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  • The last morning before she died, my grandmother woke up, and, after days of not eating, had a big breakfast. This seems to me as it should be, not only because the idea of one last hurrah of a meal appeals, but because my grandmother took breakfast so seriously. Over the last few decades it was the foundation of her day, a ritual refined and prescribed, substantive enough that it was rare for her to eat lunch.

    Here’s how it went: for years, my grandmother received her breakfast in bed, on an elaborately laid tray. This began back when she was still active, fully mobile, and continued as her health declined, until it was no longer an act of leisure, but one of necessity. Her breakfast tray was prepared and brought to her by Plankton, which was the alias my grandfather assumed when performing domestic chores. Plankton brought the breakfast trays; Plankton did the dishes; Plankton did the grocery shopping. (My grandfather’s actual name was Richard; a professor and former university president, he would morph into Plankton when he donned an apron and plunged his hands deep in soap suds.) Plankton knew what belonged on that tray because it had been instilled in him with the firmness of law by my grandmother, a woman who was so specific about how things should be done that her house was littered with post-it notes attached to light fixtures and appliances, dictating the ways they should be handled. The tray contained a napkin rolled to one side. A large mug of coffee and a second cup of ice to add to it, as my grandmother iced everything—even her evening red wine. A bowl of cereal and frozen blueberries. Celery sticks spread with marmite, the savory British condiment whose name, I thought as a child, sounded as if it should belong to a rodent. She would have bacon, and, once my grandparents were in assisted living, the acquisition of that part of her breakfast took on the air of a clandestine operation. My grandfather would go down to the cafeteria-style dining hall for his breakfast and load his plate up with a pile of bacon. At the right moment, he would stuff it into a fold of paper napkins and squire the breakfast meat upstairs covertly, rationing out several slices per morning until the whole operation would have to be performed again.
  • The last dish on my grandmother’s breakfast tray, though, was the most iconic and the one that inspired the most childhood disgust among us grandchildren (even beating out the alien marmite). It was something she called Putney Special. Its origin dates back to her teenage years as a student at the Putney School, an unorthodox boarding school in the woods of southern Vermont that featured a student-run working farm even when my grandmother went there in the 1930s. The legend goes that one weekend all of the students were set to go away for a soccer match when a giant snowstorm blew in, stranding them at the school. The cafeteria was unprepared, and so students had to make due with what scraps were on hand. Out of that necessity came the unlikely concoction that was Putney Special: toast, spread with peanut butter and topped with… stewed tomatoes. By the time I was born, the tradition had evolved to substitute salsa for the tomatoes. I was fascinated and horrified by this as a child, the specter of a peanut butter-salsa topped slice of bread occupying the place of honor on the breakfast tray.

    The idiosyncrasy that made my grandmother favor Putney Special manifested in all sorts of ways. She was a woman with a deep sense of culinary ritual. Leftover turkey after Thanksgiving mandated Turkey Paprikash, the shredded meat mixed in a slightly sweet tomato sauce, loaded with nearly half a spice jar of paprika. It was always (always) served with wild rice, a mark of grandmother’s Bohemianism long before there was such a thing as a hippie (by the time that term sprang into the public’s lexicon, she was already the mother of four). Served on the side were artichoke bottoms, filled with sautéed spinach and topped with hollandaise. Hollandaise was another minor obsession of my grandmother’s. Because it contains egg, she insisted it could be the substance of a meal, sending my mom to school with sandwiches filled solely with green peppers and cold hollandaise. Not the sort of meal to win you friends at the school lunch table. But if my grandmother held firmly to her beliefs in the kitchen and on the breakfast tray, so she did also on much more weighty topics: the inherent decency of all human beings, that they deserved respect, good jobs and adequate housing, be they black, white, or brown, male or female, next door or halfway around the world. She was the sort of grandmother to give Heifer Project goats as Christmas presents to her family. She was the sort of grandmother whose many accomplishments—launching fair housing campaigns in the Bay Area as a young professor’s wife, starting a foundation dedicated to supporting entrepreneurship in women—I had little idea about until I was practically an adult. The woman I saw as a child ate Putney Special in bed, knit a sweater for every person she loved (I have two such sweaters, one so voluminous, you might fit several of me in it), yelled at baseball on television, spoke matter-of-factly to stuffed bears, and could tell me stories of her life that held me spellbound. Riding Eleanor Roosevelt’s horse at the White House (she went to college with a relative of the president’s). Escaping a private school in Switzerland just days before the start of World War II. And of course, the story of Putney Special. I hate to say, I’d never actually tried it until this morning. The day after she died. After so many years of bias, peanut butter and salsa on toast isn’t half bad—a little weird, yes, but savory and rich. As unusual as the woman who ate it for breakfast every morning, a woman I loved so dearly.
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