I am nine years old, sitting at a picnic table on my grandfather’s patio at the ranch-style house on Winchester Street. I watch Grandpa across the table. His wife, Juliet, spreads out our breakfast: a brown ceramic pitcher of whole milk for us to share and a small glass of buttermilk for Grandpa; moist, freshly baked zucchini bread, cut into rectangular slices; a thick jar of apricot preserves made from last summer’s harvest; a large bowl of granola set next to a bowl of red raspberries, plucked from the bush just before breakfast and still warm from the morning’s sun. Grandpa lowers his head to say grace. “For what we are about to receive,” he says, pushing his wire-framed glasses up his nose, “may the Lord make us thankful.” Liver spots mottle the top of his tanned, balding head. “May we be mindful to the needs of others and ever humble in our service to you.” His pale blue cotton shirt is buttoned to the top, ironed crisp and smelling of soap. “In Christ’s name, we pray. Amen.” I amen a couple of beats too late. The wind chime tinkles. Grandpa claps his hands, smiling, and says, “Let’s eat!” He drowns a bowl of granola for himself, then reaches across the table, gesturing to make me a bowl as well. I nod, but add: “Less milk, more raspberries, please.” He heaps half the raspberries onto the bowl, entirely concealing the granola underneath. His fingers are long and shapely, his fingertips flattened by time; purple veins carve valleys from his knuckles to his wrists. He hands me my bowl with a wink.
Summertime has a terrible reputation for nostalgia. For me, summer conjures memories of my grandfather, Stanley Moris, who doted on me throughout my childhood and was instrumental in my pursuit of writing. My mother and I lived next door to him in Boise, Idaho, for six years, and he cared for me during the day while my mother worked. Mom and I moved to Brooklyn when I was seven, but I never stopped spending time with Grandpa, sometimes during Christmas break and always for long summer stretches. I remember his kind blue eyes and funny faces. He had a love of learning and reading, and frequently fell asleep in his favorite brown armchair with a book folded over his small paunch. Grandpa drove his Subaru wagon like a kamikaze pilot and was adamant that one should drink root beer with the occasional slice of pizza. He dreamt of his years in Africa in vivid detail. I loved hearing his wild dreams at breakfast each morning.
More than breakfasts or eating outdoors, more than raspberries, granola, or milk, summertime reminds me of buttermilk, that tiny telltale cup by Grandpa’s side. My grandfather’s love for buttermilk originated in his childhood on Minnesota farms at the turn of the last century, when honest-to-goodness churning of cream rendered the protein-laden by-product of his youth. Sometime in between his farmstead youth on the Red River, his family’s move to Minneapolis in 1920, matriculation from a class of six medical students at the University of Minnesota, and a missionary career served in China and Africa as a physician for the Lutheran Church, the hand-churned buttermilk he knew became the commercially produced buttermilk I know: milk fortified with lactic acid to render an appealing sourness. Grandpa continued to drink buttermilk throughout his life, despite its evolution. He drank it cold and straight.
As temperatures surge, I find myself besieged with visions of strapping, muss-haired young men dressed in plaid work shirts and dungarees, lads like my grandfather, who enjoyed raising chickens, “but not turkeys,” as Grandpa was quick to clarify; young men who fished the nearby river, hunting rabbits and ducks, and trapping muskrats and minks. So, in order to reconnect with my grandfather and allay distracting ghosts of yore, I cook with buttermilk. I use it to cut mayonnaise from pasta and potato salad dishes, leaving a dash of mayo as a binder and swapping the rest with tart buttermilk and spicy heat. I incorporate it into pancakes and waffles, cakes and biscuits. I marinate chicken breasts to make a healthier, baked version of “Malibu Chicken,” a dish that evokes post-church Sunday lunches at Sizzler with my grandparents and a rotating group of extended family. Though he is gone, I commune with my grandfather through memories and flavors three generations deep. I pour a glass of buttermilk and feel nine again, laughing outside in the early morning sun, in a time before I knew about anything much at all except maybe my grandfather’s love.