I had swiped from her counter while she prepared the nightly meal.
I retreated to the small white kitchen stool beneath the window to sit and chew, both on her words and on the pasta in my mouth. My shoulders slumped at having disappointed her. Then I sat there, quiet and absorbing her stance as she stirred the sauce on the stove, wooden spoon in her right hand and soft wide aproned hip in her left one. I was lulled by her deep sing-songy Spanish voice as she filled my ears with other dining etiquette tidbits, along with countless questions, gossip and complaints. The aroma that wafted toward me from the oven made my stomach somersault in delight.
Over forty years later, I still think about her words of wisdom in how to be a proper lady, as espoused from that tiny kitchen with her mad cooking skills at play. If I had taken her advice more seriously, I think I would have many less moments in my life of hasty eating. The “shove and go” technique, which I like to think that I perfected in my teens, lasted through to my thirties while I raced around after my own toddlers until they were pre-teens. And I will now finally admit that eating while driving does not count as eating while sitting. But I still did plenty of that over the years, while telling myself I was abiding by grandma’s rule.
But the message behind Grandma’s words is so very clear to me now. She meant the advice as a way to prevent her grandchildren from disrespecting the cook. It was always a true labor of love for her to toil away in the summer humidity and heat like she did.
And all that she had meant was that we should not ruin the sanctity of a good meal by rushing it or starting it prematurely. And all that she ever asked for was our patience and our presence at her beautiful dark wooden table, the one with the delicate chairs with the needlepointed seats she had handsewn over the years.
Angelita simply wanted our company at that table, while we paid homage to family and to ceremony and to the social setting of a home-cooked meal. And now that I have the benefit of age, I can see that it was the least we could do, after all the hard work she had put in to prepare it. Angelita only needed us to appreciate the food at the table with friends and family.
And come to think of it, Grandma never even asked for help with the dishes. That was always her way. “No, no leave it,” she would say indignantly with her Spanish accent, “I will do it. Please just go sit outside with Grandpa and look at the stars. I’ll bring you your ice cream. Just tell me, chocolate or vanilla tonight?” Then “OK, I got it, now go. Go sit. Lisa. He is waiting for you to see the shooting stars. I’ve got this.” I can still hear her voice, like it was yesterday, ushering me out of her dirty post-dinner kitchen.
Today, at age 52, I now engage in long sit down dinners at home and I truly celebrate each and every one. I appreciate the ceremony and the social element that surrounds the consumption of a long prepared meal. I do my very best to not let that insidious iPhone steal the attention, and I don’t let appetites get ruined before dinner.
And now that I finally live in a house facing the sunset and the sea, like she did, I have no excuse to not make the time to sit and savor a meal made out of love, with family and friends.
Angelita’s little white stool sits in the corner of my kitchen now. And dinners are eaten at her mahogony table, which has finally made it out here to the dining room in Montauk. I make sure to sit at the head of the table, in her spot, on her needlepointed armchair, and watch the sea and savor the meal.
Candles flicker, laughter floats and the cook is most certainly appreciated, late into the twinkly night of gentle sea breezes, shooting stars and memories of Angelita.